The connection between an old Brandeis University quarterback and tight end was apparently much deeper than Jim Stehlin ever knew.
Bill McKenna was one of Stehlin’s best friends and for one season together at Brandeis, the pitch-and-catch duo of Stehlin, the quarterback, and McKenna, the end, was among the best in the country.
The two men only played the 1952 season together at Brandeis. Then, they missed an opportunity to team up for the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders due to a military commitment, but over the years they remained close.
The news that McKenna, a Salem native, had passed away at age 79 on Thursday, Oct. 18 in Calgary, stung Stehlin.
“One of the last things Billy gave me years ago was a Calgary T-shirt to remember the Stampeders. I had kept it in a drawer and every once in a while I’d wear it,” Stehlin said. “It’s hard to believe and this hit me hard, but for some reason or another when I got up that morning I put it on. An hour later Mike Uhlberg, who was a great friend and classmate of Billy’s, called to tell me he had passed away. It seemed so strange that I would do that on that day. It was something I think I’ll always remember.”
McKenna was a memorable man.
He was a true student/athlete, setting an excellent example for younger brothers Bob, Dick and Jake while standing out on the athletic fields and in the classrooms of Salem High.
Athletically, he was a bit of a late-bloomer. He was a good football player for the Witches, but really took his game to another level when he reached college.
“He started to show his potential when he left high school,” 73-year-old Dick McKenna said. “Lo and behold, he got on the weights at Brandeis. He’d train and run all the time. When he was around Salem he’d run the railroad tracks in South Salem all the way down to the old tunnel in downtown Salem, then turn around and run back to the Swampscott line.”
The McKenna’s were a family of athletes and Bill paved the way.
“Bill was always saying, ‘You don’t drink, you don’t smoke. You train.’ I’m 12 or 13 years old and I keep seeing that. Now, I go to high school and I have that embedded in me,” Dick McKenna said. “We were always taught to do our best and push and play hard. We got that from our father, but Bill kept showing us how to do that.”
Football games at Brandeis were an event for the McKenna’s with Bill’s parents, his brothers, and aunts and uncles populating the stands.
He routinely put on a show for his family as a two-way end.
McKenna thrived on offense, however, playing for coach Benny Friedman, who was ahead of his time when it came to the passing game.
Friedman, who was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005, frequently had his quarterback operate out of a shotgun formation and the 6-foot-3, 215-pound McKenna had the speed and the hands to become the main target in the Brandeis offense.
McKenna was the No. 1 receiver for quarterback Tommy Egan and Stehlin.
“He was the best football player they had in a relatively short history,” Stehlin said about the Brandeis program, which discontinued in 1959. “Playing for Benny Friedman was a great situation because he was ahead of his time. We were fortunate to do so well together. Unfortunately, we did not get to play our junior and senior years together.”
McKenna holds the Brandeis record for points scored in a game and in a career. He’s also the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards. He was inducted into the Joseph Linsey Brandeis Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993.
Stehlin remembers the game McKenna had against Wayne University in 1952, catching a couple touchdown passes. McKenna also had a legendary performance against Wayne the following year, stopping a Wayne running back short of the goal line on the game’s final play to preserve a 6-0 victory.
McKenna was named Associated Press All-American after his senior year, becoming the first athlete in school history to be named All-American.
He was later selected in the seventh round of the 1955 National Football League draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Eventually, he settled in Calgary where he played six seasons between 1955-1963 for the Stampeders.
During his CFL career he caught 88 passes for 1,436 yards and 10 touchdowns, all while still playing both ways.
McKenna set a then-league record with a 104-yard touchdown reception from Don Klosterman in 1955. That pass play still ranks fourth all-time in the CFL.
Even though McKenna had a tremendous football career and was extremely successful as a chief geophysicist for Texaco until retiring in 1989, he will be remembered for so much more.
“I think more than sports, he’ll be remembered for family,” Jake McKenna said. “Family was his No. 1 priority until the day he died. As far as sports, no one ever had anything bad to say about Bill. All the guys up in Canada, everyone said when he was on the field he gave 100 percent, but he was a true gentleman. He was giant, but he was gentle and when the game was over he’d come over and shake your hand.”
In addition to brothers Dick and Jake and many McKenna relatives on the North Shore, McKenna is survived by his wife, Myken, three daughters, and several grandchildren.
“He was just one of the nicest human beings that I’ve met in my life. He was so well liked by so many different people that came in contact with him,” Stehlin said. “There are some people, like Billy, that leave a footprint in your heart.”