This article was originally published December 18, 2011.
Back in those grainy black-and-white days, back in the late 1940s, you could still get up and run if you'd been tackled. So naturally, piling on was a commonplace tactic, like pinning butterflies to a board. And where you never, ever wanted to be was on the bottom of one of those piles, where everyone was busily gouging, pinching, biting, and otherwise committing all manner of indignities.
You'd look down and there would be a tackler gnawing on your ankle like a berserk beaver. That was one way defenses tried to slow down Steve Van Buren - take away his legs. They could have saved their buck teeth, because the best running back of that era would either run free in those unsightly black hightops or - and this was the maneuver his teammates loved - come in cleats-first and high. And remember that face masks had not yet become a staple.
The Moving Van could outrun most pursuit - he clocked a 9.8 100 - but he took a special delight in barreling over would-be tacklers with such force that he knocked helmets loose and sent them skittering downfield like thrown hub caps. He was 6 feet, 200 pounds, big for that time, and he was punishing, and tireless, with just the right streak of combativeness.
Some professional football historians rank Steve Van Buren and Bronko Nagurski as the premiere running backs not only of their time but of all time. (Nagurski once fell out of a second-story window and a crowd gathered. A policeman asked what happened, and Bronko replied: "I don't know, I just got here myself.")
Van Buren owns Eagles records that have stood for more than six decades, and that now are within the reach of LeSean McCoy, the cut-and-jump, juke-and-jive specialist who has three games remaining to overtake the Moving Van's benchmarks of 15 rushing touchdowns and 18 overall TDs in a season. McCoy has 14 and 17.
Here is where they are separated: Van Buren set those records in a 10-game season.
McCoy will have 60 percent more games if he plays the full 16.
Comparing eras is a futile exercise at best, but I find it difficult to think that Steve Van Buren, in his prime, couldn't play today. (Full disclosure: I saw Van Buren through a kid's eyes, but I have tried mightily to be impartial.)
McCoy has been likened to Barry Sanders, who would give whiplash to his pursuers when he'd make one of those - whooop - 180s.
McCoy's season is obscured and probably underappreciated because of all the chaos swirling around a team that was touted to be a mortal lock for the Super Bowl and that now labors to get to .500.
Van Buren was the centerpiece of the Eagles in their golden era, powering them to back-to-back championships and, in the three seasons of 1947, '48, and '49, a record of 28-7-2. Those teams were talent-laden, but it was Van Buren to whom the players owed their paychecks, and they said so willingly. (His own first contract was for $4,000. By 1950 it was $15,000.)
In the 1948 title game, in Philadelphia, a raging snowstorm almost prevented Van Buren from getting to the stadium, but once there he scored the only touchdown of the game. The next year, in a driving rain that turned the field into a quagmire, he ran for 196 yards on 31 rushes, and the Eagles successfully defended their championship.
McCoy, on a team that is built to pass and sometimes appears to have forgotten what a weapon it has, is seeking to lead the league in rushing. Van Buren led the league four times. And was a six-time all-NFL selection. And twice he rushed for more than a thousand yards - in a 12-game season.
Yet seldom has an athlete carried himself with such genuine humility and without a whiff of ego.
Said Jim Gallagher, who spent 46 years working for the Eagles and is the man you go to when you have a question: "The only person who didn't know that Steve was a legend was Steve."
"He is confined to a wheelchair but is recuperating from a stroke," said Nathan Pipitone, a son-in-law. "All things considered, he is doing all right.
"We're having a birthday party for him on Dec. 29. Family and friends. He will be 91.
"He doesn't begrudge anyone breaking a record. He would never root against someone. That just wouldn't be his way."