Neill Armstrong dies at 90

Edmonton Eskimos a launching pad for former head coach Neill Armstrong
Gerry Moddejonge Edmonton Journal August 18, 2016

You could say his time with the Edmonton Eskimos was one small step for Neill Armstrong.

While he only spent a portion of his 28-year coaching career in the city, Edmonton was always more than a simple footnote in a life that spanned 90 years – one that came to an end last week in the Texas retirement community of Trophy Club.

While head coaching the Eskimos in the ’60s doesn’t carry nearly the same nostalgia as the championship clubs from the three-in-a-row champions from a decade earlier or the Warren Moon-led dynasty that followed, Armstrong still managed to reach playoffs for three straight seasons during his six years with the club.

From 1964-69, his Eskimos endured a record of 37-56-3 (or .398), while making post-season appearances from 1966-68.

“Even though his tenure in Edmonton wasn’t as successful, obviously, as he wished it was, I think a lot of that was attributed to the fact it was when the AFL and the NFL were having that war,? said Armstrong’s son, Dave, 66. “And it was really tough to go out and find a quarterback if you didn’t already have one.

“Ronnie Lancaster was in Regina, Kenny Ploen was at Winnipeg, Joe Kapp was in B.C., and they never really did find that great quarterback until just after he left and Norm Kimball brought in Tommy Wilkinson and the Eskimos took off from there.?

And so did Armstrong’s career on the sidelines, which followed a seven-year playing career as a wide receiver and defensive back with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, where he won back-to-back championships in 1948-49. After retiring as a member of the Blue Bombers following the 1954 season, he joined the coaching ranks as an assistant with the NFL’s Houston Oilers in 1962, before returning north to take over as head coach of the Eskimos.

“I know he really enjoyed his time in Edmonton and the people on the board of directors, and Bryan Hall and all those people were really good,? said Dave, who was 14 when the family moved to Edmonton, where he remained to attend the U of A before going on to have a 33-year teaching career in the province. “So he only had great memories of Edmonton. In spite of the fact that things didn’t always work out like he wanted, he never sulked or felt like he had been hard done by.?

Quite the opposite, in fact, as it opened further doors in the NFL, where he joined legendary Blue Bombers coach Bud Grant with the Minnesota Vikings from 1970-77, before head coaching the Chicago Bears from 1978-81. He finished off as an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys from 1982-89.

“Jim Finks was the general manager with the Calgary Stampeders, and then got the general manager’s job with the Vikings and he brought Bud Grant down,? Dave recalled. “Those two always had a close relationship and he was defensive co-ordinator for Bud with the Vikings when they had all that success.

“Then Finks took over as general manager of the Bears and he took my dad over there as the head coach. That was that CFL connection between those three men and any inroads they made in the NFL, they kind of looked after each other. So the CFL was a launching pad for those guys.?

But Edmonton remained a part of the Armstrong family along the way.

“A few years ago, my son , Quade, went up and played quarterback for the Golden Bears,? said Dave, who lives in Claresholm. “So it was fun to have that connection again with Edmonton.?

But for as much as football played a role in the Armstrong family, it was family that came first for Dave, his older brother, Neill Jr., sister, Gail Iacobucci, and their mother, Jane.

“He celebrated his 70th anniversary earlier in the summer, so he had 70 great years with my mother. He had a great life,? Dave said, adding his parents met at what is now Oklahoma State University. “He was 20 years old when he got married. He had to get permission from his mother and he had my older brother when he was 21.

“He got an early start on things and got married young and had a great life with my mother.?

A memorial service will be held Saturday at Fellowship United Methodist Church in Trophy Club, Texas, where Dave has been since June.

“We could see that the end was drawing close,? he said. “He was under hospice care, so he was able to be at home right until he took his last breath.

“Because he played in the NFL, the 88 Plan allows you, if you have any dementia they think might be related to playing football – and who can disprove that when you’re the age he was? – to have home care here around the clock for the last few months.

“So it was really just a perfect situation for all of us just to be here with him and be able to share that time together.?

Armstrong once sued by Philadelphia Eagles for signing CFL contract
Gerry Moddejonge Edmonton Journal August 18, 2016

Back when Neill Armstrong played in the NFL, coming up north to join the CFL was strictly an economics decision.

While it was a lifetime ago, to be sure, how times have changed.

“If you talked to my dad, he loved his time coaching in Edmonton and playing in the CFL,? said his son, Dave. “He once told me a long time ago that those were some of the most fun years he ever had playing football, when he was with the Blue Bombers because, believe it or not, at the time, players made more money in Canada if you were an import, than if you were in the NFL.

“He was the No. 1 draft pick of the (Philadelphia) Eagles. He went there and in his second and third years, they won the world championship, and after his fourth season he asked for a raise.?

When they said no, Armstrong made his way up north.

“He ended up signing with the Bombers and the Eagles took him to court over it, and they managed to get him back for the end of that season,? Dave recalled. “When he went back down there, Bud Grant was a good friend of his, and he told Bud how great it was playing football in Canada.

“The next thing you know, Bud jumps ship and he comes to Winnipeg.

“And the rest is history.?

Shared name leads to out-of-this-world coincidence for former Eskimos head coach
Gerry Moddejonge Edmonton Journal August 18, 2016

Neill Armstrong was a pretty down-to-Earth kind of guy.

You’d have to be, with that name, living in NASA’s epicentre during the height of the space race.

And although it wasn’t spelled exactly the same as that other Neil’s, it certainly led to some memorable moments.

“It was a funny thing, because when we lived in Houston, he coached with the Oilers when they were in the AFL way back when,? said his son, Dave. “And that was just when the space program had moved to Houston and Neil Armstrong, the astronaut, lived in Houston at the same time as Neill Armstrong, the football coach.

“And we would get the occasional phone call intended for the astronaut. And, apparently, he would get the same phone calls intended for the football coach.?

Back then, it wasn’t quite the matter of national security it would have turned out to be.

“At the time, that didn’t seem like a real big deal because Neil Armstrong had not walked on the moon,? Dave said. “But once he walked on the moon, that all changed. Every time we were on holiday and he would pull out his credit card, people would always do a double take and they couldn’t help but ask: ‘Are you the guy that walked on the moon? So he was pretty good natured.

“One of the best answers I’d ever heard him give was when one waiter in a restaurant said: ‘Are you THE Neil Armstrong?’ And he looked at this woman and said: ‘My mother thinks I am.’ ?

It’s not like they were the only two on the planet to share the same name.

“The coincidence is the fact that we would actually live in Houston at the same time and the way their paths crossed and just the name over all those years, the fun that he had with that and the number of times people asked him that question,? Dave said. “Just a coincidence that that would be the first guy to walk on the moon and that would be his name, that certainly brought a lot of attention that he wouldn’t ordinarily have had.

“He was a very humble man and never took himself too seriously that way. More later in his life after he retired, he constantly got asked if he was THE Neil Armstrong. I think a lot of people that were younger hadn’t really had a good look at the astronaut, so they just saw the name and figured this must be him.?