Brad Ecklund and the Original “Men of Oregon”

filed 21, FS,12,KC

The oak tree has long been a symbol of strength, endurance, valor and accomplishment. These distinguished attributes signify the separation of the ordinary from the exceptional. A century of Oregon football has produced a grove of tall firs and mighty oaks, individuals whose roots vibrantly pulse beneath a lavish wildwood of virtue.

Mark Helfrich's "Men of Oregon" is a tribute to the strong individual character spanning more than a century of Oregon football.

Kevin Cline

Mark Helfrich’s “Men of Oregon” recognizes a century old tradition of strong individual character, sportsmanship, and athleticism.

The 2014 Oregon football team was just the latest embodiment of the fortitude of the oak, led by Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and surrounded by men of robust character, strong will, football acumen, and determination. They will be remembered for their focus, unity, commitment, sportsmanship, and relentless preparation in their pursuit of excellence.

Oregon Head Coach Mark Helfrich has repeatedly referred to seeking and developing “Men of Oregon” by recruiting resilient young men of both exemplary physical and moral fitness to best represent the school, community, and program.

Helfrich’s aphorism encapsulates more than one hundred years of Oregon football, honoring willpower, teamwork, and unbreakable heart. While this standard appears relatively new, it is Oregon’s longest tradition. And the origin of the “mighty oak” was forged in the furnace of war nearly 65 years ago.

The Ducks grinding out a victory at home.

From video

The Ducks grinding out a victory at home.

In 1941, a 6’4″ 225 Brad Ecklund from Milwaukee High School joined Tex Oliver‘s Oregon football team. At the time, a man of this size and stature was an intimidating figure with an unbreakable resolve. His friends, teammates, and fellow soldiers called him “Whitie.” The press accurately dubbed him “the indestructible giant” and “the mighty oak.”

Inducted into both the NCAA College Football Hall of Fame and NFL Hall of Fame, the four sport star athlete was confirmed unequivocally as the greatest center to ever play Oregon football.

At Milwaukee High, Ecklund excelled in baseball, football, track, and basketball. After graduation, Ecklund accepted a full ride scholarship to play football at the University of Oregon. Oliver saw the size of Ecklund and immediately planted the “mighty oak” at center on the offensive line.

After 1941, the U.S. ramped up its involvement in World War II, sending droves of young American men to fight the Axis powers, either through military conscription or voluntary enrollment. After Ecklund started every game as both center and linebacker in the ’41 season, the multi-talented big man flunked out of college and opted to join the U.S. Marine Corps.

The fiercely competitive ”Whitie” refused to remain idle in the USMC and took up boxing, eventually becoming the Marine Corps Golden Glove Champion. Ecklund also played for the USMC Naval Air Raiders football team for two years while stationed in Jacksonville, Florida before his inevitable deployment to the South Pacific.

Ecklund earned the rank of sergeant and fought in the Pacific theater, island hopping and engaging in battle after battle, including the Battle of Okinawa, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War in WW II.

For four years, Ecklund’s unit served as a part of the second wave of Marines, often washing onto shore only to encounter the destruction of his Semper Fi brothers in gruesome and inexplicably violent spectacles. “I was in the second wave. It was the guys in the first wave who got their butts shot up,” Ecklund told the Register Guard. A year after V-J day, Ecklund, along with his wife and new son, returned to Eugene with hopes for obtaining a college degree. The young veteran, husband, and father was nervous that the University of Oregon wouldn’t let him return to school.

However, after the war Whitie’s four years of military service nullified his previous academic shortcomings and Oregon afforded the star another shot to finish what he started. A determined Ecklund followed through with his second chance, graduating with a B average.

Ecklund wasn’t the only WWII veteran to return home eager to play football for new Oregon head coach Jim Aiken. Stalwarts such as John McKay, Norm Van Brocklin, Jake Leicht, George Bell, and Woodley Lewis made for an intimidating Oregon roster. These seasoned men were out for football glory, but not in the traditional pom-pom pep rally sense.

Aiken’s Webfoots were an odd mash-up of veterans, transfers, and athletes that somehow worked harmoniously as interchangeable parts, including African-American kicker/offensive and defensive lineman Chet Daniels, a non-veteran who considered that team a “fine group of fellows.”

“It wasn’t a rah-rah type thing. We never needed a pep talk. How do you get a guy who’s 24 years old and fought in the war hyped about a football game?” Daniels told the Register Guard.

In 1948, this fearless motley crew adopted Aiken’s T-formation, benefitting from the strong and accurate arm of the Flying Dutchman, quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. The Webfoots went 9-1, tying California in the PCC (Pacific Coast Conference), leading the Ducks to their first ever Cotton Bowl appearance against Southern Methodist University.

Despite losing to SMU and the 1948 Heisman Trophy winner, running back Doak Walker, Aiken’s squad surpassed everyone’s expectations, a victory that carried much more weight than any trophy. Oregon’s All-American center and Van Brocklin both received MVP honors in the Cotton Bowl game.

Oregon defeats Washington State in 1948 . The Webfoots would finish 9-1 and play in the Cotton Bowl.

From video

Oregon defeats Washington State in 1948 . The Webfoots  finished 9-1 and played in the Cotton Bowl.

These guys were a different type of tough. Ecklund played both sides of the line for an average of fifty minutes a game. The trenches of college football hardly resembled the ravages of Pacific and European warfare.  The combination of military-type camaraderie and outstanding athleticism later earned him the University of Oregon’s Lineman of the Century.

“I think because we were all veterans, we were very dedicated. We’d fought for our country, we had that esprit d’ corps and not one guy on that team was a bum. We weren’t all great players, but we’d always back each other up, and when we went into battle, we knew what it meant to be in the trenches,” Ecklund said.

For Ecklund and his veterans counterparts, the experience of war successfully translated to the gridiron. Perhaps the greatness of the ’48 Oregon football team was just a peculiar circumstance, a harmonious culmination of people particular to a specific time. However, it’s hard to imagine that the landmark 1948 season was merely a coincidence

There is a national misconception that Oregon football lacks tradition. Certainly, the many decades of Oregon football can be described as a mixed bag of high marks and low points. The “Men of Oregon” have been underdogs, fiery competitors, and innovators who carried the tradition of unorthodoxy on their backs. And win or lose, men from Ecklund to Mariota  proudly stand amongst the mighty oaks of Oregon football.

Top photo by Kevin Cline

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Jordan Ingram

Jordan Ingram

My name is Jordan Ingram and I am currently a student at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism. I am a proud Oregonian with an insatiable thirst for Oregon athletics. I am in hot pursuit of my dream career as beat writer for anything that goes “Quack.” Follow me on Twitter : @jpingram3

  • Michael Oaks

    Thank you for the memory jog! How well I remember the 1948 team. I was new as a fan to football, 14 years old and went to my first football game in 1947––Grants Pass vs. Medford. What an exciting game it was, even though I didn’t know a first downn from squat! I was living about 12 miles from Grants Pass in a house just off the Pacific Hwy 99N on Jump-Off-Joe creek. I knew that the Oregon webfoots would be playing SMU with the great Doak Walker and Kyle Rote in their backfield. We didn’t have electricity at the time, but we did have a battery pack radio. The battery’s were very expensive. We had mountains around us, so I had to improvise an ariel to be able to pick up the broadcast of the game. All I had was a small spool of blasting cap wire of copper for an ariel. I climbed to the first limb of a medium sized douglas fir tree that was close to the house and had a saw with a rope tied to its handle. The limbs were close together, so I in effect created a ladder on my way towards the top. I secured the wire to the top and after my decent I dropped to the ground and hooked up my radio. Finally it was game day. Oregon gave a great account of themselves. Woodley Lewis was a threat to go all the way every time he touched the ball, and Norm VAn Brocklin had a buggly whip arm that could go very deep with accuracy. There was John McKay at halfback, Woodley Lewis as the other back, Bob Saunders, I believe was at full back. Brad Ecklund, Dan Garza, Chester Daniels as punter. The rest of the names I can’t remember. My memory is fast fading dim, but I’ll tell you this, I have been a duck fan ever since, and it all began with players like Brad Ecklund, and Norm Van Brocklin all those many years ago. Go Duck! I’ve loved you in the past, I’ve loved you in the present, and will love you until I can no longer say Marcus Mariota!

    • maddog48

      It was Dick Wilkins that you recall. Van Brocklin was the punter, something he continued to do with the Rams. Chet Daniels was the place kicker. You can find the entire roster on where I have edited it to include all the players and coaches from that season.

      • Michael Oaks

        Thanks maddog48, Van Brocklin was an exciting QB. He could chuck it! I followed him pretty closely when he went to the Rams! Some of his throws to Hearsh and the other receiver slips my memory, but a throw of 60 yards through the air wasn’t uncommon. Do you remember the little magician? Eddy Lebaron! I will never forget when Ira Blue of KGO boosed little college of the Pacific with Eddy Lebaron at QB. There was a cable gram sent to the Baylor Bears, the number one team in the land that year and of course the Bears refused to even consider playing College of the Pacific, I guess they felt that they would have too much to lose and Pacific would have everything to gain. I use to listen every night just to see how that game would shake out!

        • maddog48

          Michael, I don’t know if you have read the four articles I wrote on the 1948 team back in 2013 for Fishduck. If you haven’t, you can find them in the Fishwrap archives under my name, Jim Maloney. You might also be interested in a couple of other articles I wrote on the World War II era in Oregon football.

        • To get to Jim’s articles…you go to the top of the site and click on “About Us” and on the Drop-Down menu you click on “Past Editors and Writers at” and then scroll down to Jim’s name and then click on his name.

          All his articles will be available, and this is a new feature we just added a few weeks ago.

  • maddog48

    Jordan, a couple of minor corrections. Ecklund was a freshman in 1941. He was not on the varsity team that year. Jake Leicht completed his eligibility in 1947. He was not part of the 1948 team, having moved on to the pros.

    • Thanks for reading, Maddog. It was my understanding that Brad Ecklund started every game of his college career, pre and post-WWII. Whether that is varsity or JV remains unclear to me. I appreciate your remarks and I will look into them further as it has been a blast to research. Thanks again for reading and sharing your knowledge with a young writer passionate about the history and future of our beloved Ducks.