Photo by Carleton Archives
The old football cliché is that “he may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he is in, the roll call wasn’t very long.”
Bob Eccles, however, was in a class by himself.
The Carleton football community was saddened last week with the passing of Eccles, who played for the Ravens from 1967-71. He was a three-time league all-star, a two-time winner of the Old Crows Society Outstanding Player Award, and a two-time winner of the Doug Banton Award. In 1969, Sport Canada magazine named him to their All-Canadian team. When the first official All-Canadian team was named in 1971, Eccles and teammate Chris Harber were named to the team. Eccles was selected second overall by the Ottawa Rough Riders in the 1971 CFL Draft. Fifty years later, it remains the highest a Raven has ever been drafted by a CFL team.
“My first year with the team was 1970, and at that time Bob was one of the captains of the team,” recalled John Ruddy. “I have fond memories of meeting Bob. I was only 17 in my first training camp. I was the youngest guy on the team. Bob really made me feel welcome, and we bonded from the first day, which is something I will always remember him for.”
Over the past half century, Eccles has always been described by those who played with him as the perfect teammate. He was not vocal, but he was a leader by example. He was a teacher on the field, especially with younger players. He was selfless. He was as fearless as he was talented. He treated all of his teammates like brothers, and the family atmosphere in the locker room was a reflection of what Bob Eccles brought to the team and the program.
“He not only made me feel comfortable, but he encouraged me and gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities,” Ruddy said. “I not only made the team, but I started in my first game.”
Ruddy said that Eccles took him under his wing in his first year. He also said that Ruddy gave him a nickname.
“He called me Jake,” Ruddy recalled, “after Jake Scott who was a free safety with the famous Miami Dolphins defence.”
Ruddy got to know Eccles particularly well as they roomed together when the team was on the road.
“We broke curfew a couple of times but I won’t get into that,” Ruddy said while laughing. “When it came to playing the game, we were always prepared.”
When Eccles arrived at Carleton, he was a two-way high school star. In his first year, Eccles made his first start as a fullback midway through the 1967 season when veteran starter Gary Lamourie was sidelined with an injury. Eccles carried the ball 12 times for 102 yards and two touchdowns as the Ravens beat the Montreal Carabins 61-6. At the time, it was the largest margin of victory in Ravens history, and it tied the most points Carleton had ever scored in a game.
Eccles was not the only Raven to stand out in that game. Dan McCarthy ran for 71 yards and scored one touchdown while adding six converts. Bruce MacGregor ran for 84 yards and a touchdown. Mike Sharp started at quarterback with Al Morissette injured, and he scored two touchdowns and passed for 80 yards. He also ran for 103 yards on eight carries. Other Ravens TDs were scored by Mike Moore, Jim Baroux and Mike Sabourin. The Ravens offensive line moved Montreal defenders at will, as Carleton piled up 444 yards on the ground.
Linebacker Mike Nihmey was in the Montreal backfield all day for the Ravens. Warren Throop had an interception for Carleton, and he and Paul Fortier did a fine job on punt returns. Fortier was one tackler away from adding a touchdown to the Carleton total.
Eccles moved to linebacker in 1968. In the first game of the season, an exhibition game against the MacDonald College Clansmen, Eccles dominated the game as the Ravens won 42-1. The same story continued through the season. Eccles was the centrepiece of the Ravens defence, though he was always quick to praise the play of his teammates like Ian McKie, Gary Lamourie, Warren Throop and Randy Wahab for the team’s defensive success.
By the 1970 season, Eccles was widely considered the best linebacker in the country. Some went so far as to call him the best player in the country. The school newspaper said he was the best player to ever wear the black, red and white of the Ravens.
The Ravens were coming off a 4-1-1 season and had a strong defence. Eccles, his high school teammate Barry Hobin, Jim Harrison, Larry Nielsen, Barry Parks, Chris Harber and Ruddy, were part of one of the best defences the Ravens have ever put on the field.
“Bob played tough, and he played well,” Ruddy said. “He was consistent. He was a leader on and off the field. Through my friendship with Bob and through playing together, his leadership was always infectious and I think it grew on me, and for that I will always be thankful.”
One of the games where Eccles star may have shone the brightest was in the 1971 OUAA season opener against the heavily favoured Toronto Varsity Blues. Eccles, who had been picked second overall in the 1971 CFL draft, returned to school to work on his Master’s and play a final season for the Ravens. He led a defence that shut down one of the most powerful offences in Canada as the Ravens won 12-3 in the biggest upset victory in Ravens history.
Ruddy recalled that he injured his knee in the game.
“I have two artificial knees now,” he said. “The first knee injury was in that game against Toronto.
“It was worth it.”
One of the stars in that game was Chris Harber. He not only played a solid game at “bull back”, or corner linebacker, but he also punted for a 42.5 yard average and kept the Blues bottled up in their own end throughout the day.
Harber, like Ruddy, also has fond memories of being a teammate of Bob Eccles and recalled his first impressions of him.
“I remember that it was a very new experience for me, but Bob carried an air of confidence that really helped a rookie like myself at the time,” Harber said. “Bob had one or two years under his belt by the time I joined the program, but he brought this feeling of ‘we can do this’ onto the field. It spread amongst the players and certainly to myself.”
Harber said that Eccles had “the perfect middle linebacker build,” which was part of his success.
“He reminded me a lot of (former CFL star) Soupy Campbell,” Harber said. “He was built low to the ground and he had shoulders the width of a roadway. Bob just loved being in on every tackle. He loved the essence of the game which was to hit, and he loved being able to find the ball carrier. Having that attitude helped the players around him to follow suit.”
Harber said that opposing teams had to game plan around Eccles and how intimidating he was.
“Teams ran up the middle very few times because that’s where Bob was,” Harber said. “They would try to run around the end, but when they got there, Bob would be there too. They couldn’t avoid him.”
In the huddle after every play and every tackle, Harber said Eccles was a motivator.
“I remember one huddle in particular when he looked at everyone and challenged us to join the fray and get in on every tackle,” Harber recalled. “That’s the type of leader he was. I will never forget that.”
The win over the Blues was not the only big upset for the Ravens that year. The Ravens went into the Panda Game with a 2-4 record. The Ottawa Gee-Gees were 6-0 and ranked first in the nation.
Eccles was at his best, and defensive tackle Brian Hedges was in the Gee-Gees backfield all day. Eccles had an interception that went for a 34-yard pick six to clinch to victory. Harber also had a big day defensively, as well as punting.
Not many people gave the Ravens much of a chance to beat the Gee-Gees, and that included game sponsor Carling-O’Keefe. The brewery was to award the winning team $400 after the game. When the cheque was presented to Bob Eccles after the game, it had already been made out to the Ottawa University Students Union. A corrected cheque was sent, and the money went toward team jackets for the Ravens. The mix-up triggered a brief campus boycott of O’Keefe Ale, which at the time had been one of the most popular beers on campus.
Harber said that Eccles was a true leader on that team. In the locker room, he wasn’t vocal.
“We had other guys that were vocal, but Bob wasn’t,” Harber said. “He led by example. He wasn’t a clown or a joker, but we always got together after games and Bob would always have a good time and he loved the group camaraderie. He wasn’t full of himself. He could have a good time and be relaxed. But in the locker room, he had a quiet confidence. He was an example to follow.”
Eccles and Harber were named to the first-ever All-Canadian team in 1971.
“The honour kind of gathered honour as time went on,” Harber said. “I wasn’t that mature as an adult at that time so I didn’t really value the honour. As time went on through the years, it grew in importance to me, and being named to that team with Bob was special for me.”
Harber recalled the last time he spent with Eccles.
“A couple of years ago, we went to Hamilton for a celebration of the first All-Canadian Team,” Harber said. “About eight or 10 of the players were there and we were introduced at halftime of the Vanier Cup.
“I was talking to Bob over coffee,” he added. “I decided to put a budget together for my trip and I was talking to Bob about it. And he said something I have not forgotten. The words stuck in my head. He said why worry about the money? You can’t take it with you. I haven’t forgotten that. It’s almost like he knew that life is about your experiences and it doesn’t last forever. Maybe he had a notion that his time was near, because he said it in a certain way.”
That was not the only thing Harber remembers from the trip to Hamilton.
“I noticed that he was clearly in pain,” Harber said. “He never complained one second, or he never brought it up. But he went down there and he represented Carleton University football and honoured the occasion even though he was really in a lot of discomfort. That, to me, best sums up who Bob Eccles was. It was beyond his self-interests and into what the right thing to do was.”
Eccles became heavily involved with the Old Crows and served as the PA announcer at home games in the 1980s. He was always around to offer encouragement and support to the team long after he was done playing. Many players he got to know knew nothing about his career, let along that he was the greatest Raven of all time.
“I remember when Bruce MacGregor was writing his newsletters and stories, and he would hound Bob for something to write about,” Harber said. “Bob was a big name, and Bob finally pulled Bruce aside and said, ‘look, you’ve written me to death.’ Why don’t you write about some of the other great players we had.’ He deflected all that attention off and encouraged Bruce to write about other players. That’s who Bob was. For him, it wasn’t about him. It was about the program.”
Bob Eccles will be sadly missed by his friends, family, teammates, the community, and everyone whose lives he has ever touched.
In honour of Bob’s love and dedication to Carleton Ravens Football, we have established the Bob Eccles Memorial Award at Carleton University. In memory of Bob, donations in his honour made to this award would be appreciated.