STEVE Van Buren, the Hall of Fame running back who propelled the Eagles to the 1948 and '49 NFL titles, died Thursday evening in Lancaster of pneumonia at 91.
Few fans alive today ever saw him play, but Van Buren might have been the best NFL player of the postwar '40s. Barroom historians like to debate whether Van Buren or center/linebacker Chuck Bednarik is the greatest Eagle of all time, with modern-era defensive end Reggie White polling well in some precincts.
Certainly, Van Buren dominated his peers as no other skill-position Eagle ever has. Van Buren won four league rushing titles from 1945 to '49. To a franchise that has experienced so few championship celebrations - three, the most recent in 1960 - Van Buren was a cherished link through the years to the days when head coach Greasy Neale's Eagles were the undisputed class of the league.
"Watch those old films and you know that Steve Van Buren was something special," Eagles coach Andy Reid said Thursday night in a statement released by the team. "He was special in person, too, humble about his own accomplishments and encouraging to others. His memory will be with Eagles fans for as long as this team takes the field."
There are a handful of hallowed stories that are passed down through the generations of Eagles fandom. One of those is the story of how Van Buren almost missed the 1948 championship game, held at Shibe Park in a snowstorm. Van Buren, who lived then in Penfield, got up that morning, saw all the snow, figured the game would be postponed. When players and coaches gathered and Van Buren wasn't among them, Neale placed a call to Van Buren's house and Van Buren began a storm-complicated odyssey on public transit. He arrived in time to pull on his No. 15 jersey and score the only touchdown of a 7-0 game.
In the 1949 championship game hosted by the Los Angeles Rams, torrential rain was the complication, but again Van Buren willed the Eagles to victory, gaining 196 yards on 31 carries as they triumphed, 14-0.
"Steve Van Buren ran today the best I ever saw a man run," Neale said afterward. "Maybe Red Grange was better than Van Buren today. Maybe Bronco Nagurski was better, but nobody ever ran like Van Buren did in this mud."
That performance didn't make Van Buren wealthy or get him his own reality show, as it might if he managed it today, but he later recalled a postgame party in Hollywood where Van Buren met, among others, Roy Rogers and Johnny Weissmuller, the former Olympian who played Tarzan. Van Buren said Weissmuller held a drink in each hand. "I'd never thought of Tarzan as a two-fisted drinker," he quipped.
A lot has changed about the NFL and the running-back position since Van Buren's day, but the way his career ended seems depressingly familiar - a broken leg suffered before the 1952 season brought a halt to his powerful, slashing magic, which had faded through wear and tear anyway. That '49 title game was really Van Buren's last hurrah, and the last hurrah of the Neale-era Eagles.
"I used to take maybe six [pain-killing injections] each half," Van Buren once told the Daily News. "Into the ribs. And the big toe, too. Once you hurt that big toe, it never gets better . . . The only time [the shots] bothered me was when they hit the bone. The needle would bend and sometimes it would break. I didn't like it."
He played just eight seasons, after arriving as a No. 1 pick from LSU in 1944, but he retired as the NFL's leading rusher. He remains third on the Eagles' all-time list with 5,860 yards, second with 77 career touchdowns. Van Buren was the first Eagle elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 1965.
"On the field and off, as a player, a leader and a man, Steve Van Buren embodied the finest characteristics of our city and our sport," Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement. "He was a friend and an inspiration to generations of fans, and the model of what an Eagle should be."
Van Buren, survived by three of his daughters and his brother, former Eagle Ebert Van Buren, had lived in a nursing home outside of Lancaster in recent years. Several years ago, he was admitted into the NFL's 88 Plan for ex-players coping with dementia, which may have been caused by the many hits he took.
Last season, LeSean McCoy eclipsed Van Buren's records for total touchdowns and rushing touchdowns in a season. Nate Pipitone, who is married to Van Buren's daughter, Lynare, told the Eagles' website that Van Buren was in the hospital recovering from a slight stroke when the records were broken. The game was on television and Van Buren heard his name mentioned by the announcers. Van Buren asked Pipitone why they were talking about him. Pipitone explained and Van Buren said, "Good."
"Records were not important to him," Pipitone said then. "He always rooted for the Eagles and he bleeds green. He never was worried about somebody breaking his record. He always rooted for somebody to break the record. We think that McCoy's accomplishments are fantastic. We believe that he had highlighted just how great Steve was because Steve actually did it in 10 games. For them not to be able to do it in 10 games 66 years later is a tribute to Steve. We were excited to see him back in the limelight, but he's a humble guy and always has been."
The NovaCare auditorium, where the Eagles hold their news conferences, is dominated by four huge photos on fabric, covering much of the wall space. The photos are of Van Buren, Bednarik, Tommy McDonald and Reggie White, Hall of Famers all.