There are quite a few legendary players highlighting the recently announced list of 2016 College Football Hall of Fame inductees. Derrick Brooks, Randall Cunningham and Rod Woodson are just some of the big names that stand out. No name is bigger to Ashland University than Bill Royce.
Royce is one of 14 players being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on December 6. He also happens to be the only inductee this year from Division II.
Royce was a standout All-American high school wide receiver from Ohio. He would go on to play linebacker for Ashland from 1990 to 1993. His four years there were nothing short of extraordinary, and the former offensive prodigy would become one of NCAA’s legendary defensive forces.
“I came here in the summer of ’93 and Bill’s senior year was the first I covered,” Ashland’s current Athletic Director Al King — who was AU's sports information director when Royce played — said. “We started 0-2, and then won nine straight. I wasn’t sure what I was getting [in King’s first year] and then I watched Bill play. There were a couple school’s that put three guys on him to try to block him, he was that good.”
Royce would finish his career with the Eagles as the NCAA’s all-time sack leader. He finished with 71 total sacks — tops not in just DII, but any level of collegiate sports — including a three year run that saw him register 18.5 sacks in 1991, 20 sacks in 1992 and 20.5 sacks in 1993. That senior year would not go unnoticed, as Royce would have one of the most decorated seasons a defender could have.
“That year he was nominated for the Harlon Hill Trophy [DII’s version of the Heisman],” King said. "He was Player of the Year in the league as a defensive player — that’s unheard of. It’s hard for a defensive guy to get noticed like that, but when you get 20.5 sacks, they’re going to notice you.”
That ’93 season, Royce was indeed just the fourth defensive player to earn Player of the League honors. His Harlon Hill Trophy nomination as the nation’s best Division II player was his second in as many years. And he would also become a First-Team All-American as the leader of the nation’s top scoring, rushing and total defenses.
It wasn’t such an easy, clear cut path to football stardom for Royce. In fact, there was a time that there was some uncertainty.
“It’s very humbling,” Bill Royce said of his path to AU. “I was getting recruited pretty heavily by Mid-American conference schools here. It came from, “Hey, we’re going to offer you a scholarship” to “Hey, you’re the preferred walk-on” — which means that they found someone better than you.
"Signing period came and went, and I wound up with Ashland. Your last choice sometimes is your first. I’m very thankful and very proud to be an Eagle.”
“I got a knock on the door from the UPS guy,” Royce recollected. “It was a football. It said ‘Congratulations, College Football Hall of Fame 2016.' I caught it — I was a First Team All-Ohio wide receiver, so fortunately I still got those hands for my last catch. It would be embarrassing dropping your Hall of Fame football.”
Royce is not the first Ashland representative in the College Football Hall of Fame. The Eagles legendary coach, Dr. Fred Martinelli who retired with a 217-119-12 record after Royce’s final ’93 season, has already been enshrined. The Eagles record-setting linebacker, however, is Ashland's first player to receive the honor.
When Royce found out the news he has long yearned for, he knew exactly who to call.
“He was the very first person I called,” Royce said of Martinelli. “I thought he may have known about it, but he had no clue. He was just ecstatic. It was a pretty monumental call.
“We were laughing because he started coaching me again, saying ‘Here’s what you got to do.' It was really awesome hearing from him what it’s going to be like.”
Royce — a two time MIFC (now GLIAC) Defensive Player of the Year — has been on the ballot since 2007. Coming from a small school competing against many players from the DI level who went on to memorable NFL careers, Royce had seemed to have become the forgotten man on the ballots. Not anymore. Now, he is getting his chance.
“It really caught me off guard," Royce said. “Just to be on the ballot and considered to go into the Hall is an honor. You look at these bios, and everyone is really worthy. But I feel very fortunate and very blessed to be selected.
“It really hasn’t hit, I’m the lesser known in the class. These guys are the guys. I just know them, but I’m looking forward to meeting them. Rod Woodson? I live here in Ohio; Pittsburgh is right across the river. That’s the kind of guy I’d love to play with.”
Now he is part of a player-coach combination that is bringing recognition to a small school. Royce’s induction doesn’t simply speak volumes for DII, but helps to put the school of Ashland — one that features 19 sports and right around 550 student-athletes — on the college football map.
“Here’s a small school in the middle of Ohio, but now people know about it,” King said of his Eagles. “You can come here and go to the highest levels. We’ve had two go to the NFL over the past few years and now you got two in the College Football Hall of Fame from Ashland. It shows you that the road can go from here to a lot of big time places.”
Royce shares his memories of his time as an Eagle with a charming fondness. He cherished his time as a two-sport superstar. Royce was a member of Ashland’s track and field team that has a long history as a highly successful program that has produced perennial title contenders for some time. Royce became an All-American as a shot putter and discus and hammer thrower.
He would go to three national championships as a track and field star, but his 1992 trip would leave an indelible mark. “I finished fourth my junior year in ’92 at Saginaw,” Royce said. “But I’ll never forget that, standing on that podium, that was pretty cool.”
Make no mistake, Royce loved his time with the track and field team, and clearly was talented at what he did. But Royce never questioned who he was.
“It was a magical time,” Royce said. “Going to Ashland, I could do two sports, it was great. But I’m just a football player, I played football. I love the game, I love getting on the gridiron, I love the practice and I love the camaraderie. Us against them. Let’s go out and take it to them.”
“He is on our Gridiron Club Executive Board,” Al King said. “I see him at the monthly meetings and he comes to a majority of the home games. He’s around all of the time. That’s the neat thing.”
“Maybe if I can help the football team keep growing, maybe someone else will have the opportunity like I did,” Royce said of his involvement with the Gridiron Club. “We have a great school and a great family. Being DII, we don’t get the big Nike shoe contracts, so we came up with the Gridiron Club that raises money for the program. We’re all very proud of it.”
So does Royce ever miss the game when he comes back to those Eagles home games?
“We’re all football players,” Royce said with a laugh. “I miss more the competing with the guys that I went to battle with — I had a very unique group of guys. People chuckle, ask me if I could still play, and I still think I got a few downs. We’re [football players] competitive by nature, and I think we’ll be that way until we’re 80-years old.”
Royce played in a very different era of football. Back in the early-90s football was a running back’s game. Quarterbacks have taken control in today’s wide open offenses and passing games have reached a whole new level. “I couldn’t imagine playing right now with these pass-happy offenses, it would be a smorgasbord,” Royce said. “It would be great.”
Despite the many accolades over his illustrious career, despite the recognition he has received since his playing days in an Eagles uniform has ended, Royce has always remained humble and thankful for the experience and game of football. He has an awareness that the path he blazed while at Ashland wasn’t simply about stats, but what he left behind.
“I hope that they know to represent that school on the field. I was a small school kid, I had naysayers my whole career,” Royce said of what he hopes has become his legacy. “If I can show a kid that a guy like me can do well here, that we can give them the platform to do well as an Eagle, then that would be a great thing.”
Royce has done just that. Ashland has become one of the premier athletic powers in the ultra-competitive GLIAC. It starts with a strong history and tradition. A history in which Royce was — and continues to be be — a very large part.
“Bill Royce has been a proud ambassador of our football program, our athletic department and this university,” King said. “He lived it for four years when he came here and he is still living it today. There’s not many Bill Royce’s that come through here: somebody who is just a very high-level person with integrity and is genuinely nice to everybody. Even on the field, he wasn’t a nasty guy. He played hard, but never nasty. He is what you try to produce.”