Legendary Brandeis football player passes away at age 79
Published: Monday, October 29, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 29, 2012 18:10
Bill McKenna ’55, Brandeis’ first-ever All-American Athlete and a legend on the Judges’ gridiron, passed away on Oct. 18 in Calgary, Alberta at age 79.
Fellow offensive end Dick Bergel ’57 reflected on the immense contributions that McKenna offered to the short-lived legacy of Brandeis football.
“Bill was certainly one of the more respected and accomplished athletes in the history of Brandeis athletics,” Bergel said in a BrandeisNOW press release. “Not only did he have outstanding physical talents, but he had the uncanny and unequaled ability to focus in the moment.”
McKenna distinguished himself as an end on both the offensive and defensive sides of the field, securing school records in both points scored as well as receiving yards. He placed Brandeis football on the national map with his selection to the Associated Press All-America squad during his senior year. McKenna’s feats would soon be illuminated on the American stage, and with them came the accomplishments of Brandeis football.
“His decision to play at Brandeis and for [head coach] Benny Friedman helped put the school on the map,” Bergel said in the release.
His most significant play, though, happened to be during his junior year in a heavyweight bout against Wayne State University, a national powerhouse in Detroit.
The Judges clung to a 6-0 lead by the final quarter, but ultimately faced a game-ending drive from Wayne that culminated at the one-yard line. On the game’s final play, McKenna crashed through the pulling guard and fullback to reach the ball carrier and, in a feat that proves to be difficult in any situation, tackled him short of the goal line to secure the crucial victory.
Myron Uhlberg ’55, a fellow senior with McKenna, recalled that it was a play that perfectly encapsulated his tenacious and resilient nature.
“That was the one we talked about until the day he died,” Uhlberg said in the press release. “But he didn’t talk about making the play himself, he talked about the team. The truth is, he made the tackle and the rest of us just fell on the pile.”
McKenna did not end his football career in Waltham.
He was drafted in the seventh round of the 1955 National Football League draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, and after a transfer to the Canadian Football League, recorded 88 receptions for 1,436 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Calgary Stampeders.
After graduating from Brandeis as a physics major, he chose to pursue a career with Texaco Incorporated as a geophysicist. He retired in 1989 as chief geophysicist, and was an active alumnus. He was inducted to the Joseph Linsey Brandeis Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993.
Uhlberg noted that McKenna’s accomplishments would serve as indelible memories in Judges lore.
“In my mind, combining performance, dedication and commitment to the team, he was the best athlete that Brandeis ever produced,” he said.