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Statue for Penn, Eagles football great Bednarik on hold

NO ONE LIVES forever, but some would say that the closest thing to immortality for sports heroes is to have their likeness cast in bronze.

"I hope I live long enough to see it," Chuck Bednarik said about the statue being made of him. (Mel Evans/AP file photo)
"I hope I live long enough to see it," Chuck Bednarik said about the statue being made of him. (Mel Evans/AP file photo)Read more

NO ONE LIVES forever, but some would say that the closest thing to immortality for sports heroes is to have their likeness cast in bronze.

Less than a month ago, a statue of former middleweight champion Joey Giardello was unveiled in South Philadelphia. The next legendary Philly athlete to be so honored is likely to be Penn and Eagles great Chuck Bednarik, a former center and linebacker who is called the last of the 60-minute men. If and when the necessary money is raised and the oft-discussed project is completed, the Bednarik statue would be placed at Franklin Field as the centerpiece of a proposed sports museum that includes a large mural that pays tribute not only to the Quakers' football past, but to the days when the Eagles also called the 116-year-old stadium their home.

"Fantastic. Fantastic. Unbelievable," Bednarik, 86, said from his Coopersburg, Pa., home when asked about his legacy being preserved for future generations in the form of a larger-than-life statue. "I hope I live long enough to see it."

Bednarik supporters are dedicated to the proposition that "Concrete Charlie," as much as or more than any currently statueless Philadelphia sports star deserves to be permanently recognized among the best of the best.

Statues of sports figures are not uncommon in Philly. A statue of Wilt Chamberlain is at the Wells Fargo Center. Julius Erving's statue is in storage and will be unveiled when Philly Live! opens at the former site of the Spectrum, along with Kate Smith's statue and the Flyers' Goal! statue of a Gary Dornhoefer playoff goal.

The Phillies have statues of Rich Ashburn, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts and Connie Mack at Citizens Bank Park, with a statue of Harry Kalas to come.

Already at Franklin Field are statues of former Quakers football coach (and player) George Munger and Dan Lake, a longtime assistant coach. Villanova has a statue of Jumbo Elliott, its legendary track coach, at Villanova Stadium. Of course, the Rocky statue is at the Art Museum.

"I'm absolutely honored to sculpt the greatest warrior, maybe next to Smokin' Joe [Frazier], in Philadelphia sports history," said artist Brian P. Hanlon, from Toms River, N.J., who already has done some preliminary sketches for the statue, as well as for the 8-by-20-foot mural, which he would paint. "I think it's great that Chuck's statue will be placed at the site of his college and NFL careers. Franklin Field is the most sacred, historic athletic venue in Philadelphia.

"I am prepared to start the 7-foot clay model as soon as I am contracted by the University of Pennsylvania to proceed."

But the process for conceiving, financing and crafting statues is time-consuming and costly, which might explain why Penn director of athletics Steve Bilsky has declined to commit to a Bednarik statue other than to drop hints that it is a splendid idea that might or might not be carried through to fruition.

In a troubled economic climate, when budgets for education and athletics are being trimmed to make-it-hurt levels, it isn't that easy to prioritize the casting of bronze statues that can cost upward of $100,000, whether the funding is raised privately or not.

"The Bednarik statue would go inside the concourse on the north side of Franklin Field, by Gate 2, which faces the Palestra," said Mike Mahoney, Penn's director of athletic communications. "We already have some items that could be exhibited in a museum-type setting, including a Heisman Trophy from the Heisman Trust. John Heisman coached at Penn. We also have a number of sports-related art by R. Tait McKenzie that most recently was displayed in the faculty dining area.

"But none of this is guaranteed to happen. From what I gathered in talking to Steve, we gave a monetary figure [to be raised] to the people who came to us with the idea of doing the Bednarik statue. The sense I get is we're nowhere near that number at this point."

But Bednarik supporters hold firm that some athletes are so special that it is tantamount to a civic embarrassment if they aren't accorded the same recognition as those whose accomplishments already have forever recognized in bronze because they were at the front of the line when dollars for such endeavors were more plentiful.

"I think a Bednarik statue is something that already should have been done by now," said Dan Fahy, on the selection committee for the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, which included Bednarik in its charter class of 2004. "He not only deserves to be honored that way, he needs to be honored that way, whether it's by the Eagles or by Penn. Of all the football players to have played in this town, he's probably . . . well, you have Reggie White, Steve Van Buren and Tommy McDonald. But Chuck will always be 'Mr. Eagle' to a lot of people.

"I'm 47, not old enough to remember Chuck when he played. But he played with my grand-uncle, Bucko Kilroy, who is another of the great players in Eagles history. Uncle Bucko has spoken to me at length about just how incredible a player Chuck Bednarik was."

On paper, Bednarik deserves any plaudit he has received (including induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967 and into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1969) or is apt to receive in the future.

His No. 60 is one of seven numbers retired by the Eagles.

Born in Bethlehem, Pa., Bednarik is the epitome of the blue-collar hero Philadelphians so cherish, and not just because he was a three-time All-America at Penn (finishing third in balloting for the Heisman Trophy as a senior in 1948), the first overall pick in the 1949 NFL draft and a 10-time All-Pro. He also served as a B-24 waist gunner with the Eighth Division of the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, flying 30 combat missions over Germany.

Even Eagles fans not old enough to have seen Bednarik in person, like Fahy, are aware that he was involved in two of the most iconic moments in franchise history - making the tackle on Green Bay fullback Jim Taylor at the 8-yard line on the final play (and then laying on him as the clock ran out) that ensured the Eagles' 17-13 NFL Championship Game victory in 1960, and delivering the pulverizing hit on the New York Giants' Frank Gifford, also in 1960, that sidelined Gifford for 18 months. Since 1995, the Chuck Bednarik Award has been presented annually to college football's top defensive player.

"Chuck is like a Jim Thorpe," said Paul Clymer, the 16-term Republican state representative from Bucks County who is among the diehards lobbying for a Bednarik statue. "He's that sort of mythic figure."

Among those joining Fahy and Clymer as staunch proponents for the Bednarik statue project are NFL Films president Steve Sabol, former Gov. Tom Ridge, Dick Vermeil, John Chaney and Upton Bell, son of the late NFL commissioner Bert Bell.

So why, with so many influential individuals in Bednarik's corner, has the statue project remained in an ongoing holding pattern?

To hear some tell it, the bronzing of Bednarik has been put on hold for an unacceptably long time because he played for the Eagles and not for the Phillies, who have five statues already at Citizens Bank Park.

Eagles president Joe Banner, stressed that any decision on who gets bronzed, and when, will be carefully considered and acted upon with all deliberate speed.

"We're not anti-statues," Banner said. "The group that wanted to do the Bednarik statue, we had talked to them about our idea of taking one player from each decade and kind of doing a group of statues. They wanted to honor Chuck separately, in a time frame sooner than we were prepared to do.

"I think it should be pointed out that we do have a very large honoring of Reggie White in the stadium currently. We have an auditorium [at the NovaCare Complex] used for a lot of different functions that have these huge, very beautiful pictures of our Hall of Fame players."

Others are of the opinion that Bednarik's proclivity for plain speaking rubbed some people in the Eagles organization the wrong way. Bednarik didn't attend the team's training camp from 1982 to '99, when rookie coach Andy Reid invited him to drop by. The relationship has warmed up, and in September, Bednarik participated in the Eagles' 50th anniversary of their 1960 championship team.

"I know Chuck made some intemperate remarks over the years," said Ken Safarowic, who is married to Bednarik's daughter, Carol. "He's an emotional guy. The people who know him understand that he meant no harm.

"But he's had a rapprochement with the Eagles. [Former Daily News sports columnist] Ray Didinger had a lot to do with that, and Andy Reid's been good. He's the first Eagles coach since Dick Vermeil to reach out to Chuck and make him feel like part of the team family again. That's helped a lot."

Another sporting icon is disappointed that his team hasn't stepped up with a statue. In the May 23 issue of Sporting News magazine, the NBA's all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, complained that he has yet to have a statue of himself placed at Staples Center to join those of Magic Johnson and Jerry West, announcer Chick Hearn, Wayne Gretzky and Oscar De La Hoya.

"It doesn't make me happy," Abdul-Jabbar said of his lack of a statue. "It's definitely a slight. I feel slighted."

Bednarik apparently doesn't go as far as Abdul-Jabbar, but he is justifiably proud of what he accomplished and hopes that it will be remembered even after that portion of the area's population that saw him crush running backs and protect his quarterback ages and dies off.

"I don't think Chuck feels slighted, but he would be flattered if there was a statue of him in Philadelphia," Safarowic said. "He lights up whenever the possibility is mentioned.

"He would never be at the forefront of such a project, and he wouldn't take an active role in moving it along. Deep down, though, I think he would like to have that type of permanent honor, as anyone would. Look, I try to be as objective as I can, but Chuck Bednarik is Philadelphia football." *