Former BYU All-American, and BYU’s first ever All-American in football, Eldon Fortie passed away on Wednesday in Mesa, Arizona. He was 79.
Before the days of LaVell Edwards, BYU was not nearly the prominent brand of college football they became under the legendary coach. One thing that pre-head coach LaVell era of BYU football had was The Phantom. Eldon Fortie was the starting tailback for the Cougars in 1961, running the ball 132 times for 437 yards and two touchdowns. Given the nature of the single-wing offense of the period, he also threw 82 passes for 451 yards an five touchdowns through the air.
Then, in 1962, Fortie reached new heights in BYU lore. LaVell Edwards came to Provo as an assistant ahead of the 1962 season. As the feature part of Edwards’ offense, Fortie went off. He was effective in the pass game, with 811 yards passing and seven touchdowns, which were great numbers for that kind of offense. However, it was on the ground where Fortie became the legend he is and earned his nickname, with his elusive running style that allowed him to seemingly disappear and reappear at will. He ran for 1,039 yards and a whopping 14 touchdowns, giving him 21 touchdowns for which he was responsible.
For his efforts that year, Fortie was named First-Team All-American, being the pioneer to the All-Americans that would follow him. The accolades did not end there, as he was invited to every postseason bowl under the sun such as the North-South Bowl, Hula Bowl and the All-American game. The Heisman Trophy recognized him as well, as he placed 10th in voting for the most prestigious award in college sports.
He also possessed the BYU single-game rushing record of 272 yards until 2016, when Jamaal Williams ran for 286 yards against Toledo. Fortie was one of the first to congratulate him.
In 1963, he played professional football for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.
BYU bestowed the ultimate honor any athlete can receive by retiring his legendary No. 40 after that stellar 1962 season, the first ever jersey retired for BYU football. His name is engraved at LaVell Edwards Stadium for all-time. He was inducted into the BYU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1977.
He was married to his wife Janice for 59 years and enjoyed five children.
I have a personal connection to Eldon, as he resided in my hometown, Escondido, California for many of his retired years. I was a young child in his community and ward at church and grew up proud to have a BYU legend so closely knitted in my community, from substitute teaching at local schools to church service, Eldon was everywhere. I proudly wore a BYU jersey in seventh grade the day I knew he would be subbing in my class. I bragged to my classmates that we had a living college football legend in the classroom.
One of the most admirable things about Eldon Fortie is that you would never know he has his name engraved in a major college football stadium and received Heisman votes. He always deflected opportunities to gloat about his athletic accomplishments. Instead of basking in the glory of his golden days, Fortie always had an eye for service and focused on being a good husband, father, community member, as well as a true man of God.
Fortie will certainly be missed as he made a lasting impact in every community in which he lived. You need only look at his family to see the first-rate man Fortie was.
Rest in Peace, Phantom. Your accomplishments on the gridiron as well as your impact as a high quality human being will not soon be forgotten.