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Chuck Bednarik, Frank Gifford, and the collision that still reverberates, 60 years later | Mike Sielski

It was the most famous tackle in football history. It changed the NFL. It linked two men forever.

The Eagles' Chuck Bednarik looms over the Giants' Frank Gifford in an iconic image taken by Sports Illustrated's John G. Zimmerman on Nov. 20, 1960.
The Eagles' Chuck Bednarik looms over the Giants' Frank Gifford in an iconic image taken by Sports Illustrated's John G. Zimmerman on Nov. 20, 1960.Read more

In the surviving recording of football’s most famous tackle, there is no sound and, until the end, no sign of the man who unleashes the everlasting violence. On a YouTube channel called historycomestolife, there is 97 seconds of smoky black-and-white video, the athletes moving in a choppy, Chaplin-movie manner, and the silence somehow intensifies the brutality of the hit and the gravity of its aftermath.

On November 20, 1960, 60 years ago Friday, no rain or snow fell on Yankee Stadium, and the temperature climbed to 58 degrees, warm for autumn in New York. The field was dirt, and the footing was good. The players on the two teams – the Philadelphia Eagles, who were 6-1, and the New York Giants, who were 5-1-1 and had lost the NFL Championship Game each of the previous two years – could run and cut and accelerate without fear of slipping. They could reach full speed without having to hesitate. In the instant before they reached each other, both of the players involved in the tackle – the hitter, Chuck Bednarik, and the hittee, Frank Gifford – had done that. Bednarik was 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, and Gifford was 6-foot-1 and 197 pounds, and each was moving as fast as he could.

All that people remember

The Bednarik-Gifford tackle holds a timeless and revered place in the collective memory of those who know and love football. NFL Films ranked it first on a list of the NFL’s 100 best defensive plays. It inspired author Frederick Exley, in 1968, to write his acclaimed novel, A Fan’s Notes, about an alcoholic Giants fan from Watertown, N.Y., who becomes obsessed with Gifford. It is one of the rare moments in sports that has its own legend, its own established and attached myths, in part because it contributed to the Eagles winning the 1960 NFL championship, in part because Gifford’s 27-year presence on Monday Night Football served as a convenient reminder of the hit and its significance. It was the thing people thought of when they thought of Gifford – even though he was a Hall of Fame player in his own right – because the hit has represented what football was, what football is, what football is supposed to be.

Even the most casual of fans recognizes the photograph that Sports Illustrated’s John G. Zimmerman snapped seconds after Bednarik delivered the blow, the most famous photo in NFL history, the image eternal and visceral and stark: Bednarik standing erect and godlike, his right arm raised as if he is about to plunge a stake into a vampire’s heart, looming over Gifford’s body. Bednarik used to love to autograph copies of the photo. Gifford used to flinch whenever he saw it.

» READ MORE: Photos suggest that Bednarik taunted Gifford after legendary hit

Their reactions symbolized the cordial friendship that they maintained over the years, as they appeared together on the banquet circuit, on television specials, at get-togethers among old-timers – Bednarik usually reveling in his status as the victor and enforcer, Gifford sometimes resenting him for it and wondering if his own accomplished playing career had been rendered meaningless. It’s all that people remember about me.

There are more reasons for more people to flinch at that photograph now. In recent years, football has confronted an existential crisis as doctors and scientists have learned more about the connection between the sport and head-related injuries and illnesses. Bednarik and Gifford died five months apart five years ago, and their deaths were connected by more than their proximate timing. Gifford was diagnosed posthumously with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Bednarik had Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Keep in mind: The hit happened just two years after the 1958 NFL championship game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts, the seminal contest in the league’s rise into the most popular and powerful entertainment vehicle in America, and it knocked Gifford – the NFL’s biggest star, playing for a perennially excellent team in the nation’s largest media market – out of action for a year-and-a-half.

Imagine the same thing happening now. Imagine Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady missing that much time because of a head injury. The outcry, the calls to continue changing the rules and softening the sport in order to protect players better, and the subsequent reaction from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s owners would be swift, if not instantaneous. Not then. Not in 1960. Bednarik-Gifford marked the first time that the true nature of football was revealed to the country through the prisms of TV and mass media. Only in recent years have the NFL and its players begun, truly and tangibly, to deal with the reckoning.

Here he comes

The video first shows what happened in the game before the hit – the big plays, the scoring plays. The Giants' uniforms are dark; the Eagles', white. Giants fullback Joe Morrison plunges into the end zone for the game’s first touchdown. Pat Summerall boots a 26-yard field goal through the uprights. New York leads by 10 at halftime.

The Eagles come to life in the third quarter. Norm Van Brocklin rainbows a 35-yard pass to Tommy McDonald, who tumbles on his back to make the catch. It’s 10-7 after three. A short field goal by Bobby Walston early in the fourth quarter ties the game. Late, the Giants' Mel Triplett takes a handoff, charges into a thicket of bodies, and – oh! – the football pops into the air as if from a toaster. The box score will say that Bednarik caused the fumble, and those who were there will confirm that he did indeed punch the ball out of Triplett’s hands, but the recording shows none of that. There are too many bodies too close together to tell. All that’s clear is that Eagles cornerback Jimmy Carr grabs the ball and dashes 38 yards for a stunning touchdown. The Eagles lead, 17-10.

» READ MORE: Chuck Bednarik through the years

And now here we are. On the Giants' ensuing possession, quarterback George Shaw takes the snap, drops back seven steps, then takes five stutter-steps forward. His movements alone add tension to the scene, coiling the action. He throws the ball like an arrow, on a line, past an Eagles player’s ear, to Gifford, who catches the pass as he’s cutting from the left side of the field toward the middle, to its most treacherous territory. The No. 16 on the back of his jersey is wide and huge. He takes four strides before Bednarik even enters the frame.

And enter, Bednarik does, from the upper right corner of the screen, a monster emerging through an unseen door. Bednarik is 35, and after flying 30 missions – as a 19-year-old – behind the machine gun of a B24 during World War II, he had starred at both center and linebacker for the University of Pennsylvania Quakers. But over his first 11 years with the Eagles, he had never played both positions in the same season, let alone the same game, and in 1960, he did not join the Eagles’ defense until their sixth game, when head coach Buck Shaw asked him to replace injured outside linebacker Bob Pellegrini.

Against the Giants, in the hopes of resting Bednarik some, Shaw had not started him at center, and throughout the first half, Sam Huff, himself a Hall of Fame linebacker, had terrorized Bednarik’s replacement, Bill Lapham; quarterback Norm Van Brocklin; and the Eagles’ running backs. So Shaw decided at halftime to reinsert Bednarik at center, and on the first play of the third quarter, after Huff blitzed again and he flattened him, Bednarik stood over him, glowering, and said, “Hey Sam, the big boys are in now.”

The unseen similarities

On the surface, their differences were obvious, the narratives facile. Gifford was New York and Hollywood, the NFL’s golden boy of the 1950s, a fixture on the sport’s premier national-television showcase for nearly three decades, a celebrity who married a celebrity: morning-talk-show star Kathie Lee Gifford. Bednarik was Bethlehem, Pa., and Philadelphia, a war hero nicknamed “Concrete Charlie” because he worked as a concrete salesman during his summers while he was still playing professional football, the last man in the league tough enough to play both ways regularly, a throwback in aspect and temperament who returned to the Lehigh Valley to live out his post-football life. Bright lights-big city versus small steel town, optimistic stardom contrasted with grumpy anonymity – it all seems so clear and easy.

It’s not. Bednarik was regarded as the “blue-collar guy” of the two, and there were more than a few occasions when he displayed the most stereotypical traits of the term. For his excessive (as several Giants and Giants fans saw it) reaction to tackling Gifford and forcing the fumble, Bednarik has been credited with the NFL’s first display of “taunting” during a game. Late in his life, he became cantankerous and bitter – qualities perhaps intensified by his Alzheimer’s and dementia – and expressed opinions about contemporary athletes that could be called, at their kindest, controversial. But he also had an Ivy League degree, and of the two, it wasn’t the worldly and erudite Gifford who first had the opportunity to pursue a career as an NFL executive. It was Bednarik, whom the Eagles considered hiring as their general manager in 1969.

Gifford, meanwhile, grew up near Bakersfield, Calif., his family so poor that his mother sometimes served her children dog food for dinner, so poor that members of a local church would deliver hot meals to the house because the Giffords themselves could not afford them. The son of a roughneck, Gifford moved 47 times before high school, so often was his father looking for work at a time when the California oil market was at its driest and most depressed.

» READ MORE: The Inquirer's Chuck Bednarik obituary

Though Bednarik’s tackle resulted in a concussion that ended Gifford’s 1960 season and kept him out the entire 1961 season, Gifford reconsidered his retirement, despite significant post-concussion symptoms, and returned to the Giants in 1962, playing three more years for them and leading them to another NFL Championship Game. Between them, Bednarik didn’t monopolize the toughness, and Gifford didn’t monopolize the intelligence. The two men, linked forever by that thunderclap, had more in common than anyone knew or might want to admit.

‘I didn’t feel it’

Now, on the video, here is Bednarik again, charging into the middle of the field from the right, and he plants his right foot and propels all his momentum toward Gifford, who is already propelling all his momentum toward Bednarik. At the moment of impact, Bednarik stiffens his arms into snakewood logs and slams them squarely into Gifford’s chest, running through him like a sprinter breaking finish-line tape.

“It was like when you hit a home run,” Bednarik would say years later. “You say, ‘Jeez, I didn’t even feel it hit the bat.’”

He follows Gifford down to the dirt, landing on top of him, and Gifford’s head whiplashes, the back of it striking the ground as he flops face-up in a billow of dust. By then, the ball already has spurted out of his hands. Another Eagles linebacker, Chuck Weber, pounces on it, recovering Gifford’s fumble. Bednarik spins and claps and dances. The Eagles are assured of winning the game. On the left side of the frame, supine and unconscious and motionless as a fallen scarecrow, lies Gifford. Sixty years. The reverberations still sound.