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Eagles Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik dies

Chuck Bednarik, the immovable, irascible son of a Bethlehem steelworker whose Hall of Fame football career was more notable for lasts than firsts, died Saturday morning following a brief illness.

This undated photo shows Chuck Bednarik, of the Philadelphia Eagles. Bednarik, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and one of the last great two-way NFL players, has died. He was 89. (AP Photo)
This undated photo shows Chuck Bednarik, of the Philadelphia Eagles. Bednarik, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and one of the last great two-way NFL players, has died. He was 89. (AP Photo)Read more

Chuck Bednarik, the immovable, irascible son of a Bethlehem steelworker whose Hall of Fame football career was more notable for lasts than firsts, died Saturday morning following a brief illness.

His family said Mr. Bednarik, 89, died in a Bucks County assisted-living facility.

Perhaps the greatest player in the long histories of both the University of Pennsylvania and the Eagles, Mr. Bednarik starred on the last Penn teams to aspire to national prominence; was a veteran leader on the last Eagles team to win an NFL championship; and, most famously, was the last of the NFL's "60-minute men."

"With the passing of Chuck Bednarik, the Eagles and our fans have lost a legend," Eagles chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement. "Philadelphia fans grow up expecting toughness, all-out effort, and a workmanlike attitude from this team, and so much of that image has its roots in the way Chuck played the game."

He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, two years before being inducted into the college hall, and his plaque in Canton sums up the football philosophy of this man who was as tough as his name implies. He was, it accurately notes, a "rugged, durable, bulldozing blocker . . . a bone-jarring tackler."

Square-jawed and hard-nosed, Mr. Bednarik possessed a temper that never faded and a tongue that hit as hard as he once did. His final decades were noteworthy for various feuds, confrontations, and his unyielding criticism of contemporary players.

The legend of "Concrete Charlie," a nickname he acquired as an offseason salesman for a concrete company but which perfectly described his physical, no-nonsense style, was embellished by two events that took place in the Eagles championship season of 1960.

The first occurred at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 20, when the Eagles met the Giants in a rivalry game that would help determine the Eastern Conference championship.

Philadelphia led, 17-10, late in the fourth quarter when Giants quarterback George Shaw hit halfback Frank Gifford on a short pass in the middle of the field.

As Gifford proceeded upfield, he collided with an onrushing Bednarik. Struck brutally but legally in the ribs, the Giants star lost the ball and fell backward, the impact with the ground producing both a concussion and a memorable photograph.

In that famous photo by Sports Illustrated's John G. Zimmerman, Gifford lies motionless on the turf as Mr. Bednarik, hovering above him, gleefully shouts and pumps a fist.

To many, the image made him appear more callous than tough. But Mr. Bednarik, who decried the ostentatious celebrations of later football generations, always contended he was rejoicing over the forced fumble and the resulting Eagles victory, not the damaging hit.

"I was thinking 'This . . . game is over," he said in 2010. "It appears from the picture that I was gloating over him. I wasn't gloating over him. I had no idea he was there. It was the most important play and tackle in my life. They were from the big city. The glamour boys. The guys who got written up in all the magazines. But I thought we were the better team."

A month later, with time running out in the Eagles' 17-13 NFL championship game triumph over Vince Lombardi's Packers at Franklin Field, Green Bay was driving.

On what would be the game's final play, Bart Starr hit fullback Jim Taylor on a swing pass. All that stood between Taylor and the winning touchdown was Mr. Bednarik, who would play in 58 of that game's 60 minutes. He made the tackle at the 8-yard line and covered up Taylor until the game safely concluded.

"You can get up now," Mr. Bednarik said he told Taylor when time expired, "the . . . game's over."

Mr. Bednarik, who played 14 seasons, all with the Eagles, was playing only center early in that 1960 season when starting linebacker Bob Pellegrini was injured.

Knowing Mr. Bednarik had played the position full-time and with distinction throughout the first half of his Eagles career, coach Buck Shaw asked him to fill in for Pellegrini while maintaining his offensive duties.

"Buck told me that the other guys just weren't doing a good enough job [at linebacker] and that he needed me to play both ways," Bednarik said. "So I did it."

A decorated B-24 crewman during World War II, Mr. Bednarik was a two-time all-American at Penn before becoming the first draft pick of the Eagles in 1949.

He won championships with the team his rookie year and 1960 before retiring in 1962. An eight-time all-pro selection and 10-time Pro Bowl player, he was named to the NFL's All-Time Team in 1995, the league's 75th anniversary. He placed No. 35 on NFL Network's 2010 list of The Top 100: NFL's Greatest Players, the highest ranking for any center.

If anything, his reputation grew after he retired.

In 1995, the Maxwell Club began presenting the Chuck Bednarik Award to the collegiate game's top defensive player. And for many, he became the epitome of the take-no-prisoners toughness that had characterized the NFL in a simpler time.

"Charles was a football player," his late teammate, Tom Brookshier, said in 1994. "Some men are born to be poets or astronauts. He was born to hit people."

Mr. Bednarik was born in 1925 in Bethlehem, Pa., then a booming industrial town, to Slovak immigrants. His father, like so many Eastern Europeans who came to Pennsylvania, found work in a steel mill, Bethlehem Steel in his case.

The sons of these tough men grew up equally tough. Big, strong, and feisty to a fault, Mr. Bednarik found football to be an outlet for the fires that burned red-hot within.

At Bethlehem's Liberty High, he was a two-way player who reveled in the game's physicality. A fearsome force at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, he led the football team to an undefeated season as a junior and also starred on the baseball and basketball teams.

After high school, with World War II ongoing, Mr. Bednarik enlisted in the Army. He participated in 30 bombing missions over Germany as a B-24 waist gunner and earned the Air Medal for his service.

When the war ended, he longed to return to football. He soon enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, whose potent football team still awarded athletic scholarships and filled Franklin Field for matchups with national powers.

Mr. Bednarik became a starter for coach George Munger in the third game of his first season. He played on both sides of the ball and also was the Quakers' punter. An all-American his last two years there, he also won the Maxwell Trophy as the sport's outstanding player as a senior.

But the era when schools such as Penn could compete for a national title was coming to an end. In 1947, Mr. Bednarik's junior season, Penn was ranked for the final time in the Associated Press poll, at No. 7.

Though the Eagles had won the 1948 NFL title, they also possessed the bonus pick for 1949's draft and with it made Mr. Bednarik the first overall choice.

By offering him a $3,000 bonus and a $10,000 salary, they won a bidding war with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the now-defunct All-American Football Conference. Despite all the NFL distinctions he accumulated, Mr. Bednarik would never earn more than $27,000 a season.

Playing center and linebacker, the aggressive rookie was an immediate contributor as the Eagles won a second consecutive title in 1949.

Later, he would play primarily at center until Shaw returned him to two-way duty in 1960. It was in that championship season that he earned the reputation as the "60-minute man."

"It really wasn't 60 minutes," he would say with all the false modesty he could muster. "It was only 581/2 minutes. I didn't play on the punt and kickoff teams."

In the seven seasons from 1950 to 1956, he was a first-team all-pro, once as a center and six times as a linebacker. There was no more durable player in football.

Mr. Bednarik missed the first two games of his rookie season and then played in all but one game the rest of his career. He once played with a triceps torn so severely that it left a lump by his elbow. He didn't come off the field, much less allow a doctor near the injury.

A fierce tackler with tremendous instincts and a taste for contact, he relished taking on the game's best defensive linemen and running backs. Asked once to name his toughest NFL competitor, he cited Browns running back Marion Motley.

"Motley was 245 pounds, the biggest of them all, and when he gained momentum, he simply carried you with him," Mr. Bednarik said.

In 1961, Mr. Bednarik played almost exclusively on offense. In his final season of 1962, he played defense only.

That 1960 championship, accomplished on the Franklin Field turf where he played his entire collegiate and professional careers, was his sweetest moment, highlighted by what he saw as his game-saving tackle of Taylor.

"He knocked over a couple of people before he got to me, and, of course, I stopped him. I saw :06, :05 up in the East stands there, and I got up and looked down at him, and I said: 'This game is over!' " Mr. Bednarik recalled in 1997.

In the locker room afterward, a beaming Mr. Bednarik, still in his Eagles uniform, was photographed smoking a cigar while holding a cigarette in his hand.

"I don't know how we beat 'em," Bednarik said of Vince Lombardi's Packers nearly four decades later. "They were a better club than we were. But on that given day, we beat 'em. Statistically, they outplayed us, but in the end, it's the score."

During his long retirement in rural Coopersburg, not far from his hometown, those fires that had made him such a special player never diminished. Profane, loud, and highly opinionated, he seemed perpetually angry, most typically, but hardly exclusively, about the state of contemporary football.

"It usually takes about 20 seconds to find out what's on Chuck's mind," former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil once said.

In a 1993 Sports Illustrated profile of Mr. Bednarik, writer John Schulian described the then-68-year-old.

"There is still no telling when he will chase some joker or give him the finger for winning a race to a parking place. If anybody ever thought he would mellow, Bednarik put that idea to rest a few years ago when he tangled with a bulldozer operator . . . and got a fine that sounded like it had come from the World Wrestling Federation instead of the local justice of the peace: $250 for choking."

Modern players, he would tell anyone who asked and many who didn't, were overpaid, underutilized, and soft as a fresh Philly pretzel.

"These guys today are a bunch of cocky SOBs," he told Philadelphia Magazine in 2005. "Overpaid and underplayed multimillionaires. They stay there for three minutes, and they're sucking for air. God almighty."

He criticized Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor because he "couldn't do nothin' " but play linebacker and was particularly cantankerous when it came to Deion Sanders, who was hailed as Bednarik-like in the 1990s for playing on both sides of the ball, at wide receiver and cornerback.

In Mr. Bednarik's mind, to earn the appellation of a "two-way player," one had to be mixing it up in the trenches on every play, not standing out on the flanks the way Sanders' positions demanded.

"Deion couldn't tackle my wife Emma," Bednarik said.

That combative attitude led to several occasions when Mr. Bednarik found himself at odds not only with his football successors but with his own team.

He claimed in 1996 that Lurie had turned down his request that the team buy 100 copies of his book, Bednarik: Last of the 60-Minute Men, for $15 apiece and distribute them to its players at training camp. Lurie said the purchase would have violated NFL policy.

"That's tip money for him," a still-fuming Mr. Bednarik said in 2005. ". . . That ticked me off like a bomb."

So deep was the wound that in January 2005, when the Eagles were facing New England in the Super Bowl, he was openly rooting against his professional alma mater.

Lurie and he reconciled in 2006, but Mr. Bednarik soon reignited the flames.

In continuing to disparage seemingly every player who came after him, Mr. Bednarik made critical remarks about Reggie White, a beloved Eagles legend who had died two years earlier.

When the criticism turned on Mr. Bednarik, he retreated. In a rare apology, he explained that he had mistakenly confused White with Terrell Owens. In the end, friends said, his allegiance to the Eagles was unquestioned.

Mr. Bednarik once said that one of his great regrets was putting aside the accordion, which he played as a young man. Religious to a degree that might have surprised those that tangled with him on or off the field, he said the rosary daily and attended 8 a.m. Mass each Sunday.

"I'm a very religious person," he once said. "I believe in prayer. But I've got this violent temper."

He and his wife, whom he met at a dance at a Croatian civic hall in Bethlehem, had five daughters. By all accounts, Mr. Bednarik was a loving but extremely demanding and strict father.

For a time, he was an official with the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, which oversees boxing in the state. And for one season in the mid-1970s, he was part of the team on HBO's Inside the NFL.

As time went on, he seemed to take more and more delight in his reputation, and in particular the now-legendary hits on Gifford and Taylor.

"This is a true story," he told Sports Illustrated in 1993. "They're having a charity roast for Gifford in Parsippany, N.J., a couple of years ago, and I'm one of the roasters. I ask the manager of this place if he'll do me a favor. Then, when it's my turn to talk, the lights go down and it's dark for five or six seconds. Nobody knows what the hell's going on until I tell them, 'Now you know how Frank Gifford felt when I hit him.' "

Giants linebacker Sam Huff, himself a fierce tackler, called the hit "the greatest tackle I've ever seen."

It gained wider attention during the heyday of Monday Night Football. Gifford, by then the play-by-play man, was chided about the hit often by acerbic colleague Howard Cosell.

"He didn't hurt me," Gifford later told SI. "When he hit me, I landed on my ass, and then my head snapped back. That's what put me out, the whiplash, not Bednarik."

In 2011, Bednarik passed out and was rushed to a nearby hospital. As speculation grew that he had suffered a serious heart attack, it was revealed that he had been suffering from low blood pressure.

"Chuck Bednarik was a true hero in every sense of the word," Hall of Fame president David Baker said in a statement. "His character, commitment, and dedication illustrated in his courageous service to our country in World War II are the same values he used to become one of the greatest heroes on the football field. Chuck's legacy will forever be preserved in Canton and serve as great inspiration for generations."

Mr. Bednarik is survived by his wife Emma, five daughters, 10 grandchildren, and one great grandchild. Funeral arrangements were pending.


A full-page keepsake of the Eagles great. Back page of Currents, D6.

Bill Lyon: Bednarik defined what NFL toughness really is. E1.

Bob Brookover: His lasting legacy is a sign of his greatness. E3.