Sunday, March 22, 2015

Chuck Bednarik, 1925-2015


This is my 44th post of the calendar year thus far. And 9 of them have been tributes to sports personalities who've died this year.

And this one is the toughest of them all. Not the toughest to write, but the toughest person. How tough does a man have to be to get the nickname "Concrete"?

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Charles Philip Bednarik was born on May 1, 1925 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the Lehigh Valley, a region that produces coal, steel, great football players and high school wrestling champions.

In an interview with NFL Films long after he retired, he went back home, where his elderly mother was still alive. She and Chuck's father were immigrants from what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- their former home is now in Slovakia, and they spoke Slovakian. Mama Bednarik told NFL Films host Steve Sabol, "I told him, 'Don't you hit nobody first. But if he hits you first, get him!'"

After graduating from Bethlehem High School in 1943, with World War II still raging, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force, who made him a waist-gunner on a B-24 bomber. He flew 30 combat missions over Nazi Germany, and won the Air Medal. He was discharged with the rank of 1st Lieutenant.

He used the G.I. Bill to get into the University of Pennsylvania. If you know about Chuck, you're probably amazed that this famously tough guy, a son of Eastern European immigrants, got into an Ivy League school. Two things to keep in mind. One: He was also one of the smartest players of his era. Two: In Philadelphia, even the Ivy Leaguers are tough. He finished 3rd in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1948 -- despite being a center on offense and a linebacker on defense. Very few offensive linemen have ever come even that close to winning the Heisman. (The winner was running back Doak Walker of Southern Methodist University, soon to star for the Detroit Lions.)

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Chuck was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, defending NFL Champions. Yes, you read that correctly. He followed his former Penn teammate, All-America tackle George Savitsky, to the Eagles. He helped them win the NFL Championship again in 1949. Until 1957, the Eagles played at Shibe Park -- renamed Connie Mack Stadium in 1953. But it was too small, only 33,000 seats, and its North Philadelphia neighborhood was crumbling. So in 1958, they moved to Franklin Field, Penn's 67,000-seat horseshoe on its University City campus, across the Schuylkill River from Center City. This enabled Chuck to play his pro games at his college field.

By the early 1950s, the NFL went from single-platoon to two-platoon football. This meant that players began playing on only one side of the ball: Either offense only, or defense only. But not Chuck Bednarik: He remained the Eagles' starting center and their starting middle linebacker. For those of you who grew up in the 1980s like I did: Imagine that Dwight Stephenson and Mike Singletary were the same man, playing for the same team. That was Bednarik. He was the last of "the sixty-minute men." He even wore Number 60, although that had nothing to do with his two-way status.

In those days, athletes weren't paid during the off-season, so they needed to get real jobs. Chuck sold concrete for the Warner Company. Hugh Brown of The Bulletin, a Philadelphia newspaper that went out of business in 1982, gave Chuck the nickname "Concrete Charley," saying he was "as hard as the concrete he sells."

In 1953, the Eagles were playing the Cleveland Browns. Bednarik was snapping for a punt. This required him to have his head down. This was the beginning of the usage of facemasks in the NFL, and the Browns were among the first teams to use them. The Eagles were not. And after snapping the ball, Bednarik looked up, and got clobbered. All he saw when he got hit was the uniform number: 65. When he came to, he saw Number 65 trotting away, and, knowing full well the man couldn't hear him, he pointed, and said, "You son of a bitch. I'll get you. I'll get you!"

He found a copy of the Browns' roster. Number 65 was also a center and linebacker, named Chuck, from a true blue-collar place: East Side of Cleveland native Chuck Noll, a man that Browns coach Paul Brown, himself one of the greatest minds in the history of football, considered so smart that he sent him in to relay plays to quarterback Otto Graham. Noll hated being used as a messenger boy, and when he became head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he trusted quarterback Terry Bradshaw to call his own plays. (And people called Terry dumb.)

Bednarik said it took 4 years for him to get his revenge. Most likely, it was because Noll began playing mostly defense, as a linebacker, and thus not directly opposing a center on most plays. Certainly, it wasn't due to injury: Both men were quite durable. Nor was it due to military service: Bednarik's was done, and, despite being of draft age, Noll didn't miss any playing time for this reason.

It was October 13, 1957, at Connie Mack Stadium. The Eagles won, 24-7. This was a big win, considering that the Browns went on to win the NFL Eastern Division Championship. Late in the game, Bednarik finally had his chance to clobber Noll. And he did, on play after play. At one point, Noll, apparently having forgotten the 1953 hit, yelled that he would take on Bednarik, would take on the entire Eagle team. Even Bednarik had to admit that was pretty tough. Bednarik said that wasn't necessary: When the game was over, he'd be ready for Noll.

When the final whistle blew, Noll, having had enough, came at Bednarik -- with his helmet off. Big mistake. Noll said, "Are you ready, you... " And before Noll could call Bednarik whatever he was going to call him, Bednarik took advantage of the unprotected head, and flattened Noll with one punch.

The result was a brawl that got the attention of one particular spectator at the game: NFL Commissioner Bert Bell -- himself a former Penn player, and the founder of the Eagles, whose office was in Philadelphia. Due to a quirk in the schedule, the same 2 teams were to meet again, this time at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. He hauled Bednarik into his office, and told him that, before taking the field in Cleveland, he had to go into the Browns' locker room and apologize to Noll in front of his teammates, or face what would have been, for that era, a huge fine.

Bednarik took his medicine like a man. He walked in, found Noll, and said, "I want to apologize for what happened in Philadelphia." Noll thought this over for a minute, and said, "Bullshit." Bednarik turned and began to walk off, having done his duty, for all the good it had done. But Noll then said, "All right, I accept your apology." The Browns won the game, 17-7. But despite all he accomplished as a coach, this is all Noll is known for as a player. Which isn't fair, because he reached 4 NFL Championship Games with the Browns, winning titles in 1954 and '55. He wasn't a great player, but he was a very good one.

Chuck Noll died last year, on June 13. I did not do one of these tributes for him. I should have.

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Chuck Bednarik played for 14 years, 12 games a season. He missed only 3 games due to injury. This was not necessarily true for his opponents. Most notably, Frank Gifford.

Some cities, like Los Angeles and Miami, like their sports heroes to be flashy. Others, like Philadelphia and Chicago, prefer them to be tough. Blue-collar. They will accept failure, but they will not accept failure to try. They understand it if you fall, as long as you get back up. New York likes to have it both ways: Men like Joe DiMaggio, Joe Namath, Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Derek Jeter. And one of the flashiest New York athletes was Frank Gifford, Hall of Fame running back for the Giants in the 1950s. Until 1960, it never would have occurred to anyone to call Gifford "tough."

On November 20, 1960, the Eagles and Giants, arch-rivals since the Eagles' founding in 1933, played at Yankee Stadium. The winner was probably going to win the NFL's Eastern Division and play in the NFL Championship Game, as the Giants had in 3 of the last 4 years. Since the hosting alternated between the East and West winners in those days, the winner would also host the title game.

The Giants led 10-0 at the half, but blew it. In the 4th quarter, the Eagles' Jimmy Carr picked up a fumble and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown, making it 17-10 Eagles.

With the clock running out, George Shaw, filling in for injured quarterback Charlie Conerly, threw a pass toward Gifford at midfield. Gifford caught the pass, but Bednarik arrived at the same time, and he flattened Gifford, who fumbled. The Eagles recovered.

On the film, this doesn't look like an especially devastating hit. I've seen much worse. What made this the most famous hit in NFL history -- aside from the fact that it was in New York, and involved a New York team, and was seen by a national TV audience -- was how Chuck reacted.

The film shows him reacting to the fumble by jumping around and clapping his hands. Then he pumped his fist, and issued what became his catchphrase: "This fucking game is over!" Which, for all intents and purposes, it was. The final score was, indeed, 17-10 Eagles.

But it was the photograph that proved devastating. It showed Bednarik standing over Gifford, pumping his fist. Gifford is lying on the ground, motionless. Bednarik spent the last 54 years of his life explaining that he didn't even realize Gifford was motionless on the ground in front of him, that he was celebrating the Eagles wrapping up a big win, not the fact that he'd knocked Gifford out. He said he didn't even realize he'd knocked Gifford out.



Legend has it that Gifford was knocked out because, despite wearing a helmet, he hit his head on the frozen grass at Yankee Stadium. This couldn't be true: According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, it was 49 degrees at gametime -- not a particularly notable temperature for mid-November New York, and hardly cold enough to freeze the field.

Gifford was taken to the Giants locker room -- which, at the old Stadium, was also the Yankee locker room -- Gifford's locker was also Mickey Mantle's. Also taken to the locker room for first aid was a security guard who had a heart attack. Frank's first wife, Maxine, didn't know this, and when she went down to the locker room to see Frank, she heard someone say, "He's dead" -- meaning the security guard. When the guard was wheeled out on a stretcher, with his face covered by a sheet, reporters saw this, and thought it was Gifford. The rumor began to spread that Bednarik had killed him. And when the photo was seen in newspapers across the country the next day, Bednarik looked like a monster, celebrating his "kill."

It got worse. Bednarik went to see Gifford in the hospital the next day, and was told Gifford couldn't receive visitors. But a new rumor circulated, that Bednarik wouldn't see Gifford. It wasn't that he wouldn't, it was that he couldn't.

Gifford missed the rest of the season, and decided to retire at age 30. But he missed the game, and returned in 1962, switching to receiver for safety reasons. He played 3 more seasons and retired again, becoming one of football's greatest broadcasters.

Gifford has always said he never held it against Bednarik. Bednarik said he was tired of people remembering him mainly for one thing. "It was always, 'Oh, you're the guy! You're the guy! You're the guy that got Frank Gifford!'" He was also tired of Howard Cosell, on Monday Night Football, seeing a hard hit, and turning to Gifford and saying, "Just like Chuck Bednarik blindsided you at Yankee Stadium, Giffaroo!"

"Blindsided, my fanny! It was a clean hit," he always said. And it was: Like the infamous Denis Potvin hit on Ulf Nilsson in 1979, or Scott Stevens leveling Eric Lindros in 2000, no penalty was called on it. (And, yes, this profane man would say, "fanny," not "ass." In America, "fanny" means rear end. In Britain, it means the other side, of a woman.)

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The Eagles did advance to the NFL Championship Game, held at Franklin Field on the day after Christmas, December 26, 1960. At the time, the stadium didn't have lights. Remembering 2 years earlier, when Gifford's Giants and the Baltimore Colts went to overtime, the game was pushed back to a starting time of 12:00 noon.

The Eagles played the Green Bay Packers, in the title game for the 1st time in 16 years. Just 2 years earlier, they were 1-10-1. They had been rebuilt by head coach and general manager Vince Lombardi, a former Giants assistant. The Eagles took a 17-13 lead, thanks to a touchdown by a Philly native, Villanova graduate Ted Dean.

The Packers drove for a winning touchdown. On the last play, as Eagle broadcaster Bill Campbell said, "I wish you could see 67,000 people standing -- standing!" Bart Starr threw over the middle, and running back Jim Taylor caught the pass. But Bednarik, who played 58 1/2 of the game's 60 minutes, met him at the 7-yard-line, and shoved him down, and held him down, as the clock ran out. There was no penalty flag for delay of game. Taylor said, "Get off me, you son of a bitch!" Bednarik looked up, saw the clock run out, and got up. The film shows him jumping for joy. What it doesn't capture is his words: "You can get up now, you son of a bitch! This fucking game is over!"

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So were Bednarik's glory days. At age 35, he had played nearly every minute of 13 games (counting the title game). He played 2 more seasons as only a center, and retired. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, his first year of eligibility.

The Eagles retired his Number 60, and made him a charter inductee into the Eagles Honor Roll in 1987. (All the charter inductees were already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.) He was honored in ceremonies at Veterans Stadium for the 25th Anniversary of the 1960 title team in 1985, and for the 40th Anniversary of the 1948 and '49 title teams in 1988; and at Lincoln Financial Field for the 50th Anniversary of the 1960 title team in 2010. For a while, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he feuded with Eagle management, but reconciled in 2006.

(Left to right: 1960 Eagles Joe Pagliei, Tommy McDonald and Chuck Bednarik,
outside Franklin Field during 50th Anniversary commemorations.)

Chuck was named to the NFL's 50th Anniversary Team in 1969, and its 75th Anniversary Team in 1994. In 1999, The Sporting News made its end-of-century list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. He came in at Number 54, the highest-ranking center, the 8th-ranked linebacker, the highest-ranking career Eagle, and 2nd among all Eagles players behind Reggie White (who, these days, tends to get remembered more as a Packer). In 2010, despite the extra 11 years, he actually moved up when the NFL Network aired the special The Top 100: NFL's Greatest Players.

He became something of a curmudgeon in his later years, the old veteran -- of war and the game -- lamenting what he saw as the insufficient toughness of today's players, and their insufficient respect for players of the past. In essence, he was the NFL's answer to baseball's Bob Feller. But he was always a big draw for NFL Films, giving them several interviews.

But even the toughest men don't live forever. Chuck Bednarik died yesterday morning, at the age of 89. His daughter, Charlene Thomas, said that he'd been suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and she believes the constant hard contact of his 14-year NFL career had something to do with that.

Lots of NFL players, even today, with far greater protection for the head, have fallen victim to brain trauma, including dementia, even in their 50s. This has gotten increasing attention in the last few years.

Whether Chuck, in his final years, understood this well enough to change his mind about the toughness of modern players, only he knew.

With Chuck's death, there are now 5 surviving players from the 1949 NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles, 65 years later. In alphabetical order, they are: Two-way end Neill Armstrong, backup quarterback Bill Mackrides, two-way halfback Jack Myers, two-way halfback Clyde Scott, and two-way tackle Al Wistert. Armstrong, Mackrides, Myers and Wistert are the last 4 survivors of the 1948 NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles. (This Neill Armstrong, no relation to the Neil Armstrong who was the 1st man to walk on the Moon, is best remembered as the head coach of the Chicago Bears before Mike Ditka, guiding them to a Playoff berth in 1979.)

From the 1960 NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles, 54 years later, there are now 22 survivors: Running back Billy Ray Barnes, linebacker Maxie Baughan, running back Timmy Brown, defensive end Marion Campbell, running back Ted Dean, defensive end Riley Gunnels, cornerback Bobby Jackson, quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, defensive end Ed Khayat, center Bill Lapham, receiver Dick Lucas, offensive tackle Jim McCusker, receiver Tommy McDonald, defensive tackle Don Owens, tight end Pete Retzlaff, tight end Jerry Reichow, running back Theron Sapp, offensive tackle J.D. Smith, linebacker Chuck Weber, defensive tackle John Wilcox, defensive end Jerry Wilson and guard John Wittenborn.

(Campbell and Khayat would both become head coaches of the Eagles; Retzlaff, general manager. John Madden was drafted by the Eagles as an offensive tackle in 1959, but hurt his knee in preseason, and never played in the NFL. But quarterback Norm Van Brocklin saw him walk into the locker room on crutches, and invited him to watch film with him. Madden later said that's how he became a coach, by studying film with a quarterback on his way to the Hall of Fame.)

That 1960 title remains the Eagles' last. Since it happened, they have fallen, and risen again -- 4 separate times, and have recently risen again for the 4th time. They have left Franklin Field, moved into Veterans Stadium, left the Vet, and moved into Lincoln Financial Field. The Vet has been demolished, while, amazingly, Franklin Field still stands on Penn's campus, as it has since 1923. (A predecessor had stood on the site since 1895.) Since Chuck got off Jim Taylor 54 years and 3 months ago, the Eagles have become a cultural phenomenon, Philadelphia's most popular sports team. But they have never won another title, only reaching 2 more NFL championship games, both under the Super Bowl name, and losing both.

But Chuck Bednarik remains the Eagle icon. Go to an Eagles home game, and you can still find fans, whose parents weren't born yet in Christmas week 1960, in the last full month of the Ike Age, the time of the Eagles' last World Championship, who file into The Linc wearing 1960 throwback jerseys with Bednarik's name, his Number 60, and, sometimes, his autograph on them. (No doubt purchased from, or online through, the famed Philly nostalgia store Mitchell & Ness.)

In one of those NFL Films interviews, Bednarik pointed out that people he met didn't always point out that he was "the guy that got Frank Gifford":

I still get people come up to me in airports, saying, "Are you Chuck? Hiya, Chuck!"

And, thinking of that, the man remembered as one of the NFL's ultimate tough guys broke out into a big smile, with a twinkle in his eye, that actually suggested sentimentality.

What the hell: He earned the right to be fondly remembered, and the right to be sentimental about it.

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