Keys won two Grey Cups as a player, with Montreal and Edmonton, and also coached the Saskatchewan Roughriders to their first CFL title in 1966 before completing his gridiron tenure as field boss of the B.C. Lions. He passed away early Thursday.
"It's exemplary, what he did in Saskatchewan," said former B.C. Lions kicker Ted Gerela, who played under Keys in the early 1970s. "He was the top of his game."
Gerela also praised Keys for following a tough coaching act in Jackie Parker in B.C. and rebuilding the Lions from the ground up.
"A lot of people are going to be shocked to hear that he died, like they were when (former quarterback and coaching great) Ronnie Lancaster passed away," said Gerela.
The former kicker recalled that Keys would not let him specialize. As a result, he had to serve as a backup to three positions, seeing action at fullback and halfback.
"He felt if you could play, you could kick," said Gerela.
He noted that Keys took the same approach with Saskatchewan kicker Jack Abendschan, who also played offensive guard.
"He was a tough disciplinarian," said Gerela. "He expected you to do the job. But he approached every player on their own merit. He treated everybody the same."
Saskatchewan president and CEO Jim Hopson called Keys "a legend who will always hold a special place in the hearts of Roughriders' fans."
"While he will always be thought of as one of the greatest coaches in CFL history, more importantly he was a tremendous person," said Hopson in a statement. "Eagle was kind enough to join the Riders in 2006 as the team celebrated the 40th anniversary of our first Grey Cup championship. He will be missed by our entire organization."
Keys established his legendary status by playing the final game of his six-year CFL career with a broken bone in his knee. He helped his Edmonton Eskimos upset the heavily favoured Montreal Alouettes 26-25 in the 42nd Grey Cup at Varsity Stadium in Toronto.
His second Grey Cup victory as a player came after he won as a member of the 1949 Alouettes as they triumphed 28-15 over the Calgary Stampeders, also in Toronto.
He also appeared in the 1952 Grey Cup, only to see his Eskimos club lose to the host Toronto Argonauts on the same Varsity Stadium field on which he played his other two.
Keys played centre and linebacker for five years with Montreal (1949-51) and with the Eskimos (1952-54), being named to three CFL all-star teams.
"He was a solid football man and great with the guys," said former Lions defensive end and linebacker Norm Fieldgate, a Hall of Famer who played against Keys in the early 1950s, but did not battle him directly.
As for the legendary 1954 Grey Cup game, Fieldgate said: "He sucked it up and played the whole game, I think."
Keys switched to coaching after retiring as a player, starting as an assistant in Edmonton in 1955. He became the Eskimos' head coach in 1959, a job he held until 1963.
He then moved to Saskatchewan (1965-70), where he guided the Roughriders to their historic first Grey Cup win.
"Eagle was my personal favourite. All professional players have a coach that shaped their career and their future and Eagle was mine," Hugh Campbell, who was a receiver for the Riders under Keys, said in a release. "Eagle took a bunch of ragtag players in Saskatchewan and made us a pretty darn good football team, taking us to the Grey Cup three times in four years."
Keys also led the Lions from 1971-75 before his coaching career came to an abrupt end. B.C. general manager Bob Ackles fired Keys six games into the 1975 season and replaced him with a future hall of fame coach, Cal Murphy.
Keys, who was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a builder in 1990, spent his later life in the Vancouver area.
Before moving to Canada, Keys was an outstanding centre and linebacker for the University of Western Kentucky Hilltopper football team in 1942 and, after serving in the Marine Corps in the Second World War, 1946 and 1947.
He also lettered in baseball as a pitcher and outfielder in three straight post-war years (1946–48). He was an All-Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference selection in football as a senior.
In 1946, his baseball team went a perfect 9–0, outscoring the opponents by an average of five runs a game. His collegiate sporting achievements earned him entry into the Western Kentucky University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1994.