BYU football: The story of Eldon Fortie’s broken record

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports /

Saturday against the Toledo Rockets, Jamaal Williams broke the BYU football record for yards rushing in a game.  A look back at the record game he broke.

Let me take you on a magical journey into the past. Or maybe, since the Delorean is only a two-seater, let’s just make it a nice flashback. 

Seeing those wiggly blurring effects? Good.

Now, picture 1962. A lot lower population, a lot more cigarette ads. John F. Kennedy is president, being serenaded by Marilyn Monroe. Maybe don’t picture that too closely.

It’s the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Spider-man made his first appearance in comics in Amazing Fantasy #15. It was the dawning of the Johnny Carson Tonight Show, and the Beatles were the hot band.

Football was in transition. Many teams had gone from soft to hard leather helmets, and then from leather to plastic helmets that regularly had face guards. This is because most people prefer their faces intact. Even though the first 3,000 yard passer emerged that year, the rushing attack was still the primary means of offence for most teams.

That included the Cougars, who were running an offense called the Single Wing.

The Single Wing featured an unbalanced look, seven every-down lineman, and frequently as many as four running backs. The man who received the snap from center, shotgun-esque, was actually called the tailback. It was he that decided whether to take the ball, hand it off to the fullback, quarterback, or wingback (yes, that was a thing) or once in a in a blue moon, in dead air, if the stars aligned, throw a pass.

This was the position of the man known as BYU’s “Phantom,” Eldon Fortie.

Another close game, but nothing like BYU-Toledo.

Down at “Y Stadium,” the BYU Cougars lined up against the Colonials of George Washington. The temperature was in the high sixties, with clear skies after some early morning rain, and just a small breeze—perfect football weather.

It’s hard to find detailed descriptions of the game, but a look at the stats still tells much of the story. The Cougars racked up 413 yards of offense (with 386 of that rushing) to GW’s mere 235, but three BYU turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) killed drives. BYU only punted twice, to GW’s six.

GW scored first, early in the second quarter, on a 15-yard rush. Fortie would answer a few minutes later from six yards out. Both teams continued to pound it until halftime without success. The score was tied 6-6, because apparently making PATs was definitely not a given in those days. Neither team even attempted a field goal.

Then, midway through the third quarter, Fortie had his biggest break for BYU – a 75 yard rush for a TD to give the Cougars the lead 12-6. In a grinding game of yards and dust, this must have been a huge momentum swing.

The teams battled. Fortie was a force, gouging the Colonials for 13 yards a carry on 20 rushes, but backup tailback Phil Brady also rushed 61 yards on 6 carries. It looked like the Cougars would take the game, but they just couldn’t get back in the endzone. 

With a single minute to go in the fourth quarter, the Colonials managed to punch in the tying touchdown. This time, their PAT kick was true. The Colonials took the game from the Cougars by a single point.

It’s clear that Fortie was everything for the Cougars. In addition to providing the bulk of the rushing, all of the scoring, and both completed passes (2 of 11 with 2 INTs – boy, ’twas a different age) “the Phantom” returned a kickoff and a punt, and was the normal kicker for field goals and PATs. 

On September 30, 54 years and a day later, Jamaal Williams had a lot more support. Taysom Hill managed almost 250 yards passing with no interceptions, propelling the Cougars on a vital final drive with just over a minute remaining. And this time, a place kicker in Rhett Almond was able to put the game away for the Cougars in the dying seconds.

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports /

But even then, you could say that Williams was about as vital to the game as Fortie was. He was the bright spot for an offense that has been struggling to find itself.

So whose was the better performance? The 5 touchdowns would seem to tilt it in Jamaal’s favor, but the age and the offenses at work are so different there is no true way to tell. In 1962, the Colonials knew the Cougars were going to run it on basically every play, and did everything to prevent it.

Even so, they didn’t find it easy to catch “the Phantom.”

50-year rushing records don’t fall every day. It’s good to step back and appreciate just what it surpassed, and realize the special talent that is Jamaal Williams.

Another nifty factoid about BYU football, 1962.

Guess who was hired on as an assistant coach that year? None other than the yet-to-be-legendary LaVell Edwards, who was brought on for his expertise in the run-heavy Single Wing. (Oh the irony).

More from BYU Football

By the time he was promoted to head coach 10 years later, he was fully ready to ditch it for a new style. He started to introduce a new offence that focused on an emphasis on the passing game.

Edwards’ quarterbacks struggled with consistency that first year, collectively throwing more picks than touchdowns. That team relied on All-American running back Pete Van Valkenburg to bring them through.

So, to review: new head coach, new offense very different from the previous, quarterback consistency troubles, and a dominant running back. Sounds familiar, right?

“Fleet Pete” led that team to a winning record in LaVell’s first year. Now in 2016, it looks like “J-Swag Daddy” may need to do the same for Kalani Sitake.

Funny how those running backs all seem to get names in quotes.