Bill McKenna, first Brandeis All-American, dies at 79

His records for most points in his career and in a single game still stand

Bill McKenna '55

Brandeis football star Bill McKenna ’55, who was the university’s first All-American in any sport and went on to play professionally in the Canadian Football League for many years, died on Oct. 18 in Calgary, Alberta. He was 79.

McKenna, an end on both offense and defense, earned Associated Press All-American honors following his senior season. His Brandeis records for points scored in a game and career still stand, and he is the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards.

A native of Salem, Mass., McKenna was inducted into the Joseph Linsey Brandeis Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993. McKenna and many of his former teammates gathered in Canton, Ohio, in August 2005 to see their beloved coach, forward-pass pioneer Benny Friedman, inducted posthumously into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“There were many sides to Bill McKenna – but only one Bill McKenna,” said former teammate Myron “Mike” Uhlberg ’55, who spoke to McKenna by telephone every week for more than a half-century. “In my mind, combining performance, dedication and commitment to the team, he was the best athlete that Brandeis ever produced.”

Dick Bergel ’57, another of McKenna’s teammates, said McKenna had a unique blend of athletic ability and mental capacity that made him special.

“Bill was certainly one of the more respected and accomplished athletes in the history of Brandeis athletics,” Bergel said. “Not only did he have outstanding physical talents, but he had the uncanny and unequaled ability to focus in the moment.”

McKenna was chosen in the seventh round of the 1955 National Football League draft by the Philadelphia Eagles and played six seasons with the Calgary Stampeders from 1955-63. He recorded 88 receptions for 1,436 yards and 10 touchdowns and also saw action on defense. McKenna set a league record with a 104-yard reception on a pass from Don Klosterman in 1955.

Although McKenna had several multi-touchdown games during his Brandeis career, his teammates point to his performance in a grudge match against powerful Wayne University in Detroit in 1953 as his best effort. The game had extra significance because the teams had split their games the prior two years and Coach Friedman had starred at the nearby University of Michigan.

With Brandeis holding a 6-0 lead in the final period, Wayne drove down the field and reached the Brandeis one-foot line. On the game’s final play, Wayne called a power sweep to McKenna’s side. He crashed through the pulling guard and fullback to reach the ball carrier and tackle him short of the goal line.

“That was the one we talked about until the day he died,” Uhlberg said. “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.”

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound McKenna, whose Brandeis teams compiled a record of 18-13-1 during his tenure, was perfectly suited for Friedman’s pass-oriented offense. The team frequently employed a shotgun-style attack that lined up the quarterback five yards behind center so he would be in better position to throw the football. McKenna was the favorite target of quarterbacks Jimmy Stehlin and Tommy Egan.

According to Bergel, McKenna’s exploits on the football field helped publicize the fledgling university. “His decision to play at Brandeis and for Benny Friedman helped put the school on the map,” Bergel said. Brandeis discontinued its football program in 1959.

McKenna, who was a physics major at Brandeis, joined Texaco in 1955 and retired in 1989 as chief geophysicist.

He leaves his wife, Myken; three daughters, Lisa, Michelle and Susan; two brothers, Dick and Jake; and six grandchildren.

He is also survived by his nephew Bob McKenna ’77, who was also a standout athlete and played for the Brandeis basketball and baseball teams. The younger McKenna joined his uncle in the Brandeis Hall of Fame when the 1977 baseball team was enshrined in 2006. The team reached the championship game of the NCAA Division III Tournament.

Funeral services will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 23 at McInnis & Holloway’s Park Memorial Chapel in Calgary. A memorial Mass is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Oct. 27 at Immaculate Conception, 15 Hawthorne Blvd., Salem.

Categories: Alumni, Athletics

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage