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Why Chuck Bednarik mattered to Philadelphia

He cared about football, the Eagles, and their city. And in return, we cared about him.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Chuck Bednarik statue at Penn's Franklin Field.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Chuck Bednarik statue at Penn's Franklin Field.Read more

ANYONE WHO grew up in the Philadelphia area, no matter when you happened to be born, knows about "the hit." If you need additional explanation, you must be a newcomer (either that, or you watch the "Godfather" trilogy on a loop).

"The hit," the only one truly worth talking about in mythic terms, is the one that Chuck Bednarik put on Frank Gifford in the game between the Eagles and the Giants at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 20, 1960.

I was born a year and two weeks later. Yet although biology insists that I wasn't even conceived at the time when Gifford was impersonating a log, I feel that moment as if I'd watched it in real time. That's what happens when the stars align in a certain way and an action that happened in one time dimension becomes imprinted on the ages. That is how legends are born.

The image of Chuck Bednarik rearing up like the Norse god Thor about to smash his vengeful hammer down on the head of Kathie Lee's unfortunate husband is probably one of the most iconic in gridiron history. To this day it gives me chills, a reminder of the type of warrior football that was played in another era.

I know we've entered a more enlightened age in which it's important to talk about concussions and domestic violence and criminality and the other evils that supposedly define the game I love. But, for a brief moment, let's suspend our politically correct and engaged alter egos and marvel at the wonder of a man who didn't give a damn about niceties.

What he did give a damn about was The Game and The Team and The City. For that, I will forever adore him.

Chuck Bednarik was not a Philly boy, but he wasn't too far off the local radar screen. A son of Bethlehem, he was a first-generation Slovak-American who won medals in the Air Force for combat missions over Germany, then enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where he played football and became what was known as the "60-minute man," excelling at both center and linebacker. No one does that anymore.

In 1949, he was drafted by the Eagles with the very first pick. That year, he helped us get a national championship, which he repeated 11 years later against Green Bay. It was the great Lombardi's only postseason defeat, and Chuck was pivotal in it. I wish I'd been alive to see him tackle Jim Taylor, and like one of those famous 300 Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae, keep him down as the clock ran out to preserve our 17-13 victory.

After No. 60 retired, no one else used his number (there weren't shoulders broad enough to fill that jersey). And even though he became justifiably embittered with the team and its various levels of new management - something that others have discussed and is water under the Walt Whitman - no other player has become so closely and deeply identified with the Eagles.

For a city that has its loyalties imprinted in the genetic code and threaded in the spirals of our DNA, the loss of Chuck Bednarik is incalculable. It's as if a light has gone out, one that was maybe a little dimmer and flickering for younger generations but that still illuminated the corridors of memory for those of us tied with the umbilical to a championship past.

The fact that the person writing these sentences was born after the last championship we ever enjoyed, and is still shivering with the chill of sadness at the passing of an 89-year-old legend, helps explain what it means to be a Philadelphia fan.

Chuck Bednarik, despite those years of distance and disaffection with the business suits in their cozy offices who never smelled freshly cut grass at Franklin Field or knew how it felt to put a helmet on their metrosexual heads, loved the Eagles. And for that, fans loved him.

He spent 11 glorious years with the team. He didn't cut out for a more lucrative deal, didn't play draft-day games, didn't have a high-powered agent angling to get him multimillion-dollar contracts, didn't transfer his loyalties to another city and shatter our hearts. Yes, it was another time and place. But character is a fairly constant quality, and he had it in spades.

I've talked a lot about Chip Kelly's recent moves, rearranging the members of our team as if they were pieces on a chessboard. I'm angry about losing some players, perplexed about the signing of others and pretty much sick and tired of watching the Eagles turned into another "Duck Dynasty." The thing that really angers me is the lack of history, the idea that no matter how identified a player becomes with a team and a city, you're only one bad snap away from exile.

That's why Chuck Bednarik mattered. He wasn't just one of the last living representatives of excellence, passion and power. He reminded us of why we cared.

And we really, really did.