It was the dimming of an era for the Philadelphia Eagles, although few would have guessed it on that mild December afternoon in Franklin Field, and a final throwback moment for the NFL, a league edging toward the cusp of the modern age.
If one player on that day symbolized the passage soon to take place, it was Chuck Bednarik of the Eagles, a square brute from the hard hills of the Lehigh Valley who played both center and linebacker, every play, as the Eagles captured their most recent championship with a 17-13 win over the Green Bay Packers.
It was Dec. 26, 1960, and the world would never be the same again.
"We got $3,500 each for winning that game. That was a hell of a lot of money," Bednarik says. "I bought a car."
Those were the last championship checks cashed by the Eagles, and even that group fell quickly back to earth. Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin left to coach the expansion Minnesota Vikings the following season. Coach Buck Shaw retired, and no Eagles head coach would record a winning record during his tenure until Dick Vermeil.
Picking out one play from 75 years of football to stand as the shining moment for a franchise is an illusory task. The perspective is different for each generation, the sand of what constitutes greatness shifts beneath the feet.
Was it a great individual play . . . Randall scrambling around forever before finding a receiver 70 yards downfield in an otherwise meaningless game . . . a great combination of teamwork . . . a season-altering play, even if not that amazing itself . . . What would be the best? All those years, all those plays.
Every list is different, and every one yields a legitimate argument. For me, make it 1960. Make it the championship game. Make it Bednarik.
The Packers were a team becoming. Their young head coach, Vince Lombardi, had taken a doormat team in 1959 and made it into the surprise Western Conference champions of 1960. That decade, the Packers would go on to win five NFL championships (and the first two Super Bowls against the as-yet unabsorbed AFL).
The roster of accomplishments would not begin against the Eagles, however.
The championship game went back and forth. Green Bay led the statistical battle but trailed with just over five minutes to play when Ted Dean scored on a short run to give the Eagles their 17-13 lead.
Bart Starr led the Packers downfield, fighting the Eagles' defense and the clock at the same time. The crowd murmured as Starr completed four straight passes to put the ball at the Eagles' 22 with less than a minute remaining and the clock winding.
Starr had one more completion in his arm that day, but he chose to make it in the wrong part of the field. He flipped a pass over the middle to running back Jim Taylor, who broke one tackle and saw nothing but end zone in front of him. Then, suddenly, he saw a lot of Chuck Bednarik.
"He was an extremely good runner," Bednarik says. "All of them were good, a bunch of really rugged kids. I guess if he got by me, they score and they win."
Taylor had gained 13 yards on the play and was inside the Eagles' 10 when Bednarik got hold of him. Getting by him wasn't going to happen. The two of them went down, with Bednarik flattened on top of Taylor, and Bednarik began to watch the sweep of the second hand on the old scoreboard clock that hung on Weightman Hall at the open end of the stadium. Taylor struggled beneath him and Starr tried to get the Packers to the line for one more play.
From the sideline, receiver Tommy McDonald took it all in, and decided: "Nobody's getting up."
The clock reached zero, the gun sounded, and Bednarik finally rose.
"You can get up now, Jim," Bednarik recalls saying. "This [expletive] game is over."
Fans swarmed the field, made a brief attempt to pick up Bednarik, thought better of it, and settled for merely surrounding him as he stood with his arms raised among them.
"You know, they haven't had a championship since that one," Bednarik says.
Yes, we know. And we know that men who played both offense and defense are fading memories as well. Bednarik, who flew 30 missions over Europe as a gunner in a B-24 during World War II, played many games in Franklin Field upon his return. He was a two-time all-American for Penn and finished third in the 1948 Heisman Trophy voting.
With the Eagles, he won a championship as a rookie in 1949 - when the team still played at Shibe Park - and then, finally, another in 1960. He retired two years later.
Bednarik has had some spats with the Eagles organization over the years, but he still tries to get to a practice or two when the team trains at Lehigh, not far from his Coopersburg home. Andy Reid asked if he would say a few words to the team during one of those visits.
"I told them, 'Be mean and be clean,' " Bednarik says. " 'Always play clean, but look at them like you're going to knock the [expletive] out of them.' That's the way you do it."
That's the way Bednarik did it, anyway. He's 82 now, and attends Mass every day at St. Joseph's Parish in Limeport. He gets there early and says a rosary beforehand. On Fridays, he and his wife go to the farmers market in Quakertown and walk most of the morning. That's good exercise and keeps him going.
He is Chuck Bednarik and he played every down. And, at least the way it looks from here, he made the greatest play in the 75-year history of the Philadelphia Eagles.
You can get up now, Jim.
Oct. 10, 1988:
Randall's Great Escape
Before a national Monday Night Football audience, Randall Cunningham somehow survived a direct blow to the knees from Giants linebacker Carl Banks on a rollout, kept himself miraculously upright with a well-placed hand to the ground, and zipped a touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Giles just before being crushed by Harry Carson. The Eagles won, 24-13, on their way to the only division title they would capture between 1980 and 2001. On the list of Randall's greats, this wins by an eyelash over that ridiculous 95-yard TD pass to Fred Barnett against the Bills in 1990.
Jan. 11, 1981:
Wilbert's Touchdown Run
Set the tone much? Wilbert Montgomery took off on a 42-yard TD gallop on the second Eagles play from scrimmage in the NFC championship game against the hated Cowboys. The Eagles went on to win the game by 20-7 and earn their first Super Bowl berth. Montgomery was the team's all-time rushing leader (6,538 yards), with 58 touchdowns as an Eagle. None was bigger than this one.
A week later, a season-ending loss to Carolina in the NFC championship game would mute this somewhat, but at the time, the Donovan McNabb-to-Freddie Mitchell completion against the Green Bay Packers in the division playoff round was pretty spectacular. "Just get it to Freddie. Give us a chance," offensive coordinator Brad Childress said to McNabb before the play, and that's what McNabb did, finding the flamboyant receiver over the middle and just beyond the first-down marker. The drive to tie the game stayed miraculously alive and the Eagles won in overtime, 20-17.
Dec. 19, 1948:
Van Buren Scores
In a full blizzard at Shibe Park, the Eagles won their first NFL championship, 7-0, over the Chicago Cardinals. Steve Van Buren's fourth-quarter, 5-yard TD run behind guard Bucko Kilroy was the only score. Kilroy, who played collegiately at Temple, also set up the score by recovering a Chicago fumble. "Steve Van Buren was our paycheck," Kilroy said, looking back on those teams. "We ran the power-running wing and Van Buren was it."