• Mark Schipper

The Ballad of Walter Eckersall and the Snake Born Eating its Tail

Walter Eckersall on campus in his Chicago Maroons sweater

By Mark Schipper

There’s no shattered visage on the ground next to Walter Eckersall’s grave marker at Oak Woods cemetery, but the lone and level prairies still stretch far beyond the horizon in Chicago, the place where a mighty football player once roamed.

All that’s left of Eckersall is a simple headstone telling you the man at rest lived forty-three years, and at the time he went away he was someone’s son, a title cleanly carved into the block’s granite front. But this is the barest glimmer of insight and makes the big story, when you hear it, a wonder to imagine. Because Eckersall, while the vital spark was in him, had lived one of the great athletic lives of his time.

The youth they called Eckie was a school-boy hero at the turn of the twentieth century, which was a crucial growth period for major-college football. As a player he was steadily transformed by the sportswriters of the era, who favored myth and legend to the frequently more-ambiguous facts, into a kind of sporting demigod who was fit for public worship. In his great fame, which the University of Chicago exploited for profit and institutional glory, and the ensuing dissipation, which the university as quickly distanced itself from, Eckersall embodied all of the excitement, pride, and passion of the early college game, as well as the many moral equivocations, and ethical uncertainties that together make up the complicated reality of big-time, profit-driven college athletics.

Walter Eckersall's gravestone at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. *Note, the birth year is actually incorrect. Eckersall was born in 1886 by all accounts.

Eckersall played at Chicago under head coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, one of the sport's titanic figures, from 1904 through 1906, when the Maroons were the original Monsters of the Midway and the city's first football champions. Over the course of three magical autumns on the campus at Hyde Park, each an All-American campaign for Eckersall, he made himself one of the early legends of the fall whose career, and the hype built up around it, helped set the sport and its culture on the course it has followed ever since.

On the day Stagg had won Eckersall to Chicago, ending an all-out, head-to-head recruiting war against the great Fielding Yost at conference-rival Michigan, he was the most prized high-school prospect in the history of the young sport. Stagg, in an infamous story, had physically pulled Eckersall from a train platform in Chicago to stop his visit to Yost on Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, where Stagg was fearful one of his true coaching rivals would tempt the lad into matriculating away from home.

Not only had Eckersall led Hyde Park to a high-school national championship, clobbering Brooklyn Polytechnic 105-0 in the title game, he'd also set the Illinois state record in the one-hundred-meter dash at ten-seconds flat. It was a record that held up against twenty years assault until a future Olympian broke it by a few fractions of a second.

Eckersall was heralded as an athlete for the ages by the exuberant story tellers in the new and massively popular sporting press. What separated Eckersall's era from the slightly more-sober generations that would follow was the drive many newspapers had to make the collegiate stars into impossibly-pure heroes. Eckersall was painted as a Golden American Youth battling toward a glorious manhood under the guidance of the incorruptible Stagg, and while the public came to regard him as a kind of fabled hero, Eckersall had integrity issues related to athletic entitlement that would steadily take their toll on his private life.

But, when only athletics were being considered, Eckersall played up to the tremendous hype, which is what made the rest of the myth-making so easy to believe.

Knute Rockne was a twelve-year-old boy in Chicago, playing youth football for his neighborhood Logan Square Tigers, when Eckersall was the city’s Prep-Boy Prince. Rockne had been sat up in the grandstands, his newsboy cap pulled low over his head, watching in amazement the high-school all-star game of 1902 when he decided Eckersall was his hero.

"The first time I learned a football was not only something to kick, but something to think with, was when I saw a great football player in action for the first time,” Rockne said, describing both Eckersall and the moment the sport began to monopolize his visions for the future.

Around twenty-years later, when Rockne was coaching at Notre Dame, he had approached Eckersall, now a famous referee, before one of the many Irish games played in Chicago.

The legend, Knute Rockne, at Notre Dame. Walter Eckersall had been his childhood hero on the gridiron.

"I've been waiting years for this," Rockne told Eckersall, pumping his hand in a shake.

"For what?” asked Eckersall, who was preparing with his crew for kickoff.

"To shake your hand,” Rockne said.

The coach launched into a summation of his childhood infatuation, and all the dreams he had brought to life after being inspired by Eckersall’s stylish excellence on the field.

"Stop! Stop!” said Eckersall with a false modesty, forcing Rockne to bring the panegyric to an end.

"Or Notre Dame will be penalized five yards for speech making!"

Those who knew Rockne said he loved re-telling that story down through the years. He had encountered his childhood hero later in life and found him worthy of the worship. Coincidentally, Rockne had learned reading the newspaper coverage of Eckersall what the sportswriters could do to build up a hero. The coach later succeeded in turning the press into myth-makers for his Notre Dame teams, making the Fighting Irish an iconic program surrounded by a lore that has stuck fast to them a century later.

In sharp contrast with his public reputation, when Eckersall had passed in 1930, still a young man at forty-three, he had been estranged more than twenty-years from the university he'd once decked in honor and glory. Only his head coach, Old Stagg, had stood by him, and that was a fact the coach kept hidden from his university, an institution that said farewell to Eckersall back in 1908 and asked that everyone else affiliated with their school please do the same.

The unravelling of Eckersall had been kept private by those who cared about him, but it happened swiftly after his eligibility ran dry in November 1906. It was better for everyone that what transpired was kept out of sight, because as far as the public knew from the mock-heroic accounts that had followed Eckersall since his high-school days, the only place the great athlete consistently surpassed his own football triumphs was in the game of life, where one could not hope to encounter a better character than that of the humble star.

“His loyalty, his modesty, his qualities of leadership, have endeared him to friends,” read one typical newspaper description from the period.

Eckersall on the practice field at the University of Chicago.

The problems for Eckersall, and the ethical bind they put his university in, had begun immediately. It was discovered at the time Eckersall enrolled that he had been carried through high school by administrators who considered athletics an education. In what has since become typical fashion at major-football schools, the administrators in charge decided to follow the same basic blue print, finding ways to keep Eckersall in good standing as a student so long as he played for the football team.

The essentially unenforceable recruiting rules that had been agreed to at that time, as between gentlemen and sportsmen, were so laissez faire that the only safeguard for upholding academic and eligibility standards was the administrative integrity at each school. This was a thing Chicago publicly prided itself on under Stagg, who was the philosophical ancestor to Joe Paterno and his Grand Experiment days at Penn State.

But Stagg, the former All-American football player at Yale, had been tempted by visions of glory, and an intensifying rivalry with Yost at Michigan. The purportedly unimpeachable coach had made sure Eckersall was covered for, and carried along for four years—hiding not just the fact he was not prepared to complete college course work, but keeping under wraps the fact that integral figures about campus had serious character concerns related to Eckersall as well.

Both Stagg and university president William Rainey Harper, who was a full partner in the first grand experiment of college football, took personal charge of Eckersall’s academic career, machinating to rehabilitate his standing before the beginning of his sophomore season, when he would be eligible for the varsity team. Officially classified as a sub-freshman at arrival, Eckersall took eight remedial courses just to earn his freshman status.

Later, he would be enrolled in hand-picked courses with football-friendly professors, a little trick that goes back to the sport's earliest days, no matter how outlandish they were in relation to his academic status or major. But even with tremendous help from the top men at the university, Eckersall fell far behind in his first year and never so much as returned to the lead lap before his eligibility was up. Professors noted in their attendance books that they did not see the football star in class for entire quarters, and his academic record was described simply as “atrocious.”

The plan worked at keeping Eckersall on the field, where he was a magnificent performer, but by the end of his fourth year he had earned just fourteen credits toward graduation, twenty-two shy of the number he needed, with years of schooling to go before earning a degree.

Collier’s Magazine was one of the era's mass-circulation, general interest publications that became saturated with football coverage during the autumn months. In the twenties and thirties Collier’s largely lionized and canonized football, but they published also the odd article expressing a more profound skepticism of the college-football enterprise.

In 1905, in possession of some insider's dope, they went to press with a feature that described Eckersall as an “athletic ward” of the university. This was a national embarrassment for a school ambitious to become one of the United States' great research and academic institutions, and a charter member of the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, known today as the Big Ten, where this kind of thing was expressly legislated against.

Stagg, who for his timeless virtues had earned the nickname The Old Man while still in his thirties, was every bit the white-knight crusader for the character-making consequences of college football in the life of a young man. He frequently got up onto his soap box, like one of the fevered speakers at Bug House Square to the north of campus, to preach his gospel of character, academics, and football. For him, football was the topping off of a young man's education, and never a substitute.

Stagg’s entire undertaking at Chicago, where he founded the athletic department and football program back in 1892—even taking the field as a coach-player in the early days to literally show his young men the way—had been built on the ideal of a robust and scholarly manhood. But Eckersall was no Renaissance Man, as the charges in Collier's implied, and they suggested further that his coach put some significant stock in winning football games for their own sake, with everything else coming in somewhere down the line.

Following his final football game in November of 1906, Eckersall did not return to class and never enrolled for another quarter at the university. His academic days were behind him for good. But he did hang around campus for a while, cashing in on the remainder of his fame and status as one of the great gridiron heroes of his generation.

Being a superb athlete with immense physical coordination, when Eckersall participated in a fraternity bowling tournament several weeks after the football season ended, he did not just win it, but set the all-time campus record with a 245 score. Days later, as the results were audited, Eckersall’s championship was invalidated and he was asked to stay off of campus. Academic officials at the school had discovered he was no longer enrolled as a student and had no standing on which to participate in these events.

Less than two months after his final game, Eckersall was on the verge of being cut off by the University of Chicago for good. President Harper—who had backed Stagg and his football seminary to the hilt—had died of an aggressive cancer early in 1906, and acting-president Pratt Judson had seen enough of Eckersall.

In January of 1907, the turn of the new year, Judson’s trenchant order came down:

“Mr. Eckersall is not to be permitted to register in the Univ. again—for cause,” Judson’s dispatch read.

It was almost beyond belief that such an ugly pass had been reached so quickly between a star athlete and the school he had represented for three seasons on a national level. Eckersall, up through that year, had been referred to as “the brightest star in the football firmament,” and worshipped as a great American youth. During his senior campaign the university had produced thousands of large, photographic posters of Eckersall and sold them on campus behind the mantra: “Hang it up in your room and always have a material remembrance of him.

In the course of three straight All-American seasons Eckersall had become as synonymous with Chicago football as Stagg himself. In his junior year Eckersall had led the Maroons to an undefeated Big Ten title and the mythical national championship. That was 1905 when Chicago—under a granite-skied and frigid Thanksgiving day in Hyde Park—had upset the University of Michigan in the first Game of the Century, snapping both the Wolverines' 56 game unbeaten streak and run of four consecutive national titles.

Eckersall, with his athletic excellence and apparent personal integrity, was attached to the Maroons in the same way Tim Tebow would be at Florida almost exactly a century later, with the same kind of shock potential had the Gators suddenly barred Tebow from setting foot on campus. Eckersall, who had picked Chicago over Michigan, was the undisputed leader of the program, the advertised face of the university, and an athlete Stagg struggled to praise sufficiently for the papers.

Signed poster of Walter Eckersall.

“Eckie was very intense and hard working, and he had no patience with a loafer,” Stagg once said of his star quarterback. “On the field, and running the team, he was a dominant personality and carried the team along with him. He snapped out his signals quickly and incisively with the command of a general, and did not stand for any dilatory tactics on the part of any of the players.”

At half-time of Eckersall’s final game in 1906, played the day after a massive pep-rally had been organized on campus in his honor, a parting show of gratitude from the university had been made. Scoffing at every rule and sentiment of amateurism, the school’s highest officials collaborated on the purchase of a gold watch, a gift presented to Eckersall on the field during a short ceremony as a token of appreciation for the services he had rendered the university.

A week later, Eckersall’s note of thanks had arrived at acting-president Judson’s office.

“It is a gift I shall cherish as long as I live,” wrote Eckersall. “Not alone for its value as a gift, but also for the memories it carries with it.”

But all of that, just months old, had apparently soured. The shock when a well-hidden truth suddenly gets exposed can be powerful, and that was the debilitating outcome Eckersall’s friends rushed in to stave off. His last phalanx of protectors began an astonishing letter writing campaign to the leadership at Chicago, begging for the chance to demonstrate a change had been effected in Eckersall before his reputation was publicly wrecked.

“We believe you do not want to do anything which would in any way handicap this boy in the years to come,” read one of the letters, sent on Eckersall’s behalf.

These documents, which were kept private until long after they could do any real damage, would have left the public dumbstruck. The letters, admitting to and addressing serious charges, sounded entirely unrelated to the All-American hero the public had been given to idolize. They spoke of “loose morals”—“traitorous personal friendships”—and “bad debts” that were bringing on disrepute both to Eckersall and the university.

The letters promised an immediate about face in Eckersall and proposed, with the assistance of an ally with professional accounting experience, a plan to make quick restitution for all debts owed. Eckersall’s friends were going to make a man of him yet, where apparently his legendary coach could not.

“He is not altogether to blame,” read one letter. “He has never had the right way pointed out to him until the university took action. He had come to regard his friends and admirers merely as persons from whom something was to be had for nothing. In other words, he has been a grafter as well as a monumental liar.”

These comments, coming from Eckersall's friends, are almost comically ironic when one considers the ostensible moral and life training Stagg's players received while playing for him. The company line at the University of Chicago was that the football program was maintained on campus to forge promising boys into good men through the unique gauntlet managed by Stagg.

“It is a privilege to be on such a team as Chicago has,” Eckersall said in a tearful speech before his final game. “I cannot tell you how great a privilege it has been to spend four years under Coach Stagg. I owe what success I have had to him. He not only trains his men in athletics but he trains their character."

Fortunately for Eckersall his friends prevailed on a somewhat sympathetic administration to keep any potential scandals private. But that group had the memory of his great deeds over three seasons still fresh in their minds. Less-than two years later, in 1908, the university’s dean wrote coach Stagg, directing him to steer clear of any public relationship with their former golden boy.

“It would seem unfortunate to have any association with him or recognition of him by the university,” wrote the dean, without any further explanation.

Eckersall split with the university where he had been both their greatest athlete and most profitable personality, but he did not leave football or the city of Chicago behind. His friends had done enough to salvage his public reputation and within a few years Eckersall was a famous college-football correspondent and nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He also became one of the premier college referees of his era.

Eckersall had carried his athletic swagger and confidence straight into his professional career, suggesting their uses and perquisites had been his real education on the Midway. Less than ten years after playing his final game, he was invited to referee the second ever Rose Bowl game on New Year's Day 1916. There is a famous photo of him, still a young man and smiling straight into the camera, while standing midfield between the captains of Washington State and Brown Universities before the coin toss.

Had the Tournament of Roses not called off the football game for thirteen years following Michigan's 1902 blowout of Stanford, Eckersall's Maroons would have been invited to compete against the best in the far-west after their undefeated 1905 campaign.

Eckersall before the 1916 Rose Bowl, where he was the game's referee.

Eckersall was a slick operator as the referee-newsman, with an affinity for double and triple-dipping on football games he officiated. Eckersall neither invented the dip and re-dip, nor was he lonely in its pursuit, but he was a skilled practitioner of the art.

In addition to refereeing a game, he would work as a paid publicist for one or both of the teams playing, while later selling straight-correspondent’s coverage of the game to the wire services—serious conflicts of interest that in those days went with the business side of the sport. In addition to the triple dip, smart coaches who were savvy about keeping happy contacts in a media that controlled the entire flow of information going out to the country, offered writers blocks of free game tickets to sell for whatever profit they could make.

Between the extra cash for publicity work, and game tickets to sell on the black market, when taken alongside the other privileges of access and information coaches could give or take in the fashion of absolute monarchs, the frequently biased, grandiose myth-making that went on in the newspapers, and the amount of truth that was suppressed from public view, is pretty well explained.

Over the ensuing years Stagg tried to stay true to his own personal mission and to Eckersall, doing what he could to make a good man of a former player, no matter how bad the relationship got. In the middle-twenties the coach had visited Eckersall in a hospital where he was being treated for creeping cirrhosis of the liver and a failing heart brought on by serious drinking and heavy smoking.

Stagg asked his old-charge Eckie if he would agree to turning over a new leaf, to start living the clean life before it was too late. Afterward, Stagg reported back to whatever cadre still cared about Eckersall that the boy had promised his old coach he would. And for a time, it was said, Eckersall did, but the damage was too deeply done. Like many people in those days Eckersall had lived hard, and despite being an athlete elite in the not-too-distant past, his body had paid a heavy price.

Eckersall not long before his early death.

It was ironic, of course, that a bedside pledge two decades after playing for Stagg could substitute for the four years clean-moral training the one man insisted his athletes got as part of the standard regimen, and that the other swore he had received during the glory days out on the Midway practice fields—but there it was.

Before Eckersall passed away he had apparently made a mark of Stagg as well. A debt of just twenty-dollars had come between them after Eckersall refused to clear it. That had been the end of the line for Stagg. By the late-twenties Stagg was telling anyone who asked for some kind of justification or defense of his former star that Eckersall had been giving him the “go-by” for years, too. Stagg would outlive his former player by thirty-five years.

That was the rocky ballad of Walter Eckersall, the prized school-boy recruit and star player from the days when college football was young and oh so innocent. What’s left today of the legend is a starting spot in the backfield of the sport’s first all-century team, assembled in 1969, and a place marker at Oak Woods cemetery, almost within site of the Midway Plaisance and the ghosts of the big, thundering crowds at Marshal Field, where Eckersall once was the brightest star in the firmament.

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