Dick Harmon: BYU Hall of Famer Eldon Fortie pulling for Taysom Hill to someday break his own record
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
The Phantom hopes BYU quarterback Taysom Hill will break his 51-year-old school rushing record.
Hill got close in a win over Texas on Sept. 7 when he raced for a whopping 259 yards.
Come Saturday, Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake will do everything he can to limit any yards that Hill gains.
Eldon "The Phantom" Fortie is 72 years old. He and his wife Janice are serving a temple mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Ill., a historic Mormon settlement on the east shore of the Mississippi River. Nicknamed “The Phantom,” Fortie was the first BYU football player to have his jersey retired. His 272 yards of rushing against George Washington in 1962 remain BYU’s single-game record.
Fortie watched Hill come 13 yards shy of his mark on TV from Nauvoo. He heard ESPN announcers mention his name — quite a moment for any star of yesteryear.
“It was fun. I hadn’t really thought about it for 50 years,” said Fortie. “I think my extended family got more of a kick out of that than I did, though.”
Fortie is a kind and gentle man, a true legend worthy of his fame. When people mention him, they speak in respectful tones. He played at Granite High, where LaVell Edwards got his first coaching job. Back then, Edwards immediately became his idol. “At Granite, we taught him all we could — then he moved on. I’m joking,” he said.
Fortie wanted to be like Edwards and follow in his footsteps in coaching, but he ended up being in sales and owned his own business. He has lived in New Jersey, Missouri, Arizona, California and Utah during his professional career.
Hill will get just one shot to beat Utah. Fortie never did. “It’s one of the biggest regrets of my playing career that my team didn’t beat Utah. My senior year, after I scored a touchdown in the rivalry game, I twisted my ankle and left the game. We were favored to win that day and I feel if I had been able to stay in the game, we would have won.”
It would have been rare. Back then, BYU had a tough time with the Utes. It was a lopsided rivalry. Hill enters this game with the Cougars on a 0-3 skid in the series.
The BYU-Utah game back in Fortie’s day was fun, although futile. “It was a tough game playing Utah. I did get injured several times playing them. They played tough over the years and so did we. They are a great university and team and they have a great coaching staff. I hope we can win.”
In 1962 BYU hired Hal Mitchell from UCLA, and he was a single-wing offensive coach.
“In this offense, you have a tailback who handles the ball 90 percent of the time,” said Fortie’s friend in the formation, Bill Wright.
“Eldon took the direct snap from the center about 5 yards deep and either ran it or passed it. I was the fullback and only blocked for Eldon, until he got injured and they switched me to tailback for the remainder of the year. The single wing has disappeared with the dinosaurs, thank goodness, but tailback isn't a true quarterback — he is a halfback with passing options.”
After their BYU experience, Wright and Fortie have remained friends all their lives.
“He is a great person with integrity and the finest character,” Wright said of Fortie.
“Eldon and his wife Janice were married about the same time as me and my wife Susan. Both of us had a baby boy, but unfortunately, their son Jerry died at 3 months and is buried by my mother's grave. So we decorate his grave when we visit my mother's because Eldon and Janice do not live here."
Both Fortie and Wright began their college careers under coach Tally Stevens.
“Eldon was a shifty runner with good speed but not a power runner. We had some good times playing against the likes of Merlin Olsen, Lionel Aldridge, Clark Miller, Willie Redmond — all future NFL players. I now have the lasting injuries to remind me of how much fun it was,” said Wright.
Fortie praises Hill, whom he has followed from afar. He would love to see him break his own record.
“No matter what happens, if Taysom gains a lot of yards and breaks my record, we all win," he said. "We all win because we are Cougars and if he’s breaking records, chances are BYU is winning games and I’m all for that all the way. That’s what we want.
“I hope he can do all he can do and break every record he can.”
Fortie played at 5-11 and 169 pounds. Hill is 6-2, 220 pounds. “Taysom is a great talent and he’s a good kid,” said Fortie.
“I hope he continues to do as well as he’s done in the past and that will make things good for all of us, particularly if he can play this week like he did against Texas.”
So says the ghost from a time long past.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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