In the week that a talented, 24-year-old linebacker retired from pro football because he didn’t want to risk serious injury, we learn of the death Saturday of Chuck Bednarik, the NFL’s last 60-minute man. Taking the opposite approach from that of young Chris Borland, now a former San Francisco 49er, Bednarik said in retirement that he wished he could have played until he was 65. “That would have been just long enough,” he said.
Bednarik, 89 at his passing, only missed three games in his 14 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. In most of those games he played center on offense and linebacker on defense. He also played some on special teams, including punting. He made the Pro Bowl eight times during his career and played on the Eagles’ last NFL championship team in 1960.
Bednarik was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1967, the first year of his eligibility. Coaches and sportswriters now give the Chuck Bednarik Award to their pick for the best collegiate defensive player of the year. The Eagles retired Bednarik’s uniform number 60 in 1987.
In those pre-Dick Butkus days, Bednarik was known for his fierce tackling, a signature example of which being a 1960 hit on New York Giant running back Frank Gifford in Yankee Stadium that knocked Gifford out and put him in the hospital for two weeks. Gifford missed the rest of that season and the next. To show that there was nothing personal in the All-Pro wallop, Bednarik sent Gifford a fruit basket while Gifford was still in hospital. Nice Touch. Chuck was not a non-directive counselor. Gifford has often said he has no hard feelings toward Bednarik for his devastating but legal hit.
Bednarik’s nickname was Concrete Charlie, not entirely because he spent the off-season selling cement. (The Eagles never paid Bednarik more than $22,000 for a season, so off-season employment wasn’t optional.) He enjoyed his tough-guy reputation and had some fun in retirement at the expense of the modern offense-only or defense-only players who he called “pussy-foots” who “suck air after five plays.” He suggested they probably couldn’t tackle his wife Emma. Now I wouldn’t say this to Julius Peppers. But that’s just me. (None of the obits and tributes to Bednarik that I read featured photos of Emma. But my guess is Julius could probably take her in a fair fight.)
Bednarik wasn’t just a tough player but a smart one as well. His teammate and Eagles defensive back Tom Brookshier expanded on this for Sports Illustrated in 1993. “He had such a sense for the game,” Brookshier said. “You could do all that shifting and put all those men in motion and Chuck still went right where the ball was.”
Bednarik was a warrior even before he put on number 60 for the Eagles. Incautious enough to be born in 1925, Bednarik found his own way to beat the draft in World War II. He enlisted. He flew 30 missions over Germany as a tail-gunner on a B-24. His first targets were not running backs but Messerschmitts and Focke Wulfs.
Bednarik entered the United States Army Air Forces at 18 and at 180 pounds. He played in the NFL at 235 (big for his era, but a starveling next to today’s NFL weight-room geeks). After the war Bednarik was an All-American at Penn and was drafted by the Eagles in 1949. Born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to Slovak immigrant parents, Bednarik spent his entire life in Pennsylvania.
It’s hard to say what physical price, if any, Bednarik paid for all those collisions he endured (to hear him tell it, enjoyed) during the NFL’s pre-face-mask days. His daughter Pamela said he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Others in the family suggest his dementia was caused, or at least aggravated by football. But many folks in their late eighties who never played a single snap on the gridiron have similar maladies. So we are left in doubt.
What is not in doubt is that Bednarik was a patriot who served his country bravely and honorably in combat. He was a fine and remarkably durable athlete who brought honor and interest to the NFL in the days before the NFL went PC and uber-sensitive. Breitbart Sports reports that Bednarik admitted to using Benzedrine for night games and smoked before the game, after the game, and during half time. His after-game pick-me-up was usually 86-proof. And he took it neat. All of this would be enough to make Roger Goodell hyperventilate. But Bednarik’s career was in the days before sensitivity sessions, before player tweets followed by apologies for tweets, and before it occurred to the NFL to ensure that their policies and practices don’t get crosswise with the LGBT movement.
We won’t see the likes of Chuck Bednarik again. His species is now extinct (without a peep out of the Sierra Club). He’s from another America at another time. Before testosterone was a controlled substance. Manliness a hate crime. Bednarik was an Eagle for his 14 NFL years. But he was also a giant.
Chuck Bednarik is survived by his wife Emma, to whom he was married for 67 years, five daughters, and 10 grandchildren. May this great American rest more peacefully than he played the game he loved.
Notice to Readers: The American Spectator and Spectator World are marks used by independent publishing companies that are not affiliated in any way. If you are looking for The Spectator World please click on the following link: https://thespectator.com/world.