(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a Louisiana Sports Writers Association series of stories on the eight 2006 inductees in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. The 2006 Hall of Fame Induction Celebration is June 22-24 in Natchitoches. Tickets are $25 for the induction dinner and ceremonies on Saturday, June 24, with reservations required. For information on all activities, visit www.lasportshall.com on the internet or call 318-357-6467.)
By Marty Mule'
Written for the LSWA
Ronnie Estay was diving at the heels of J.C. Watts. Again and again.
“I was right at him, but I just couldn't quite get to him," Estay recalled of his frustrating first three quarters in the 1981 Grey Cup game between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Ottawa Roughriders.
Finally and extremely satisfyingly for Estay he caught the Ottawa quarterback in the fourth quarter and brought him down at the Edmonton 26. From there, the Eskimos drove for the deciding field goal in a 26-23 Edmonton victory.
It didn't make for screaming headlines in the U.S. but it was part of a major sporting event north of the border. The Grey Cup is the Super Bowl of the Canadian Football League, and Estay, a defensive end, has left his imprint as much on its history as he did on the sprawled out and crumpled Watts, who, happily, after that painful sack, eventually gave up football and went on to a notable career in politics.
The Edmonton victory was part of a mind-boggling string of championships earned by Estay's teams from the mouth of Bayou Lafourche to the Great North Country of Canada. Estay, in fact, has left a mark on every level of football he has played, to the point where he can't wear all his championship rings without putting his toes to good use. He needs 14 digits. Now the defensive line coach for Saskatchewan of the CFL, Estay was part of a state championship team at South Lafourche High, an SEC championship at LSU, six Grey Cup championship teams with Edmonton (in nine title games), and six more as a college and pro assistant coach.
His presence and contributions have been so eye-catching that his Saturday, June 24 enshrinement in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (www.lasportshall.com) marks his induction into a fourth hall of fame. Estay has already been inducted in the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, the province where Edmonton is located, the CFL Hall of Fame and the LSU Hall of Fame. He's been voted to two Centennial teams, the Eskimos' and LSU.
“I've really been pretty lucky to be associated with excellent teams at just the right times," Estay reflected.
Playing on the frozen tundra of the Great North Country was almost a replay of the way Estay played near the marshes and bayous of south Louisiana meaning extremely well, and with a sense of mission.
“He is the finest defensive tackle we've had at LSU since Fred Miller (a 1962 All-American)," LSU coach Charlie McClendon said in the summer of '71. “There is no end to his endurance. It always seems corny to talk about love of the game.' But no player I've ever coached found more enjoyment playing football than Ronnie Estay."
And, man, did Estay ever play.
He was a mainstay on two of the best defenses ever produced at LSU: the '69 Tigers who gave up a total of 389 yards rushing all season, and the '70 Bayou Bengals who again led the nation in rushing defense. In his most memorable game at LSU, a 28-8 victory over Notre Dame in 1971, Estay not only was instrumental in stuffing the Irish three times on fourth down inside the LSU 10, he was in on 17 tackles a feat not lost on voters at the end of the season when he made All-American, and was a finalist for the Lombardi Trophy, given to the nation's best college defensive lineman.
Estay holds one distinction that would be difficult for anyone to equal. In the 1970 season, Estay nailed two serious Heisman Trophy contenders Auburn's Pat Sullivan and Ole Miss' Archie Manning for safeties.
“Growing up in Louisiana, you were either a fisherman or a football player," Estay said when he went into the CFL Hall in 2003. “I love fishing and hunting, which I also did, but I decided to be a football player also."
An older brother, Maxie, was a football player in every sense of the word, Ronnie recalled. Estay remembers his proud father puffing up on Maxie's accomplishments. “He'd go around showing some people all the newspaper clippings," he said.
But Maxie, who was a promising redshirt defensive lineman preparing for his first varsity season at LSU in 1965, was killed in an auto accident.
Fifteen-year-old Ronnie picked up the torch.
At the wake, Ronnie said, “I told Coach McClendon that I'd be at LSU someday playing for him."
Before that he excelled at South Lafourche High, anchoring the Tarpons' defensive line in the state title season and causing his dad to bust his buttons once again, and earning a scholarship to LSU, fulfilling his promise to McClendson.
Before his first tackle as a Tiger, though, more heartbreak awaited. Within two weeks of signing with LSU, his father died of bone cancer.
His heavy heart made Estay wonder about the importance of football in the larger scheme of life. Eventually he was able to go on and excel in the game his brother and father both loved.
“Ron is very self-motivated anyway," his then-high school sweetheart and now wife Debbie Estay said. “Even if his father and brother had lived he'd be where he is today."
That is at the summit of his game, which is what his home state will remember tonight.
“I'm at the top of the world," Estay said at the news of his election to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He reiterated what has become almost his motto: “People say God gives you talent. The way you use that talent is the way you give back to Him."