PHILADELPHIA – So it turns out that nobody is too tough to die.
If Chuck Bednarik wasn’t, then nobody is. Because Bednarik was a tough man. Tough enough to fly as a waist gunner in missions over Nazi Germany during World War II. Tough enough to play center and linebacker in 1960. Tough enough to win championships in polite, patrician Philadelphia.
Bednarik is perhaps best known for a hit he put on New York Giants star Frank Gifford during that 1960 season. Gifford caught a pass over the middle. Bednarik dropped a shoulder into Gifford, knocking the ball out of Gifford’s grasp and knocking him out cold.
The photo of Bednarik celebrating the fumble, which clinched an Eagles victory, is iconic. Gifford is flat on his back, unconscious. Bednarik’s body is contorted, his fist pumping, in a primal act of celebration. Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly criticized Bednarik for celebrating the injury to Gifford. But Bednarik was celebrating the fumble and the victory.
That was him. He wasn’t thinking about Gifford much, if at all. For what it’s worth, Gifford said it was a clean hit. He was knocked out when his head struck the ground. Gifford missed the rest of the 1960 season and all of 1961 before returning to the field.
It was significant that the play occurred in New York. For most of its history, Philadelphia has suffered from its proximity to the Big Apple. The site of the nation’s founding and once its capital city, Philadelphia developed an inferiority complex when compared to its ever-expanding neighbor to the north.
Chuck Bednarik didn’t do inferiority complexes. He was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, near the Bethlehem Steel works. After serving in World War II, he played his college football at the University of Pennsylvania. The Penn Quakers shared a home stadium, Franklin Field, with the Philadelphia Eagles.
He won a championship with the Eagles in 1949 as a rookie. He won another in 1960 as a 35-year-old veteran. In between, he played out a Hall of Fame career as a center and middle linebacker.
Bednarik was that old veteran when he tackled Green Bay’s Jim Taylor inside the 10-yard line on the last play of the championship game. He played every down of that game and still had the energy to hold Taylor down until the clock ran out. Then he let him up, because “this game is over.”
Much later, when players like Roy Green and Deion Sanders were taking a few snaps on the other side of the ball, reporters called Bednarik for his reaction. How did the last of the two-way players see these new-school two-way guys?
Bednarik didn’t see them at all, frankly. Running around at wide receiver and cornerback made them more like ballet dancers than like two-way football players in Bednarik’s eyes. He made sure to let it be known that they were earning way too much money doing it, too.
He was “Concrete Charlie” because he was tough, yes, but also because of his offseason job selling concrete.
He was also, arguably, the greatest Eagles player of all time. When the Eagles built their training facility, the NovaCare Complex, owner Jeff Lurie wanted the wall of the auditorium to feature four all-time Eagles greats. He chose Reggie White, Tommy McDonald, Steve Van Buren and Bednarik.
White, the youngest, died first. Van Buren was next. McDonald, the happy-go-lucky Hall of Fame wide receiver, is still with us.
At 89, Bednarik proved that even the toughest among us have to die.