If you were born in 1959 (or later), you missed out on a lot of cool stuff. Here's Exhibit A: You never got to see the great Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik play football for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Instead, a young kid starting to watch the game in the mid-late 1960s felt only the shadow of a legend, looming over the game at a moment when the world was changing so quickly. In that era, NFL TV announcers spoke of Bednarik -- who'd retired two seasons after leading the Eagles to their last-ever pro football championship in 1960 -- in almost reverent tones. Much of the awe was inspired by Bednarik's most remarkable accomplishment -- playing the entire 60 minutes in a game, as both a center on offense and a bone-crushing linebacker on defense. He was pro football's last two-way player.
Also, for all of us latecomers, there was The Picture -- Bednarik, looking like an ambulatory slab of granite and exalting after he'd flattened the Giants' Hollywood-handsome star receiver Frank Gifford (not realizing that Gifford was out cold, and about to spend the next year-and-a-half out of football) during a key game that propelled them toward that 1960 title.
The 1960s were the decade that pro football replaced baseball as the national pastime, and yet it was an era of growing specialization -- Hungarian soccer-style kickers, white-shoed punt returners -- and high-gloss pizzazz in a once blue-collar sport. Bednarik hovered over all of that just like he hovered over ther prostrate Gifford, a larger than life figure forged in a Bethlehem steel mill, yelling at all of us, "Man up!" As the years passed, No. 60 -- the jersey inspired by his two-way, all-game toughness -- refused to go quietly into the night, slamming political correctness like it was just another pretty-boy flanker.
The only thing that seemed surprising about the news of Bednarik's passing this weekend at age 89 was that he didn't live to be 100. The man was just a survivor in ways that few of us can comprehend: 30 death-defying, shrapnel-shredded aerial bombing runs over Nazi Germany in World War II, followed by the equalvalent of 34 years of football (by today's one-way standard) over his 17 seasons at Penn and for the Eagles, at the two most head-smashing positions in the sport.
When people say there will never be another Bednarik, they are absolutely right -- but they often leave out a part of the equation. There will likely never be another era like Bednarik's time. Take his colorful nickname, "Concrete Charlie." Because of his immovable toughness? Yes, and no. The name actually started with the job that Bednarik held during the off-season and after practice, selling concrete. That's what NFL players did to pay the bills back in the 1940s and '50 -- lugged kegs of beer for a distributor, or maybe sold Buicks or life insurance.
After World War II, pro football rose with the American middle class -- in good part because pro football players were the middle class. They drank shots at the corner tavern and cut their hair cut at the barbershop in a chair right next to their biggest fans. The greats of the pro gridiron walked among the mere mortals, which only made people love them more.
Rugged, yes. Rugged individualism? -- that's where it gets complicated. The greatest Eagles team ever -- the so-called "Duffel Bag Dynasty" who won the 1948 title in a driving blizzard at Shibe Park and again in Bednarik's rookie season of 1949 in a monsoon at the L.A. Coliseum -- thrived on teamwork, but so did middle-class society outside the chalked lines. The fans who started to pack Shibe in the late '40s -- after the Birds has braved more than a decade of low attendance and near bankruptcy -- bought tickets with their hard-fought wages. The extra pocket change and newfound leisure time was won, in many cases, in a series of sometimes violent strikes that swept through Philadelphia and other cities after the war ended.
But then, government was also on the side of the middle class in the 1940s and '50s. Bednarik might have been just a great, forgotten high school athlete who followed his dad into the Bethlehem Steel mill had it not been for the federal G.I. Bill, which provided "Concrete Charlie" with the tuition money to attend the ivy-draped corridors of Penn. Many of the fans who watched Bednarik at Shibe Park were rising toward suburbia on the backs of the G.I. Bill as well .
Today, football remains a sport for the staggering remnants of the middle class -- but mostly on a flickering TV screen, cheering ferocious-warrior hits in high-tech helmets in billion-dollar stadiums ringed with walls of luxury suites for the 1 Percent. Ironically, the brutality that is celebrated in our image of Bednarik standing over Gifford could be the sport's downfall. Only recently have we learned of the toll that head trauma imposed on the NFL's "Greatest Generation" of the '40s and '50s.
Two years ago, I reported that, with little fanfare, Bednarik -- along with two other now-deceased Eagles' Hall of Fame legends Steve Van Buren and Pete Pihos -- had joined the NFL's Plan 88 to pay medical bills for ex-players dealing with dementia or related health issues. This weekend, Bednarik's oldest daughter voiced anger at the Eagles for the team's announcement that Bednarik died from "a brief illness." "He died from dementia from football-related head injuries," Charlene Thomas told the Express-News newspaper. "It was not brief."
That's one more reminder that our real life history is a lot more complicated than our black-and-white images stamped on our memories. We call Bednark and the people who fought alongside in the real trenches of Europe and the play trenches of 21st and Lehigh, "the Greatest Generation." That's because they learned how to solve problems like World War II and a Great Depression with a tenacity that still eludes us, their deer-in-the-headlight descendants. And they did it even as their bodies took an incredible beating, on a battlefield, or in a steel mill, or on a football field.
We mourn Chuck Bednarik as a war hero and a football icon -- a symbol of superhuman stamina who always said what was on his mind. But today a part of us is also mourning a lost America that disappeared with him.