‘I am not a hard man’ – Lifetime judo honour for top coach Eric at age of 81

For Eric Bilby, a chance chat with a work colleague more than half a century ago has turned into a lifelong love affair with the eastern martial art of judo.

By Dan Hayes
Thursday, 17th October 2019, 11:23 am
Updated Thursday, 24th October 2019, 6:55 pm
Eric Bilby, has been awarded honorary life membership from the British Judo Association. Picture: NSST-17-10-19-Bilby-2
Eric Bilby, has been awarded honorary life membership from the British Judo Association. Picture: NSST-17-10-19-Bilby-2

The 81-year-old, of Grenoside, has been competing in and coaching the combat sport for more than 50 years, overseeing the progression of hundreds of young fighters from beginner to black belt.

So profound has Eric’s impact on the sport in Sheffield been that he was recently honoured with an honorary lifetime membership of the British Judo Federation, a fitting testament to the thousands of hours he has given to the sport he loves.

And he also credits his devotion to it with him successfully overcoming esophageal cancer, with his surgeon revealing to him that the mammoth seven hour operation would not have even been attempted on him were he not so fit.

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A joiner by trade, it was when he was working on the University of Sheffield’s Arts Tower in 1963 that he first heard of the oriental combat sport.

He said: “I never had any involvement in sport growing up. My dad used to listen to boxing on the radio but that was about it.

“I didn’t play football or cricket or anything like that because I couldn’t afford the boots or a bat. All we could afford were clogs or plimsolls after the war.”

A father of two and grandfather of four, Eric grew up in Wincobank before moving to Parson Cross and then Upperthorpe.

After taking up the sport in the 60s, he began treating it more seriously in the 70s, both in terms of his own development and the training of others.

“I was never a big competer but I always used to enjoy it,” said Eric.

“Then I started teaching kids how to fight and loved it.”

Despite his modesty, Eric rose to achieve a black belt ‘first dan’ before being awarded an honorary ‘second dan’ for his teaching later in his career.

He says the thing he values most about the sport is its focus on discipline, and that he tries to pass this on to his young students by being a firm but fair teacher.

“Kids don’t get that today,” he said.

“The parents say they bring them because I make them do as they are told. I am stricter than the other teachers and always make them line up with their toes on the edge of the mat.”

When there, the children Eric teaches learn the full array of judo skills from throwing, pinning, strangling and arm locks.

However, for the last year he hasn’t been able to teach as much as he would like, after being diagnosed with cancer, which he was able to successfully fight off, medics said, only thanks to his extraordinary fitness.

“It has kept me fit and I have a lot to be thankful of for that,” he said.

The reward for all his hard work over the years was a surprise presentation of an honorary lifetime membership of the British Judo Federation given to him earlier this month.

Eric revealed that he was asked to turn up to Concord Sport Centre to present an award to a fellow teacher, but when he arrived they revealed it was in fact him who would be honoured.

“They were talking about all the people I have taught and helped and my years as a referee,” he said.

“I admit it I was choked up, I am not a hard man.”