Ex-Rams star Josephson dies
Minneota lost an iconic sports figure when Les Josephson, a former Pro Bowl running back for the Los Angeles Rams, passed away on New Year's Day.
Josephson and his wife Donna have been living in Tucson, AZ for the past 45 years.
Labeled the "Blond Bull" by NFL sportswriters for his hair color and running style, Josephson's career was marred by injuries. He gave an interview to a Los Angeles Times interviewer in 1971 during his playing days talking about the many injuries NFL players go through.
The interviewer asked Josephson what advice he would give to an aspiring NFL player. Without hesitating, Josephson responded "Get a good doctor".
At the time of the interview, Josephson was playing with 19 stitches across the bridge of his nose. The previous year, he had continued to play despite a broken jaw.
Because the NFL did not have the advanced medical research about the long term effects of concussions, teams during Josephson's era simply masked injury problems with bandages and sent them back out on the field.
Josephson began showing early signs of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in recent months, his family said. CTE is a degeneration of the brain due to head trauma. It has become increasingly more common among former football players and boxers.
The cause of Josephson's death was not yet announced. He was 77 years old.
Josephson was born on July 29, 1942 in Minneota, the son of third-generation Icelanders Abo and Clarice Josephson, who immigrated to Minneota.
Les was the youngest of four siblings following older brothers Allan and Chuck, and sister Marilyn.
He grew up on a 1,000-acre farm and played eight-man football. He even had such a gifted singing voice as a tenor that he was offered a musical scholarship to St. Olaf College.
Allan, who is 11 years older than Les, always referred to his younger brother as "Little Les". His mother (Clarice) also used the same nickname because she had a brother Les, whom they called "Big Les".
Les took his football skills to Augustana College in Sioux Falls. It was the first time he had ever played 11-man football. It didn't take him long to adapt, however.
Josephson made an immediate impression on the Augustana team and finished his career with 1,422 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
"My parents attended the majority of Les' college games at Augustana, in addition to high school and a few pro games through the years," said Allan Josephson.
Gil Brandt, a superscout in the 1960s with the Dallas Cowboys, discovered Josephson playing for Augustana and convinced the Cowboys to sign him as a free agent in 1964. The Minnesota Vikings were also very interested in signing Josephson, but the Cowboys beat them to the punch.
The Cowboys then lost several offensive linemen to injuries and were forced to trade Josephson to the Rams during training camp in exchange for Jim Boeke.
Joining quarterback Roman Gabriel, Josephson became a fixture in the Rams' backfield over the next decade. That was during the Rams' "Fearsome Foursome" era with Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy.
Josephson's first NFL contract was for $11,000 and, he recently told reporters that "It seemed like a lot of money in 1964".
Josephson, a 6-1, 207-pound fullback and captain for the Rams, was named to the Pro Bowl in 1967 after rushing for a career-best 800 yards and four touchdowns, and catching 37 passes for 400 yards and four touchdowns. That was during a time when NFL teams only played a 14-game schedule.
The Rams finished 11-1-2 that year, losing to the Green Bay Packers in the Western Conference championship.
In the Pro Bowl, playing with and against the likes of Frank Tarkenton, Dick Butkus, Bob Lilly, Gayle Sayers and Johnny Unitas, Josephson scored a touchdown in the first quarter to help the West All-Stars to a 38-20 win.
In 1968, while running through the stadium tunnel to reach the field for a pre-season game, Josephson suffered a calf injury to his left leg. After recovering from that injury, he tore his Achilles tendon on the same leg while jumping rope and the team placed him on the injured reserve list.
Although slowed down by other injuries later in his career, including a broken jaw, he continued to find success on the field.
Josephson retired in 1975 after being waived in the pre-season. In 129 career NFL game over 10 seasons, he finished with 3,407 rushing yards in 797 attempts (4.3 average), and 194 receptions for 1,970 yards (10.8 avg.). His career rushing yards at the time of his retirement were the third highest rushing total in the Rams' franchise history.
Following his NFL career, Josephson was a sportscaster briefly for KSOO-TV in South Dakota, and then worked in projects for television and movies. Among them was "Heaven Can Wait", where he worked as Warren Beatty's double, which was about a Los Angeles Rams quarterback. He was also a technical consultant for that 1978 film.
He also appeared as a technical consultant in the 1976 film "Gus", a Disney film about a football-playing mule; and had a small role in an episode of the television series "Police Woman".
Josephson and his wife eventually moved to Tucson where he began working in the mortgage industry, and also became a radio color analyst for Arizona Wildcat football games for 20 years.
In November of this year, Josephson and his wife Donna entered Putney's Sports Bar in Tuscon, AZ, to watch a Thursday night game on Nov. 14 between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.
Greg Hansen of the Arizona Daily Star was in attendance and wrote in his Nov. 19 column that Josephson walked slowly and stopped to gather himself before taking a seat beneath a large-screened TV.
"Almost everyone in the bar turned to watch the former Pro Bowl fullback, now 77, as he maneuvered to get his sore knees into a small space," Hansen wrote. "I worried about CTE, and a lot of other things that day. Josephson estimates he endured 10 to 12 football-related surgeries."
Josephson also told Hansen that he "probably took 250 to 300 hits to my helmet; major collisions. But I never got knocked out or lost consciousness."
Still, the hits eventually took their toll.
Josephson is survived by his wife, Donna; one daughter, Merry Berkelo; brothers Allan of Taunton, and Charles of Tucxon, AZ; and sister Marilyn Russell of Minneota.
He was preceded in death by his parents; and one son, Paul.