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Mourners honor Bednarik in Bethlehem, his steel town home

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Despite a gray mist that clung to this city like grief, the South Bethlehem neighborhood where Chuck Bednarik grew up was visible from the second floor of Connell's Funeral Home on Thursday.

(David Swanson/Staff Photographer)
(David Swanson/Staff Photographer)Read more

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Despite a gray mist that clung to this city like grief, the South Bethlehem neighborhood where Chuck Bednarik grew up was visible from the second floor of Connell's Funeral Home on Thursday.

Across a roiling Lehigh River, so too were the now-dormant smokestacks of the Bethlehem Steel foundry where the late Eagles legend's Slovak-born father had earned a hard living.

Bethlehem said goodbye to Bednarik with a lengthy public viewing, a civic event that pointed out how much, at the end, Bednarik had in common with his faded industrial hometown.

Man and city both had steel at their cores. Both epitomized a vanished age, a grittier, tougher world. And eventually time and change hobbled each.

"Chuck was Pennsylvania," said former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil, one of the earliest visitors to line up outside the South Broad Street funeral home in advance of a viewing that stretched from noon to 4 p.m. and then again from 6 until 9 p.m.

"He was born in Bethlehem and played high school football here. He played in college at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He played his whole professional career for the Eagles. He retired and raised his family here. Who was more Pennsylvania than that?" asked Vermeil. "Maybe William Penn, that's about it."

They came, sporadically but steadily, throughout the gloomy day to the funeral home, expressing their sympathy to the family of Bednarik, the hard-nosed Pro and College Football Hall of Famer who died Saturday at 89.

Mourners ranged from Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to the Bethlehem residents who walked through the rain to attend. Some came in traditional black, while others, like Paul Bowen of Lansdale, wore Eagles jerseys bearing Bednarik's name and number 60.

"He was my idol," said Bowen, 71, tears welling in his eyes. "He was my role model for the way he played with the Eagles, for his faith, and for his service to our country."

Another fan in a Bednarik jersey, Denny Dougherty, drove three hours from his home in Walkersburg, Md.

"I was 18 and living in Philadelphia when Chuck and the Eagles won it in 1960," said Dougherty, 72, still an Eagles season-ticket holder. "I was at that game, and after Chuck sat on Jim Taylor and we won I rushed the field. I got a piece of the goalpost that I still have. I wouldn't miss this for anything."

As Harold Serfass of Macungie, Pa., entered the funeral home, he unbuttoned his jacket to display a T-shirt bearing the famous photo of a fist-pumping Bednarik standing over Frank Gifford, the New York Giants running back he had just flattened with a powerful tackle.

"Here it is, 'The Hit,' " said Serfass, making sure the reporters who had gathered outside the funeral home got a good glimpse. "Chuck Bednarik was the best. I'm a horse owner and I loved him so much I named one of my race horses after him. Concrete Charlie."

Though Gifford sometimes bristled at the way Bednarik seemed to glory in both the hit and the photo of its aftermath, he sent an arrangement of flowers for the viewing.

"That showed an awful lot of class on Gifford's part," Dougherty said.

Many of the earliest attendees were Bednarik contemporaries: Bethlehem Liberty High classmates; men who recalled him from his days as a World War II airman; those whose connection was the polka and accordion music he loved; and former football opponents and teammates, big, burly men who walked with limps.

"He was a rough guy, but he was a charming guy," said Pete Retzlaff, 83, the former Eagles general manager who was a teammate of the often-cantankerous Bednarik's on the Eagles' 1960 NFL champions.

When Retzlaff was asked to describe Bednarik as a teammate, he paused for several seconds.

"Well," he said at last, a twinkle in his eyes, "he was a no-nonsense man. I always found that the best way to stay on Chuck's good side was to compliment him on what a good game he had."

Pete Carril, 84, the longtime Princeton basketball coach, shuffled in to pay homage to a boyhood hero.

"I grew up in Bethlehem and everybody in Bethlehem then idolized Chuck," said Carril. "I was four years behind him at Bethlehem Liberty, but I saw him play often. He could do things on the football field you couldn't believe. And Chuck was a very good basketball player, too."

Although the media were barred from the funeral home, mourners reported that Bednarik had been laid out in his yellow Pro Football Hall of Fame blazer. Instead of a necktie, they said, he wore one of the bolo ties he favored toward the end of his life.

TVs showed video from the Eagles great's career and guests received a montage of Bednarik photos, including several of him with his family.

A private viewing and Mass will take place Friday.

"I'm a little surprised there aren't more people here," said George Monzak, 78, of Bethlehem, "because this city will never turn out another football player like him. I can guarantee you that."