In honour of the late Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik, who died over the weekend at the age of 89, here is the chapter that I wrote on him for my book Pain Gang: Pro Football’s 50 Toughest Players. It features quotes from an exclusive interview I conducted with Bednarik and many of his adversaries of the day in 2005.
With the average NFL career lasting approximately three years, dominating at the game’s highest level for 14 seasons is quite an accomplishment. To do it while seeing full-time duty on both sides of the football is even rarer. Yet Chuck Bednarik did just that while putting together a Hall of Fame career as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1949 to 1962.
The bulldozing center and hard-hitting linebacker was among the very best of his generation and was widely considered the last iron man star to play both offense and defense in the same game, cementing his status as one of the sport’s legends.
In order to succeed under such a heavy workload, the rugged and bruising Bednarik had to draw on every ounce of the toughness he learned a long way from the football field many years before he became an NFL star.
As a native of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Bednarik learned the value of hard work at a young age. His Czechoslovakian-immigrant parents worked and they worked hard. His father, Charles, was an open-hearth steelworker – a sweltering, dangerous job – while his mother, Mary, was a factory worker.
“I came from poverty-stricken parents,” admitted the eight-time Pro Bowler, who joined the Eagles in 1949 after the reigning NFL champions won the annual draft lottery. “I was the first pick in the draft and I received a salary of $10,000. I felt like I was a millionaire, a wealthy person. That was a lot of money at that time. I was very happy and excited.”
Before he could begin enjoying the relative wealth that would come from being an NFL player, Bednarik learned the meaning of real toughness when, as a fresh-faced teenager, he served in World War II as a member of the Air Force.
“I was stationed in England and flew 30 bombing missions over Germany as a gunner on a B-24 and survived,” Bednarik revealed. “I couldn’t wait to get in there and as soon as they started to shoot at us like crazy, I thought, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’
“That was quite an experience for me as a kid because I was only 19 years old.”
After the war, Bednarik turned his attention to football and arrived with little fanfare at the University of Pennsylvania. He soon began attracting the interest of NFL scouts as he won All-America honors as a center in his final two seasons and scooped the Maxwell Award as college football’s best player in 1948.
Having joined the Eagles, the ultra-competitive Bednarik faced a frustrating start to his NFL career as he was coming back from a pre-season injury and was told to sit out and get healthy by head coach Earl ‘Greasy’ Neale while Philadelphia opened the 1949 campaign with wins over the New York Bulldogs and Detroit Lions.
Throughout the rest of his 169-game career, Bednarik was a virtual ever-present in the starting line-up. He missed just one other contest as he proved to be as durable as he was intimidating.
“I was very proud of that achievement,” admitted Bednarik. “I was lucky to miss so few games in 14 years with the Eagles.”
Bednarik helped Philadelphia to a second consecutive NFL championship in his rookie season as he began to make a mark around the league as a dominant and aggressive blocker on running and passing plays.
On defense, he boasted good size at 6-foot-3 and 233 pounds and, as well as being a brutally hard hitter, he could defend the pass effectively and had a nose for creating turnovers.
“Chuck was big and rangy and he could stick you,” said Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame fullback Jim Taylor. “He was a tremendous competitor and was a perfect example of how to form tackle an opponent.”
In 1950, Bednarik received the first of nine All-NFL honors – the initial selection being based on his play at center. Although he played offense and defense through the 1956 season, it was, as would be expected, as a linebacker that he drew the most attention.
He was voted an All-NFL linebacker every year from 1951 to 1957 and again in 1960. During that spell, Bednarik enjoyed one of his best seasons as the 1953 campaign saw him record six interceptions for 116 yards and a touchdown. He also recovered four fumbles.
“Chuck Bednarik was a tough son of a bitch,” said San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame fullback Joe Perry, recalling his battles with Philadelphia’s immovable linebacker. “I can remember one time when we first met up and I was running into their defense. I was the type who never backed away from anyone.
“We met head on and we knocked each other out. I remember I kind of woke up and said, ‘Is that you, Chuck?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s me and I’ll be here all day.’
“We had great times really going at each other. There was never any dirty stuff. Every once in a while you would get one guy who would twist your ankle or do something under the pile but not Bednarik. He hit you and he hit you clean.”
Bednarik’s tackling style came under much scrutiny during the 1960 season when he knocked New York Giants halfback and flanker Frank Gifford out for the remainder of that year and the entire 1961 campaign. The pair famously clashed on a cold, windswept November afternoon at New York’s Yankee Stadium in a key Eastern Conference battle.
The Eagles were holding a 17-10 lead with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, but the Giants were threatening to tie the game as they embarked on a last-minute drive downfield. Gifford was lined up wide on the outside, and he caught the ball deep in Eagles territory on a down-and-in pattern. That’s when Bednarik struck, and the Giants star never saw the brutal hit coming. He was knocked to the ground in violent fashion and suffered a concussion and a serious head injury.
“Chuck knocked him right out of his shoes,” recalled Eagles defensive back Tom Brookshier.
Unaware of the seriousness of his opponent’s injury, Bednarik stood over his fallen and unconscious foe and celebrated forcing a fumble that won the game for the Eagles. It was an image that made newspapers across the United States the following day. Critics accused Bednarik of blind-siding Gifford. He disputes such claims to this day.
“I’m satisfied with the tackle,” Bednarik insisted. “Things that happen in New York often get magnified and it happened to be on Frank Gifford. I made a hell of a tackle and saved the game for us. And it made headlines.
“That same play against anybody else would have been forgotten but it happened to be in New York. I come across Frank occasionally and he always says, ‘I made you famous, didn’t I?’ Because it was Frank Gifford, the popular kid, and it was in New York City.”
Despite suffering serious injuries that ultimately ended his career, Gifford held no grudge against Bednarik and insisted: “It was perfectly legal. If I’d had the chance, I’d have done the same thing Chuck did.”
The 1960 campaign was also memorable for Bednarik because, at the age of 35 and in his 12th season, he returned to the role of a two-way terror and helped the Eagles back to the top of the NFL mountain.
Already starting at center, Bednarik answered the call for help when he replaced the injured Bob Pellegrini at left outside linebacker in the fifth game of the season against the Cleveland Browns. Bednarik ended up seeing double duty throughout the season and played in close to 400 of a possible 720 minutes in a 12-game campaign.
“I was very proud and delighted to have helped my team the way I did,” admitted Bednarik. “One of our guys got hurt and the coach put me into the starting line-up at linebacker and I was already playing center.
“When I say I played both ways, I made contact on every play as a center and I made contact on every play as a linebacker. Not like this guy Deion Sanders who was in the secondary doing dances and considering himself a two-way player. Hell, he couldn’t tackle my wife, Emma!”
In the 1960 title game against the Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, Bednarik played in 135 of a possible 138 plays as the hometown Eagles recorded a memorable 17-13 victory. The only three plays he missed were Philadelphia kickoffs.
“They gave me a breather and let me take a rest,” Bednarik joked.
Despite his heavy workload and advancing years, Bednarik found enough gas in the tank to make the championship-winning play for the Eagles as he tackled Packers fullback Taylor at Philadelphia’s nine-yard line after he caught a pass out of the backfield. He then proceeded to lay on Taylor until the stadium clock hit double zero.
“I’ll never forget that,” Bednarik said. “It was the play of the game, and if he gets by me the Eagles would not have won a championship game since 1949, my rookie year.
“Jim Taylor was a powerful runner. He came through the line, caught the pass and fortunately I grabbed him and got him down. And then I held him there. He was squirming and saying, ‘Get the hell off me. Get the f*** off me.’
“And I saw the clock in the end zone was going five, four, three… and he’s squirming… two, one, zero. I said, ‘You can get up now. This f***ing game is over.’”
“He played that very smart,” added Taylor, who has remained close friends with Bednarik since that day. “We didn’t have any timeouts left and we needed a touchdown. The ball was dumped to me and he buried me. The clock was going tick, tick, tick and he just wouldn’t get up.”
That 1960 title showdown and, in fact, the whole season, showed just how much of a will to win Chuck Bednarik possessed. He was willing to step up to the plate when his team needed him most and, although long in the tooth for an NFL player, he displayed amazing stamina and steel to lead the Eagles to glory.
“Chuck Bednarik was absolutely awesome,” said Eagles Hall of Fame wide receiver Tommy McDonald, who scored a touchdown in that victory over the Packers. “I had to admire number 60 because of his determination.
“He played the game to the highest level it could be played. He was a guy who would give it his best the second he crossed the white line and stepped onto the field. He was so determined to be the best and that was inspiring to the rest of our team.”
When he retired from the game at the end of the 1962 campaign, Bednarik took with him a personal reminder of his days in the National Football League. Countless fractures and dislocations, ligament and cartilage damage left his fingers going in all different directions.
Yet somehow those gnarled and worn hands reeled in 20 career interceptions and scooped up 21 fumbles. And the misdirected digits do not stop Bednarik – a member of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 1967 – from playing his beloved accordion to this day.
As he looked back on his career in the professional ranks, Bednarik concluded: “I would like to be remembered as the last guy who really played football the way it originated – going both ways on offense and defense.”
Few would dispute that claim. Bednarik will go down in history as the last of the two-way terrors.