The Ballad of Walter Eckersall and the Snake Born Eating its Tail
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 stretch still far beyond the horizon in Chicago, the city where a mighty football player once roamed.
All that’s left of Eckersall is the simple headstone showing the man at rest lived forty-three years. 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 into the man's life and keeps the big story shrouded in darkness. Because Eckersall, while the vital spark was in him, had lived out 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, a crucial growth period for major-college football as it completed its spread to every corner of the country. As a player Eckersall had been transformed by the sportswriters of the era, a group that favored myth and heroics over the more-ambiguous facts of the matter, into a kind of sporting god who was built for public worship. In his great fame, which the University of Chicago exploited for treasure and institutional glory, Eckersall embodied all of the excitement, pride, and passion of the early college game. In his his ensuing dissipation, which the university just as quickly disassociated itself from, he stood just as well for the moral equivocations, ethical uncertainties, and corruption that together make up the complicated reality of big-time, profit-driven college athletics.
Eckersall played at Chicago under head coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, one of the sport's colossal figures, from 1903 through 1906, when the Maroons were the Monsters of the Midway and the city's first football champions. Over the course of four magical autumns on the campus at Hyde Park, three of them All-American campaigns, Eckersall made himself one of the early legends of the fall whose career, and the media and commercial hype built up around it, helped establish the sport's rhythms and culture for all time.
STAGG WINS ECKERSALL TO CHICAGO
On the day Stagg had won Eckersall to Chicago, ending an all-out, head-to-head recruiting war with the great Fielding Yost at conference-rival Michigan, he was the most prized high-school prospect in the history of the sport. Stagg, in an infamous story, had coaxed Eckersall away from a train platform in Chicago to prevent his recruiting trip to see Yost on Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, where Stagg feared one of his true coaching rivals would tempt another Chicago athlete into leaving his home city.
Not only had Eckersall quarterbacked mighty Hyde Park to a high-school national championship, clobbering Brooklyn Polytechnic 105-0 in the title game, he'd 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 worth of assaults 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 popular press. What separated the media culture of Eckersall's era from the slightly more-sober generations that would follow was the drive newspapers had then to make schoolboy stars into epic heroes. Eckersall was depicted as a Golden Youth who'd signed on for a masterclass in character under the incorruptible Stagg. But, while the public came to regard him as a kind of fabled student-competitor, Eckersall in fact had serious integrity issues stemming from a monstrous sense of athletic entitlement off the field that would steadily take their toll on his private life.
But, when athletics alone were being considered, Eckersall played up to the tremendous hype, which is what made the rest of the myth-making so easy to believe. It had begun during his high-school days with another future legend watching him dominate the sport.
In 1902 Knute Rockne was a fourteen-year-old Norwegian emigre to Chicago. He was an enthusiastic athlete playing youth football for the Logan Square Tigers, his neighborhood team, when Eckersall was the Prep-Boy Prince of the city. Rockne had been sat up in the wooden grandstands, 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 football began to overrun his visions for the future.
Around twenty-years later, when Rockne was a young coach at Notre Dame, he had approached Eckersall before one of the many Irish games played in Chicago, the school's second home city.
"I've been waiting years for this," Rockne told Eckersall, pumping his hand in a shake.
"For what?” asked Eckersall, who had become a well known referee.
"To shake your hand,” Rockne said.
The coach launched into a summary 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 to tell that story. After all, he had encountered his childhood hero and found him worthy. Ironically, Rockne had learned from the newspapers' coverage of Eckersall just how effective sportswriters were in building up a hero. The coach would become a master at converting the press into myth-makers for his Notre Dame teams, making the Fighting Irish an iconic program surrounded by a body of legend and lore that has stuck fast to them a century later.
ECKERSALL AT CHICAGO
In the course of three straight All-American campaigns Eckersall had become as synonymous with Chicago football as Stagg himself. During his junior season Eckersall led a mighty Maroons team to an undefeated Big Ten title and the mythical national championship. That was 1905 when Chicago—under a granite-skied and frigid Thanksgiving day—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.
Had the Tournament of Roses not called off the football game for thirteen years following Michigan's 1902 blowout of Stanford, the Maroons would have been invited to compete against the Far West's best team on New Year's Day. Chicago would have blown them out of the stadium.
In sharp contrast to his public reputation, when Eckersall passed in 1930 he had been estranged twenty-years from the university he'd covered in honor and glory. Only his head coach, Old Stagg, had stood by him, and that was a fact he'd kept hidden from the university. Chicago had severed ties with Eckersall back in 1908 and asked the same of everyone else affiliated with their school.
The unravelling of Eckersall was kept off the sports pages by those who cared about him, but it had happened swiftly after his eligibility ran dry in November 1906. It was better for the public that what transpired was kept out of sight, because as far as everyone knew from the heroic accounts that had followed Eckersall from his high-school days, the only place the great athlete surpassed himself as a competitor was in the game of life, where one could not hope to encounter a better or more humble character.
“His loyalty, his modesty, his qualities of leadership, have endeared him to friends,” read one typical newspaper description from the period.
The problems for Eckersall, and the ethical bind they put his university in, began during high school. At the time he enrolled at Chicago it was discovered that administrators at Hyde Park High School had carried him to graduation. In what has since become a standard operation at major-football schools, the administration at Chicago continued following the high-school blue print, crafting ways to keep Eckersall in good academic standing so long as he played for the football team.
The essentially unenforceable recruiting rules agreed to at that time—as between sportsmen—were so laissez faire that the only real 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 predecessor to Joe Paterno and his Grand Experiment days at Penn State University.
But Stagg, the former All-American at Yale, was being tempted both by visions of national glory and an escalating rivalry with Yost at Michigan. The purportedly unimpeachable Stagg had made sure Eckersall was covered for, and carried along for four years—hiding not just the fact he was a sub-college-level student, but also 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 and chief operations officer of the college football program at Chicago, took personal charge of Eckersall’s academic career. The pair machinated to prop up his credentials before the beginning of his freshman season. Officially classified as a sub-freshman at arrival, Eckersall was enrolled in eight remedial courses just to earn his freshman status.
Later, no matter how outlandish they were in relation to his academic status or major, Eckersall was placed in hand-picked courses with football-friendly professors, a little trick that goes back to the sport's earliest days. But even with the tremendous help from the top men at the university, Eckersall fell far behind and never returned even to the back of his class before his eligibility expired. Professors noted in their attendance books they did not see the football star in class for entire quarters, and his academic record at Chicago was described simply as “atrocious.”
While the plan did keep Eckersall on the gridiron, where he was a magnificent performer, by the end of his fourth school year he'd earned fourteen credits toward graduation, twenty-two shy of the number he needed, with the prospect of another half-decade of school ahead if he wanted a degree. Collier’s was one of the era's mass-circulation, general interest magazines 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 certain skepticism toward the grandiose claims being made by the college-football enterprise.
In 1905, in possession of some insider's dope on Eckersall, Collier's went to press with a feature that described Chicago's brightest star as nothing more than an “athletic ward” of the university. This was a national embarrassment for a school ambitious to become one of the country's great academic and research universities. It also was bad for a charter member of the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, known today as the Big Ten, where this style of athlete-coddling was expressly forbidden.
Stagg, who for his timeless virtues and old-fashioned morality had earned the nickname The Old Man while he was still in his thirties, was every bit the white-knight crusader for the character-building aspects of college football. 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, but 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 made clear, and they suggested further that his coach put significant stock in winning football games for their own sake, with everything else falling in somewhere down the line.
Following his final football game in November 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 season ended he did not just win it, but set the all-time campus record with a near-perfect 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 private university 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 for good by the university. 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,” the 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 four seasons on the national stage. 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 for profit on campus behind the mantra: “Hang it up in your room and always have a material remembrance of him.”
Eckersall, with his athletic excellence and apparent personal integrity, was attached to the Maroons in the same way Tim Tebow was at Florida almost exactly a century later. Try to imagine the intensity of the shock around the country had the Gators suddenly barred Tebow from setting foot on campus. Eckersall, who had picked Chicago over Michigan after Stagg had essentially begged, was the undisputed leader of the program, the advertised face of the university, and an athlete Stagg struggled to praise sufficiently for the papers.
“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. Mocking every rule and sentiment of amateurism, the school’s highest officials had thrown in their own money for the purchase of a gold watch. They presented it on the field as a gift to Eckersall 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.”
CHICAGO SPLITS WITH ECKERSALL
But all of that, just months old, had turned sour. Eckersall’s friends rushed in to the breach to prevent the public ruin of the schoolboy hero. 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 fed into the meat grinder.
“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 disrepute both to Eckersall and the university.
The letters promised an immediate about face in Eckersall and proposed a plan to make quick restitution for all debts owed. Eckersall’s friends, including a professional accounting ally, were going to make a man of him where his legendary coach had apparently failed.
“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 moral and life training Stagg purportedly administered to his athletes. The company line at the University of Chicago was that the football program was the face of the university because its leader, Stagg, set an example by building promising boys into good men through his unique system.
“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 on the gridiron over four 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 his 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 MOVES ON
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 that 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, smiling straight into the camera while standing midfield between the captains of Washington State and Brown Universities before the coin toss in Pasadena.
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 the actual game, Eckersall would accept a fee as a paid publicist for one or both of the teams competing, depending on what was needed in the run up to the competition. Afterward he would sell straight coverage of the game and/or an opinionated column to the wire services. These separate jobs were in direct conflict with each other, undermining the confidence that something approaching the objective truth had been recorded. But that was the media and business side of the sport in that era and Eckersall was doing what many others did as well.
But on top of the triple dip there was yet another opportunity to profit off of stadium seats. Smart coaches, savvy about keeping the media happy through a form of acceptable bribery, offered blocks of game tickets to writers for them to offload for whatever profit they could make. Eckersall was a well known participant in that marketplace as well.
Taken alongside the myriad privileges of access and information coaches could give or take in the fashion of absolute rulers, 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. What it meant for an honest refereeing of a Saturday's game is harder to say.
Over the ensuing years Stagg attempted to stay true both to his personal ethos and Eckersall, doing what he could for a former player no matter how bad the relationship got. In the middle-twenties Stagg had visited Eckersall in a hospital where he was being treated for creeping cirrhosis and a failing heart. Stagg had asked his old-charge Eckie if he would agree to turn over a new leaf, to start living the clean life before it was too late. Afterward, Stagg reported back, the boy had promised his old coach he would.
It was ironic, of course, that a bedside pledge two decades after playing for Stagg would substitute for the four years they'd spent together on the Midway practice fields, but there they were. For a time, it was said, Eckersall had cleaned up, but the damage had been too deep. Like many from those days Eckersall had lived hard, with years of heavy drinking and smoking behind him, and his body had paid the price.
A few years later, just before Eckersall passed away, Stagg claimed he'd been victimized by his old star as well. A debt of just twenty-dollars came between them after Eckersall had refused to clear it. That had been the end of the line for Stagg. By the late-twenties he was telling everyone who asked after the bad character of his former player that Eckersall had been giving him the “go-by” for years, too. Stagg would outlive Eckersall by thirty-five years.
And that was the turbulent ballad, the big story, of Walter Eckersall, the school-boy legend from the days when college football was young and oh so innocent. What’s left today of that 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.