Eagle Keys famously won a Grey Cup football championship playing on a broken leg in his final game as a professional athlete.
Later, as a coach, he became known as The Sage of Turkey Neck Bend for the Kentucky hamlet he claimed as his birthplace. In 1966, he earned the undying gratitude of Prairie football fans by guiding the Saskatchewan Roughriders to the club’s first Grey Cup title. The players were so excited by the victory they hauled their coach into the shower room, mussing his hair and drenching his suit.
Keys, who died in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam on Dec. 20 at the age of 89, was a noted tactician who installed a projector in the basement of his home to better view game film at all hours. The coach was a disciplinarian who expected his players to be as dedicated to the game as he was.
“They knew what they were supposed to do – eat, live, and breathe football,” says Vancouver sportswriter Jim Taylor. “Social life was for the off-season.”
The coach could be ruthless, too, seeing little room for sentimentality in the unforgiving battle on the gridiron. A player showing any weakness from age or injury was replaced.
“He’d cut you if you were his mother,” Taylor says.
On the sidelines, he looked as sour as a moonshiner whose still had been discovered by revenue agents.
For more than a quarter-century, the taciturn Kentuckian was a prominent – and memorable – name in Canadian football. He played in three Grey Cup games in his six-season career, winning twice. He then worked as a head coach in Edmonton (five seasons), in Regina (10 seasons) and in Vancouver (five seasons).
Keys was never accused of being loquacious. Sportswriters compared his level of chattiness with that of a brick wall and (silent) film star Rudolph Valentino – according to one frustrated scribe, he “raised the shrug to new heights of eloquence.”
On those rare occasions when he did speak, Canadians strained to make sense of a bluegrass drawl that had him dropping Gs and Ls like a fumble-fingered running back: For example, “he helps me with the films” came out as “he hepps me with the fimms.”
Born on Dec. 4, 1923, Keys long insisted he came from a hamlet called Turkey Neck Bend after a kink in the meandering Cumberland River. When challenged about the unlikely name, he’d say, “Actually, I come from Bugtussle, but I always say Turkey Neck Bend because who ever heard of Bugtussle?”
In 1971, Canadian Press sports editor Bruce Levett decided to settle the issue and discovered the coach really hailed from Tompkinsville, a city midway between Bugtussle, an unincorporated community, and Turkey Neck Bend, which was more a geographical feature than a place.
Keys did not limit his fanciful imagination to his birthplace. He also insisted his father, farmer and policeman Bascal Keys, was a bird watcher who, as well as naming him Eagle, had called his sisters Robin, Pigeon, Bluebird, Oriole and Crow (the ugly one, he claimed). In fact, the daughters were Madge, Faye, Coleen, Susan and Gloria.
In reality, young Keys made a name for himself (as Buddy) playing football for Tompkinsville High School. After graduating in 1941, he attended Western Kentucky State Teachers College, playing centre on offence and linebacker on defence for a season before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps.
After the war, he returned to complete his education – and play football. In a 1945 practice scrimmage, he suffered a gash that took 21 stitches to close yet insisted he’d play in that weekend’s game. To protect the wound – at the time, players wore leather helmets and little other safety gear – Keys needed a face guard, which he had fashioned at a local harness shop. His coaches thought he looked like a man from Mars.
He also starred on the baseball diamond, pairing with fellow pitcher Chet Redmon to give the school a devastating two-man rotation. The Hilltoppers went 9-0 in 1946.
Still, he turned professional on the gridiron, with the minor-league Paterson Panthers in New Jersey. His coach tried to have him signed with the New York Giants of the National Football League, but in 1949 he headed north to join the Montreal Alouettes. That fall, he won his first Grey Cup championship when the Als defeated the Calgary Stampeders, 28-15, at Varsity Stadium in Toronto.
Keys spent three seasons in Montreal before moving to Edmonton, where he entered sports lore at the end of his sixth season in Canadian football.
The Eskimos were playing his former team in the Grey Cup. Near the end of the first quarter, he suffered a serious leg injury and hobbled off the field. But after his replacement made a wild snap, preventing Edmonton from converting a touchdown, the coach had a word with him.
“Can you still go in to snap for our punts and converts?” Frank (Pop) Ivy asked.
“Yes, coach,” Keys replied.
On all third-down punts and placement kicks, he struggled back into action.
“My leg hurt terribly, but I tried not to think of it,” he said the next day, “because they needed me in there and they couldn’t have kept me out, anyway.”
Finally, late in the game, he could stand on the leg no more. As it turned out, the championship was settled by a single point, with linebacker Bill Briggs snapping the ball to Bob Dean for the game-winning, one-point kick in the 26-25 victory for the Westerners. (The convert followed an incredible 95-yard romp for a touchdown by Jackie Parker, who recovered a Montreal fumble. Aficionados still debate whether the ball had really been fumbled, or was thrown forward.)
Later, Keys was spotted in the lobby of the Royal York Hotel being carried to a taxi for a trip to the hospital, where X-rays discovered a fracture just below the knee in the big bone of his left leg. He also had torn ligaments.
“That took a lot of courage and intestinal fortitude,” Ivy said after the game. “I’m mighty proud of Eagle.”
His determination won notice. The Globe and Mail heralded his performance on its front page, and even the New York Times made note it, under the headline: “Broken leg overlooked.”
After that Keys retired as a player to become a scout and assistant coach with the Eskimos, rising to head coach in 1959. He moved to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1965 and, a year later, guided the team and its long-suffering fans to their first Grey Cup championship, a 29-14 victory over the Ottawa Rough Riders at Vancouver.
His Roughriders, led by quarterback Ron (The Little General) Lancaster and determined fullback George Reed, finished first in the West Conference four times in his six years at the helm. The ’Riders lost Grey Cup games in 1967 and 1969.
Keys had less success in five seasons as head coach with the B.C. Lions, where he was fired by general manager Bob Ackles after a poor start to the 1975 season. His regular-season coaching record after 16 seasons was 131 wins, 107 losses, 8 ties, ranking fifth on the all-time list of victories and second only to Frank Clair for most playoff games coached at 27.
In 1990, he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a builder, having three years earlier been among the inaugural inductees to the Roughrider Plaza of Honour in Regina, along with Reed and Lancaster. He has also been inducted into the Monroe County Athletic Hall of Fame in his native state.
Although he retired to the Vancouver area, he told Patrick Nagle of Weekend Magazine in 1967 that he found Regina more conducive to moulding a winning football team, as its small size helped to overcome what he called “the natural exuberance of young men playin’ football.”
“I don’t object to my fellows doin’ things that other folks are doin’. But in this town there’s no place to hide. If a fella gets out of line, somebody is bound to let us know ’bout it. It’s hard on the fellas sometimes, but it helps them settle down quicker.”