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Brandeis Football star, Bill McKenna, passes away at the age of 79

By Brian Tabakin

Section: Sports

October 26, 2012

Before the doors to the Brandeis gridiron were shut, Bill McKenna ’55 roamed the field. McKenna was the university’s first ever All-American and he continued his successful career for many years in the Canadian Football League (CFL). He passed away on Oct. 19 in Calgary, Alberta.

McKenna displayed great versatility, playing both offensive and defensive end. In the football program’s short-lived existence, he became the Judges’ leader in points scored in a game and a career, as well as most receiving yards.

In 1993, McKenna was inducted into the Brandeis Hall of Fame and then two years later in 1995, he and his former teammates traveled to Canton, Ohio to see Benny Friedman, their former coach, inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame, posthumously, for his pioneering of the forward pass.

Dick Bergel ’57, one of McKenna’s teammates, reflected on what truly 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.”

“Bill was a tremendous person. He was your friend for life and when someone needed help he was the first to volunteer.”

McKenna’s talents and dedication to his sport led the Philadelphia Eagles to draft him in the seventh round of the NFL draft. He played the majority of his professional career, however, with the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL from 1955 to 1963, where he totaled 88 receptions and 1,436 yards, along with 10 touchdowns, while at the same time also playing on the defensive side of the ball.

While McKenna had many prominent and memorable games during his collegiate career, his teammates consistently reflected on a game against Wayne University in 1953 as McKenna’s defining performance.

With Brandeis clinging to a 6-0 lead in the closing minutes, Wayne drove down the field and reached the Brandeis one-foot line. On the last play of the game, Wayne called a power sweep toward McKenna; however, he bulldozed the blocker and tackled the ball carrier just shy of the goal line to preserve the win for the Judges.

Bergel asserts that McKenna’s success on the gridiron helped publicize and give a face to the brand new university. “His decision to play at Brandeis and for Benny Friedman helped put the school on the map.”

McKenna is survived by his wife, Myken; his three daughters, Lisa, Michelle and Susan; two brothers; Dick and Jake; six grandchildren; and his nephew Bob McKenna ’77 who was a standout player for the Judges’ basketball and baseball teams.

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