When it was learned that Eldon Fortie died earlier this month at the age of 79, it provided an occasion to remember and appreciate his football exploits at BYU almost 60 years ago.

The legend almost didn’t happen. Fortie was stuck on the bench his first two years at BYU. He gave no indication that one day he would be so good they would retire his jersey number. He was a reserve running back on the freshman team and then a seldom-used sophomore on the varsity team.

“He was the third- or fourth-string running back,” recalls Glen Tuckett, who coached BYU’s running backs and defensive backs at the time. “We were running a straight-up T formation offense. It just didn’t fit his skills.”

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But at the end of the 1960 season, BYU hired a new head football coach named Hal Mitchell, who immediately changed the offense to a balanced-line, wing T scheme. A star was born.

In the single wing, Fortie was essentially the quarterback in shotgun formation but in reality he was a running back who threw a few passes. The previous system required more power and running between the tackles; the new system opened the field and emphasized more outside running. As a junior in 1961, Fortie ran for 422 yards and two touchdowns, but he was just getting warmed up.

A year later he produced one of the greatest seasons in BYU football history, running for 1,149 yards and 14 touchdowns in just 10 games, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. That stood as the single-season rushing record at BYU for 10 years, and it remained the second-best mark until 1998, despite the fact that players were playing two to three more games per season and getting many more rushing attempts (his mark still is ranked No. 8).

Fortie’s single-season record for rushing touchdowns stood for 39 years, which is when Luke Staley ran for 24 TDs on almost exactly the same number of carries. Fortie’s mark still stands second on the all-time list at the school.

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He produced perhaps his most remarkable feat on Sept. 29, 1962, when he rushed for 272 yards on just 20 carries — a 13.6-yard average — and against George Washington University. That stood as the single-game school rushing record for 54 years, when Jamaal Williams rushed for 286 yards on 30 carries against Toledo.

“As good as he was as a football player, he was an even more outstanding young man.” — Glen Tuckett on Eldon Fortie

At the end of the 1962 season Fortie was voted first-team All-American — the first BYU football player to win such an honor. He was selected to play in several postseason all-star games — the North-South Bowl Shrine Game in Miami, the Hula Bowl in Hawaii, the All-American Bowl in Tucson, Arizona, and the Coaches All-American Game in Buffalo, New York.

“Eldon was tailor-made made for the single wing,” says Tuckett. “He was not a power runner, he was a dipsy-do runner who was very good in the open field and could feint inside-outside.”

It was that elusiveness that earned Fortie his nickname: “The Phantom.”

Fortie was a good, but not great player at Salt Lake’s Granite High, where he played for a coach named LaVell Edwards, who would join the staff as an assistant in time for Fortie’s senior season. Ten years later, he became the head coach and went on to become one of the greatest college football coaches ever.

BYU running back Eldon Fortie breaks loose for a big gain. | Courtesy BYU Photo

While he was still at Granite, Edwards told BYU coaches that Fortie could be a good college player. Tuckett, who had coached against Fortie several times as the head football coach at West High, joined the BYU staff the same year that Fortie came to BYU.

“I thought he was a good player, but I didn’t think he’d become an All-American,” says Tuckett.

The Cougars threw sparingly out of the single wing. Fortie attempted an average of only 6.5 passes per game during his college career, 10 as a senior. He completed only 40% of them, totaling 1,390 yards, 14 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.

It was with his legs that he made his mark.

He led the nation in rushing during much of his senior year but lost ground after he suffered a separated clavicle late in the season (he finished second, 98 yards behind New Mexico State’s Preacher Pilot, and 24 yards ahead of Kansas’ Gale Sayers, the future NFL legend).

The Cougars won only four games during his senior season (and two the previous year). It would be a decade later before BYU began its rise to prominence under Edwards, but Fortie was one of the bright spots during the program’s formative years.

“He was only the third or fourth running back on the freshman team. Shows you what kind of coaches we were. We couldn’t tell the good ones when they were right in front of us.” — Glen Tuckett

Tuckett chuckles when he recalls, “He was only the third or fourth running back on the freshman team. Shows you what kind of coaches we were. We couldn’t tell the good ones when they were right in front of us. When we put him where he belonged. He shined. Those were two really good years.

Fortie, who was passed over by NFL teams in the draft, played one season in the Canadian Football League for the Edmonton Eskimos. He rushed for 36 yards on 11 carries. He completed eight passes on 16 attempts, for 173 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He returned 16 kickoffs (his longest was 40 yards). But he was no longer the “Phantom.”

“As good as he was as a football player, he was an even more outstanding young man,” says Tuckett.

Fortie married his high school sweetheart, Janice, and they raised a family together.

“He was such a delightful kid, the All-American boy,” says Tuckett. “He couldn’t have been nicer or more polite. He was religious. He was a good student. He was always easy to get along with, even when he was not playing. He didn’t look tough, didn’t act tough; he just played tough.”