BETHLEHEM -- They filed past the tall, gaunt old man in single file, most of the soldiers looking past him to the practice field ahead, where their clean, crisp uniforms were about to mingle with the muddy practice uniforms of the Eagles on Military Day at training camp.
Every now and then, though, there was one who knew who the old man was, who would stop with an item to sign and a fervent wish to express, that the players of today were more like the white-haired fellow in the Pro Football Hall of Fame polo shirt, squinting through wire-rimmed glasses.
"I wish I was old enough to remember you playing," one said. "I have a big, giant picture in my house of you laying out Frank Gifford. Could you sign my jersey?"
At 86, Chuck Bednarik was happy to be recognized, and didn't seem to mind when he wasn't. As the 250 fresh-faced military personnel, from every branch, filed past, he remembered the 30 missions he flew as a waistgunner in a B-24 bomber, over France and Germany. None of the soldiers at Lehigh today had any idea about that, or if they did, they didn't say so.
"You could hear the flak coming through" the open gun portal as you fired, Bednarik remembered. "You'd wonder how the heck it missed you."
The artillery missed Bednarik but it didn't always miss the plane.
"We crash-landed a number of times," he said. "Flat tires. Yeah, I'm lucky to be talkin' to ya. When I flew my last mission, I kissed the ground and looked up at the sky and said, 'I don't ever want to fly again!' I do (fly), but nobody's shooting at me."
Bednarik was based about 10 miles off the English Channel, he said. "The night before you were gonna go, you didn't sleep. Wakeup would be 5:30, breakfast at 6:30, takeoff at 7:30," Bednarik said. "If we went deep into Germany, roundtrip was about seven hours. When we went into France, it wasn't that bad."
After all that, there wasn't much to find intimidating about football at Penn, or in the NFL. Even playing both ways, as Bednarik famously did en route to making the All-Pro team eight times, couldn't have been as grueling as those 30 bombing missions.