Remembering #60 on the Eagles: “Iron-man” Concrete Charlie

This week in North Philly Notes, Ray Didinger, author of The New Eagles Encyclopediaremembers Chuck Bednarik.

Chuck Bednarik died early in the morning, Saturday, March 21 at age 89. His passing marked the end of an era in professional football. Bednarik was the last of the game’s true ironmen, a man who played virtually every play of every game for much of his 14-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles.

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Author Ray Didinger, left with #60 Chuck Bednarik at the Eagles Training Camp, 1956

Bednarik played center on offense and linebacker on defense and also handled the long snaps on punts and placekicks. He only came off the field on kickoffs and sometimes not even then because for several years he also kicked off for the Eagles. Still, the man known as “Concrete Charlie” missed only three games in his pro career. His toughness was legendary.

Bednarik played in eight Pro Bowls, the most of any Eagle. He still holds the team record for interceptions by a linebacker with 20. He joined the Eagles in 1949 after an All-America career at the University of Pennsylvania. He helped the team win an NFL championship in his rookie year and he helped the Eagles reach the top again when they reclaimed the title in 1960.

In the 1960 championship game against the Green Bay Packers, Bednarik played 139 of 142 plays. He was 35 years old, the oldest player on either team, yet he played 58 of the 60 minutes and in the closing seconds he was the one who made the game saving tackle on Packers fullback Jim Taylor.

The Eagles were clinging to a 17-13 lead when quarterback Bart Starr threw a pass to Taylor who broke several tackles and was at full speed when he reached the nine yard line. That was where the 6-3, 235-pound Bednarik wrapped him in a bear hug and wrestled him to the ground. Bednarik pinned Taylor to the turf until the last few seconds ticked off the clock.

Bednarik60“He was squirming like hell trying to get up,” Bednarik said. “He was saying, ‘Get off me, you so-and-so.’ When the second hand hit zero, I said, ‘You can get up now, you so-and-so, this (expletive) game is over.’ That was the ultimate, winning that game.”

Bednarik had a similarly memorable tackle earlier that season when he leveled Frank Gifford of the New York Giants to preserve a crucial 17-10 victory. Bednarik’s crushing hit left Gifford unconscious on the field with a severe concussion. A Sports Illustrated photographer snapped a photo of Bednarik dancing over Gifford which made it appear he was rejoicing in the knockout. Not so, Bednarik said. He was celebrating that Gifford fumbled the ball and the Eagles recovered to lock up the victory.

“I was just happy we won,” Bednarik said. “If people think I was gloating over Frank they’re full of you know what. Looking back, that hit might have put us both in the Hall of Fame. I know it was the most publicity I ever got.”

Bednarik was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, his first year of eligibility. His jersey number 60 was retired by the Eagles.

Bednarik came up the hard way and that shaped his personality. He grew up in the shadow of the steel mills in Bethlehem, Pa. His parents were immigrants from Czechoslovakia so money was scarce. As a boy, he couldn’t afford a football so he made his own by filling an old stocking with rags. At 18, he was a waist gunner on a B-24 bomber flying combat missions over Germany. After each mission, he knocked back straight whiskey to calm his nerves.

The New Eagles Encyclopedia_smAfter the war, he enrolled at Penn where he was a two-time All-America who worked for his meals by waiting on tables in the school’s dining hall. The Eagles made him the first pick in the 1949 NFL draft and signed him to a $10,000 contract with a $3,000 cash bonus. His salary topped out at $26,000 in his final season, 1962, so he worked a second job selling concrete to support his wife Emma and their five daughters.

In his later years, Bednarik was often critical of the modern NFL. He didn’t like all the showboating and he couldn’t understand how players making millions of dollars would play two or three snaps and leave the field to catch their breath. Players today, he said, were “overpaid and underplayed.” He wasn’t politically correct and sometimes it got him in trouble, but for football fans in this area, he will always be an icon.

“Chuck Bednarik wasn’t just a football hero, he was an American hero,” former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil said. “I was proud to call him a friend.”

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Searching for Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro

This week in North Philly Notes, it’s “Carnaval in Rio!” Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, pens an entry on this year’s annual celebration in Brazil.

CARNAVAL is a summons to enjoy ourselves. It is supposed to bring easement, at the very least a few brief days to forget personal and collective worries. It’s out with the Apollonian, in with the Dionysian. Above all, Carnaval means dancing. So what does an old gringo like myself do in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval? The easy and obvious thing is to be an observer and to watch the televised transmission of the escolas de samba or samba schools as they parade in the Sambodromo of Rio de Janeiro. If you follow the selling of Carnaval in Rio, especially to tourists, the Sambodromo is where it largely takes place. This venue is a couple of long city blocks of viewer stands (there are also VIP boxes), and parade grounds designed by Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012), Brazil’s master architect and designer of the buildings of modernist Brasília. The complex was completed in 1984, expanded in 2012, and has space for 108,000 spectators. They come to watch 12 schools parade, each of which will be graded on the quality of its performance. Two nights starting at 10 pm and finishing at dawn are necessary so that each school gets 90 minutes but no more to perform. The school with the highest score is the champion. These 12 belong to the “Special Group” membership in which is by no means permanent. Each year the two schools with the lowest scores will fall out to be replaced by two from a group that strives “for access” to the Special Group. Competition between the samba schools in the Special Group, and among schools striving for access is fierce.
Layout 1As a friend pointed out, a samba school parade is a great dancing opera. A visual wonder of luxurious costumes and floats, with dancing and music making provided by several thousand participants. Every year each school offers a new production. There must be a new theme, and a new theme song. You need not join a samba school to participate. Anyone including a foreigner can buy a costume and take part in the performance. But this entails months of rehearsals including at the Sambodromo.

The samba schools and their parades in the Sambodromo have been marketed as the glory of  Rio de Janeiro Carnaval, and they go a long way to allowing the city to claim it has the greatest celebration and party in the world. But there have been troubling issues. A recurrent one has been sponsorship. Many  schools are sponsored by gamblers or bicheiros who virtually own them. Bicheiros originally organized a version of the local numbers racket. However, people bet on animals (bichos) rather than numbers. Everyday there is winning animal. Winning bettors bring their receipt and leave with their payoff. No wait, and no bureaucracy. There is more to gambling in Rio de Janeiro than this popular betting game which though illegal is nonetheless allowed partly because it is said to be rooted in Brazilian culture. However, illegality has led to a corrupt relationship between bicheiros, police and public officials. So it is that gambler sponsorship of samba schools, and the purported influence of bicheiros on samba schools becomes a reason to criticize and even investigate samba schools. There is also an issue of foreign sponsorship. In 2006, Venezuela led by its president Hugo Chavez sponsored the winning Vila Isabel school with the theme “Soy loco por ti America.” It was a  Spanish, not Portuguese title which some people questioned. But sponsorship money and the popularity of Hugo Chavez spoke louder. Nor was Spanish an obstacle to winning. Vila Isabel was judged as having the most original and best realized parade performance, and became that year’s champion. This year the Beija Flor (Humming bird) school, a perennial favorite to win the competition, was criticized for accepting money–an estimated $4.5 million at the current exchange rate–from oil rich Equatorial Guinea. But Equatorial Guinea is governed  by a decades old personalist dictatorship widely condemned by human rights organizations though now striving  to improve its image. Beijo Flor spokespeople argued its script was meant to celebrate west Africa, not Equatorial Guinea, and that the importance of west Africa for Brazil long preceded Equatorial Guinea’s appearance as an independent nation in l968. Would this sponsorship prevent Beijo Flor from being selected once again champion of the Special Group? In fact, Beijo Flor won the prize with a characteristically impeccable parade performance enhanced by sumptuous costumes and imaginative floats (carros alegoricos). However, the contradiction of a substantial gift from a notorious dictatorship to a samba school where participation and creative freedom are supposed to be prime examples of popular democracy was glaring, and the controversy has continued.

While always enjoyable, even astonishing as spectacle, anyone who only watched the Special Group samba schools on parade would miss much, even most of Carnaval in Rio. With all their opulence, artistry and creativity in choreography, samba schools are only part of the party. A bigger part is mass participation in blocos. These are community organized street dancing groups that materialize during Carnaval. In fact, as the famous samba schools have become more commercialized, so have blocos grown in importance and number in reaction to excessive commercialization. Sambodromo commercialization works to exclude rather than include popular classes among the spectators. The high price of admission can reach a thousand dollars and more for the best seats if purchased from scalpers. The samba schools on parade at the Sambodromo are no longer within easy reach of middle and lower class wage earners.

There are currently more than 94 registered blocos scattered throughout Rio de Janeiro and its suburbs, and still more uncounted “rebel” groups not yet registered. Blocos are easy enough to locate by consulting listings in newspapers that state where and when they will gather. Each day of Carnaval, thirty or more will be on the street. Participation is open to everyone, and it doesn’t cost anything. Carnaval for me finally became a matter of seeking, finding and participating in one, then another, then another bloco.

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If you are interested in Brazilian music, check out this related Temple University Press book, The Brazilian Sound, by Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessnha

Each bloco at the very least has a band, a male singer (some version of a tenor), and a sound truck. Everyone seems to wear some sort of costume (fantasia). None of my blocos required a fantasia which can be as simple as headgear, perhaps a wig, feathers, a pirate’s hat or a king or queen’s crown. I wore an old pink and green hat of the famous Mangueira samba school. And not without some trepidation. The hat is at least 30 years old, a relic that might be better off in a display case. Given its age and good condition, might it not be coveted by a fanatic follower of Mangueira recognizing the hat as something  different from today’s Mangueira paraphernalia, something from the past, and therefore of special interest. History counts when discussing the samba schools. Might someone snatch this cherished hat off my head? As I walked along the street on my way to the first bloco, one car slowed and people cheered this gesture celebrating Mangueira. Other people noticing the hat smiled, gave the thumbs up sign, waved. Nothing untoward happened.

The bloco prepares to move and dance down the street. The musicians and singer warm up, the revelers or foliões keep arriving, and the loud speaker primes us: “Just five more minutes, and we’re on our way.” Finally, there is movement. I decided I wouldn’t shy away from strenuous dancing if I fell in with others who were doing it. I was soon to be tested when a handful of young people dressed as harlequins placed themselves at the head of our bloco and danced with vigor and imagination, and with some improvised steps I had never seen. Some of us picked up the enthusiasm wanting it to continue. Suddenly I was dancing with an energetic woman in her mid, or perhaps late 30’s. Certainly she was much younger than myself. Could I keep up? You watch and match the other’s steps. I even tried to incorporate a step of our dancing  harlequins. This stimulated my partner, and we danced on for a while. Great fun. Finally, I found what I was seeking in the joy and participation of the bloco. 

The neighborhood blocos are more and more becoming the heart and soul of  Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval. They are magnets that attract large numbers of revelers all over the city. They have I think added vitality to the Rio de Janeiro carnaval, as they are doing in other large Brazilian cities notably São Paulo. Some occupy a special niche such as the Cordão da Bola Preto which was said to attract a million people on the early Friday morning in downtown Rio, even in sun drenched 100 plus degree heat. At the other end of the spectrum is the bloco of Carmelitas (Carmelites) much smaller, but the object of growing interest. The bloco pays homage to the cloistered nuns in the local Carmelite convent with a simple, highly appropriate story that has captivated followers. A Carmelite nun suddenly flees the convent to join the revelers. People start looking for her including the Pope. The bloco does this part of the story on Friday, the first day of Carnaval. On Tuesday, the last day of Carnaval, the bloco is on the street for a second time when the nun returns undetected to the convent. Of course, the bloco is largely celebrating the escaped Carmelite nun and wishes to protect her identity. How?  With their fantasia: a veil of the Carmelite order. “Genial” (ingenious) as Brazilians might say.

Preparing for March Madness

This week in North Philly Notes, in anticipation of the 2015 NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship, we bracket Temple University Press’ selection of books about basketball. 

Palestra Pandemonium, by the late, great sportswriter Robert Lyons, features Temple University’s team so we’re especially partial to his fantastic History of the Big Five.

palestra pandemonium compThe most famous basketball tournament in the history of college basketball is the Big Five. And the Big Five was played in the most hallowed halls of college play: the Palestra. Now, for the first time, a complete story of this Philadelphia rivalry is revealed.

Robert Lyons offers the story of the Big Five from its very beginnings in 1955. At that time, many of the Big Five schools—La Salle University, University of Pennsylvania, St. Joseph’s University, Temple University and Villanova University—weren’t even talking to each other, and everyone predicted the tournament would end before it began. Conducting interviews with coaches and players—including famed Temple coach Harry Litwack’s last interview before his death—Lyons offers the play-by-play on how the Big Five became an institution, and how it was ultimately undone by college basketball’s own success.

Lavishly illustrated with photographs of players, teams, coaches, and the Palestra itself, Palestra Pandemonium is an immediate classic, offering a chronicle of the most monumental college basketball tournament. Anywhere.

We wouldn’t even know about basketball if it had not been for James Naismith, who invented the game in 1891.

9781439901342It seems unlikely that James Naismith, who grew up playing “Duck on the Rock” in the rural community of Almonte, Canada, would invent one of America’s most popular sports. But Rob Rains and Hellen Carpenter’s fascinating, in-depth biography James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball shows how this young man—who wanted to be a medical doctor, or if not that, a minister (in fact, he was both)—came to create a game that has endured for over a century.

James Naismith reveals how Naismith invented basketball in part to find an indoor activity to occupy students in the winter months. When he realized that the key to his game was that men could not run with the ball, and that throwing and jumping would eliminate the roughness of force, he was on to something. And while Naismith thought that other sports provided better exercise, he was pleased to create a game that “anyone could play.”

With unprecedented access to the Naismith archives and documents, Rains and Carpenter chronicle how Naismith developed the original rules of basketball, coached the game at the University of Kansas—establishing college basketball in the process—and was honored for his work at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.

Temple University Press has published several books on basketball that explore different teams.

Wheelchair_Warrior_sm_compWheelchair Warrior, by Melvin Juette and Ron Berger, shows how the game of wheelchair basketball became Juette’s passion—he ultimately became a star athlete, playing on the U.S. National Wheelchair Basketball Team.

Outside the Paint by Kathleen Yep, takes readers back to the Chinese Playground of San Francisco in the 1930s and 1940s, the only public outdoor space in Chinatown. It was a place where young Chinese American men and women developed a new approach to the game of basketball—with fast breaks, intricate passing and aggressive defense—that was ahead of its time.

Drawing on interviews with players and coaches, Kathleen Yep recounts some surprising stories. From the success of the Hong Wah Kues, a professional barnstorming men’s basketball team and the Mei Wahs, a championship women’s amateur team, to Woo Wong, the first Chinese athlete to play in Madison Square Garden, and his extraordinarily talented sister Helen Wong, who is compared to Babe Didrikson.Outside the Paint sm comp

Outside the Paint chronicles the efforts of these highly accomplished athletes who developed a unique playing style that capitalized on their physical attributes, challenged the prevailing racial hierarchy, and enabled them, for a time, to leave the confines of their segregated world. As they learned to dribble, shoot, and steal, they made basketball a source of individual achievement and Chinese American community pride.

A trio of books detail the lives of the players and coaches of the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association’s Basketball Team, knows as The SPHAs.

The SPHAS sm compThe SPHAS by Douglas Stark, is the first book to chronicle the history of this team and its numerous achievements. Stark includes not only rare and noteworthy images of players and memorabilia but also interviews and anecdotes to recall how players like Inky Lautman, Cy Kaselman, and Shikey Gotthoffer challenged racial stereotypes of weakness and physical inferiority as they boosted the game’s popularity. Team owner Eddie Gottlieb and Temple University coach Harry Litwack, among others profiled here, began their remarkable careers with the SPHAS.Homecourt Cover

Larry Needle’s Homecourtis a children’s book about Red Klotz, who played for the SPHAS, where he won an American Basketball League championship. Ultimately, he played and coached for the Washington Generals against the legendary Harlem Globetrotters for decades. This illustrated book recalls the SPHAS games at the Broadwood Hotel (which now has a historical marker commemorating the team), the team’s coach, Eddie Gottlieb, and Klotz’s post-SPHAS career. It will inspire any kid who loves—or dreams of playing—basketball.

And last, but not least, is The Mogulby Rich Westcott, a biography of Eddie Gottlieb, the coach of the SPHMOGUL comp smallAs. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Gottlieb founded, played and coached for the legendary South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (SPHAS) basketball team in the 1920s and 1930s. Only 5’ 8”, Gottlieb was nevertheless a very good basketball player. But it was behind the scenes where he excelled. He coached, helped form the National Basketball Association, and owned the Philadelphia Warriors franchise for many years. He signed Wilt Chamberlain to his first NBA contract. He also created the NBA’s annual schedule of games for more than a quarter of a century.

Drawing upon dozens of interviews and archival sources, and featuring more than fifty photographs, The Mogul vividly portrays Eddie Gottlieb’s pivotal role in both Philadelphia’s and America’s sports history.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go (as a Temple University Press author)

This week in North Philly Notes, Laura Katz Rizzo, author of Dancing the Fairy Tale, describes “a crazy couple of weeks” in her life as she promotes her book at various events. 

On March 5, I will speak at the Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual Luncheon and Dress Rehearsal, which is being held at 11:00 am at Estia restaurant, across the the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The event is an opportunity for dance enthusiasts to have a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of ballet. Emceed by CBS 3’s Jessica Dean, the luncheon includes a presentation of my new book, Dancing the Fairy Talewhich concentrates on the important contributions women have made to the development of American classical ballet. I hope that Arantxa Ochoa, the principal of the company’s newly established school, and former principal dancer, will be there so she can hear what I have to say about how women bring the heart and soul to American ballet schools and companies. The lunch will be followed by a dress rehearsal of Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake at the Academy of Music.

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Soon after this event, I am taking a group of 10 undergraduate and 5 graduate students to the Northeast Regional American College Dance Festival, at Westchester University, where I will be teaching ballet, partnering and variations…obviously from The Sleeping Beauty. With the research I did for my book on that ballet, as well as the accumulated experiences from my own performance career, I want students to dance the solos I write about. In embodying the protagonist role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, students will get a great entry point into understanding the arguments at the heart of the book: that performers infuse life into characters, and that without the agency of dancers, the roles of the classical ballets would never come to life.

LKR1I will also present some of my new research on “The Architecture of Space as embodied in Neo-Classical Dance Choreography,” work that has emerged from my organization of an interdisciplinary workshop and exhibition featuring the work of New York City Ballet’s photographer, Paul Kolnik and former dancer, Kyra Nichols. This event will take place at Temple’s Center for the Arts on April 16th.  Part of my job as the Temple representative at the American College Dance Festival Association will also be driving a van full of students from North Philadelphia to Westchester, running rehearsals, checking in on students, and making sure the theater crew has all of the needed technical cues from our students.  Honestly, as long as I don’t have to call any cues, I will be OK.  Calling cues is my least favorite job in the theater!

Barbara WeisbergerAfter returning from ACDFA, I have a quick trip to the Society of Dance History Scholars’ Conference at the Peabody Institute at John’s Hopkins University where I will discuss the life of Barbara Weisberger, (in photo at left), the founding matriarch of the Pennsylvania Ballet. She was at all the right places in all the right times in order to be part of many of the significant developments in American Ballet throughout the 20th century.

Baltimore will be followed by a trip to New York City to see the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix and conduct a recruitment audition for any competitors interested in studying dance in higher education!  In the meantime, I am trying to keep up with teaching my classes at Temple University (my favorite activity) as well as work on new research in which I am exploring the intersections between ballet and entertainment wrestling. This semester I am teaching a repertory class where senior jazz musicians and sophomore dance majors are creating a collaborative piece together. I am also teaching a graduate seminar for master’s students about best practices and strategies for teaching dance.

LKR2My new research topic, that of entertainment wrestling, has taken the shape of both a performed wrestling match en pointe in concert dance venue (so much fun to both float across the stage and body slam my partner in the same ten minutes) as well as a book chapter in an upcoming volume entitled Wrestling and Performance. If you had asked me five years ago if I though The Sleeping Beauty had connections to the WWE, I’d certainly have had different answers and a changed perspective from how I see the practices today. Go figure…the world of dance studies takes me to unexpected places each day!

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