Forgotten: Billy Wade

Posted Oct. 15, 2010 @ 11:21 a.m.
Posted By Mike Beacom

More than a half-century before Sam Bradford, the Rams used the draft's top pick on QB Billy Wade, whose career sputtered until he hit the Windy City.

In the 1940s and '50s, Los Angeles was the passing capital of the NFL. During the Rams' 1951 championship run, Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin took turns picking apart opposing defenses. That offense was nearly unstoppable — tops in the NFL in yards and scoring — and made easy work of the Browns in the title game.

When a team owns a tandem like Waterfield and Van Brocklin, the furthest thing from its mind is drafting another quarterback … right?

With the No. 1 pick in the 1952 NFL draft, the Rams padded their arsenal with college football's best passer of 1951 — Vanderbilt's Billy Wade — the first of three No. 1 overall picks the franchise has used on the position (Terry Baker and Sam Bradford).

Wade was the SEC's player of the year that season, passing for 1,609 yards and 13 touchdowns. As a junior he had once thrown five scores in a single game — still a school record. Wade was featured on the cover of Look Magazine's All-American Team issue, and was considered by the Vanderbilt coaching staff to be one of the team's sharpest minds. He was a perfect fit to run the Rams' wide-open offense.

But conditions in Los Angeles were hardly ideal for Wade. He mostly sat and watched until 1955 when the Rams hired Sid Gillman, who was fresh off two head-coaching tours at the college level (Miami of Ohio and Cincinnati). Later, Gillman would help to revolutionize offensive football in San Diego, but during his Los Angeles days the passing guru was still tinkering. Wade became one of his early projects.

The quarterback led the Rams in passing for four seasons, but the team never reached the success it had in the early years of the decade. Waterfield replaced Gillman, and, in 1961, Wade was shipped to Chicago for Zeke Bratkowski.

Only then did Wade's pro career really get going …

The Bears had been 5-6-1 in 1960, having lost their final two contests by a combined 78-0. George Halas was hardly content. Thanks to the arrival of Wade and his all-world rookie tight end, Mike Ditka, the Bears finished 8-4 the following season. Against Detroit in Week Four, Wade passed for 330 yards and two touchdowns. Two weeks later, he threw four scores on 13-of-22 passing. Even though he ranked near the bottom among starting quarterbacks in attempts and completions, Wade's 22 touchdowns were the second most in the league, and his passer rating of 93.7 was more than three points better than the next closest passer. The following year he posted his only 3,000-yard season.

After languishing in L.A. all those years, Wade was finally living up to those lofty expectations.

All throughout the 1963 season the Bears were one of the league's best teams. Wade had become a master of managing Halas' ball-control offense, and George Allen's top-ranked defense allowed just 10.3 points per game.

Chicago won five in a row to begin the season. They demolished Minnesota, controlled Green Bay and Baltimore, and embarrassed the Rams, 52-14. During the stretch Wade had nine touchdowns, just four interceptions, and completed 57.5 percent of his attempts. His only poor showing came on Nov. 24 — two days after President Kennedy's assassination — when he threw three interceptions in a tie with Pittsburgh.

The Bears finished with an 11-1-2 regular season record, which earned them a spot in the 1963 NFL title game against the New York Giants and their Associated Press MVP quarterback, Y.A. Tittle. Wade opened the game with a fumble that led to the Giants' first touchdown. But the Bears' defense battered Tittle the rest of the afternoon and forced him to throw five interceptions. Wade completed just 10-of-28 attempts, but carried the ball twice into the endzone on short runs to give Chicago its only points in the 14-10 victory — Halas' last title.

The game also gave Wade some distinction; of the 28 quarterbacks selected first overall in the NFL draft, Wade was the first (and one of only seven total) to win a title as his team's starter.

The following year the Bears imploded, and Wade threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (13). By 1965 he had been pushed down the depth chart and after 1966, when he saw action in just two games, he was out of football.


Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).