CASA GRANDE —In the first 89 years of his life, Fred Enke was a Naval aviator, an NFL quarterback, a cotton farmer, the NCAA’s total offense leader and, for a bit, the No. 1 ranked age-group tennis player in the Southwest.
He married an airline stewardess, raised four children, made a fortune and for most of those 89 years was erroneously referred to as “junior.”
There is nothing junior about Fred William Enke, son of Arizona Hall of Fame basketball coach Fred August Enke.
“His name is a legend,” his daughter, Debbie Gundy, a Tempe educator, says. “He is a legend.”
Fred Enke was a teammate of Don Shula and Doak Walker. His first agent was Mo Udall. His Tucson roots can be traced to Knute Rockne — yes, THAT Knute Rockne — who was largely responsible for the Enke family’s move from Kentucky to Arizona in 1925.
A few years ago, Enke’s three daughters, all living in Tempe, and his son, Freddie, a Phoenix-area physical therapist, converted Enke’s old NFL films to DVD. The reproduction is such that it’s not possible to make out the 1950s jersey numbers.
“But dad stood out right away,” says his daughter, Denise Latimer. “He had this gait, this particular way he carried himself. He just had this presence.”
In his playing days, and during the time he worked 3,400 acres of cotton in nearby Maricopa, Fred W. Enke was a force, maybe 6-feet 2-inches, 210 pounds.
“He was the Big Man on Campus,” his wife, Marjorie says. “What did they call that, BMOC? He was a BMOC.”
One night last week I sat in Enke’s living room on McMurray Boulevard smack in the middle of Casa Grande. I had gone at Denise’s invitation, somewhat reluctantly, because I knew his health was failing.
Ideally, I preferred to remember Enke from the stories I knew about him leading Tucson High School to seven state championships (in football, basketball and baseball) and of the earlier meetings I’d shared with him, when I could picture Enke standing in the pocket, Detroit Lions jersey No. 17, with NFL Hall of Famers like Chuck Bednarik bearing down.
“Bednarik broke my nose twice,” he said with a laugh. “Before that, I used to be a handsome guy.”
Denise, who is a teacher, confirmed that her father has dementia and is confined to a wheelchair, requiring 24-hour, in-home care.
“He might not be able to talk to you,” she said. “But he can hear you. I think he would enjoy it. The years of dad’s life are rapidly coming to an end.”
I have at times suggested that Fred William Enke is the greatest athlete in Tucson history, now often forgotten in the blur of Arizona’s extraordinary Pac-12 era athletes, Sean Elliott and Michael Bates, Lacey Nymeyer and Ka’Deem Carey.
His home is part-museum, part-shrine to his old schools. As you enter the back door, there is a faded sign that says “Arizona Wildcat Avenue.” There is memorabilia from the day Lute and Bobbi Olson stopped for dinner. There is the 1947 football game program, Kansas at Arizona, with Enke pictured alone on the cover.
Better yet, there is a priceless photograph of him standing on the Tucson High campus, 1942, wearing jersey No. 75, holding a red leather helmet at his side. He was the state’s Player of the Year as the Badgers began a 52-game winning streak.
There are so many memories that Denise, his youngest daughter, recently completed a set of four scrapbooks that are so thick you’d think he once ran for president.
During my visit, Enke said two words: “Frank Kempf.” I thought about those words all the way home. Why would he mention Frank Kempf?
Kempf was the catcher on Tucson High’s 1941 state championship baseball team, a three-time first-team all-state catcher, possibly the top ballplayer in school history. One of the most prominent photographs in Enke’s house pictures him standing next to Kempf, both wearing their “T” sweaters from Tucson High. There was so much life ahead.
Kempf was killed two years later by a German sniper in World War II. Now, Fred Enke speaks his name, looking at me, slowly nodding his head. He didn’t have to say another word.
Whatever the ravages of dementia, Enke holds onto more than football and cotton farming.
By the time Enke’s aviation unit was activated in 1945, due to be sent to the Pacific in attempt to conquer Japan, World War II ended. He was able to return to Tucson, raise a family and establish a legacy to match that of his father, affectionately known as “Pappy,” the basketball coach who won 510 games at Arizona.
Pappy Enke, who died at 88 in 1985, is remembered at the UA Click Hall of Champions with a larger-than-life image, maybe 10 feet tall, in his long-ago Arizona coaching outfit. A golf course and the street in front of McKale Center carry his name.
A few years ago, while skiing in the White Mountains, Debbie Gundy was approached by a man who noticed that her license plate read “ENKE.”
“Do you know Fred Enke?” he asked.
Who can forget him?