This week in North Philly Notes, Ray Didinger, author of The New Eagles Encyclopedia, remembers 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.
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.
“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.
After 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.”