Mean & Clean: Football Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik

By J.F. Pirro

Numbers are important in sports — but perhaps no jersey number in history is a better match than the No. 60 Chuck Bednarik wore. First at the University of Pennsylvania and then with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1949-62, Bethlehem’s South Side native became the last of the two-way, 60-minute men of his era. He played center on offense and linebacker on defense. He never left the field.

“It’s a nice number,” he says. “But I just wanted to stay on the field and play the game. I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines.”

Now, with age, numbers play an equally-important role in  Bednarik’s life. Daily, at 85, he never misses 8 a.m. mass. His doctors like his medical numbers — and at halftime on Sept. 12 at Lincoln Financial Field, he and surviving teammates from the Eagles’ 1960 NFL Championship (the pre-Super Bowl days) will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their still-surprising 17-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

“When you tell me that, I just say, ‘Wow, it’s been 50 years’,” Bednarik says from a swing on his back patio in Coopersburg, where he and his wife of 62 years, Emma, have lived the last 30 years. “Time really goes quickly.”

When Green Bay tried to answer the Eagles’ last score for the last time on Dec. 26, 1960, the final seconds of the clock ticked off slowly. With only 12 seconds left, Packers’ quarterback Bart Starr flipped a pass to Jim Taylor, who was met first by Bobby Jackson — and then by Bednarik, who sat on the frustrated superstar. The mini-drama ended the game at the Eagles’ nine-yard line.

“He was squirming, but I just laid on him,” Bednarik says. “I looked up at the clock, and once I saw it hit zero, I said, ‘You can get up now. This game is over.’ That was the best tackle of my career. It had to be because it will always be remembered for ending the game the last time the Eagles won a championship.”

His nickname “Concrete Charlie” stuck because Bednarik sold the stuff in the off-season to help support Emma and five daughters. Now, his reputation — and his jersey number, which the Eagles retired in 1962 — is as permanent in football’s annals as concrete. Along with garnering two NFL championship rings (one as a rookie with the 1949 Eagles, too), he was inducted into National Football Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1967. During his college career at Penn, he was a two-time All-American who won the prestigious Maxwell Award in 1948. He was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

“Just think, I’m a poor kid from Bethlehem who grew up during the Depression who made it big in sports,” Bednarik says. “The only thing we could do was play sports. We played in the street. There was no traffic. There were no cars.”

The second oldest of six children, Bednarik was raised three blocks from Lehigh University, where he attended football games and wrestling events for decades. As a vocational-technical student, Bednarik studied electrical work, figuring he’d work at Bethlehem Steel like his father, but his high school coach John Butler suggested Bednarik was athletic scholarship material. “I guess I had God-given ability,” he admits.

Initially, it didn’t much matter since Bednarik was drafted into the military before graduation. He survived 30 bombing missions as an aerial gunner on a B-24 Liberator in 10 months of combat during World War II. He received five air medals and five battle stars.

After the war, Butler still paved Bednarik’s way into Penn. Then, he was the Eagles No. 1 pick in 1949. His agent, a priest, helped secure a $10,000 salary and a $3,000 signing bonus. He made about $114,000 in his 14-year playing career, but more in his retirement as a popular speaker and guest at trading card shows. For 20 years, he also chaired the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, which oversees boxing rules and events. There continue to be books, like his son-in-law Ken Safarowic’s Concrete Charlie: An Oral History of Philadelphia’s Greatest Football Legend Chuck Bednarik (2009). The daily mail bag is typically full of letters and objects, like mini footballs or helmets to sign.

In the Eagles’ Dick Vermeil era, the Super Bowl coach made Bednarik an honorary coach so he could walk the sidelines at games. “I wanted him to stand as a symbol of a winning tradition that had been lost,” Vermeil says. “I wanted him to be a sign of an Eagle who was a winner. The 1960 team really established the depth of the importance of professional football in Philadelphia. That team had such dynamic leadership, deep leadership and so many guys who were so great for the whole community.”

Even for “Concrete Charlie,” there was always a tender spot for sick children, for adults, for any fan in a hospital. Bednarik paid many a visit. “They would be in awe that I was there and talking to them,” he says now.

The Bednariks chiefly give to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and the National Federation of the Blind. But there are also 10 grandchildren and one new great-grandchild to spoil.

In his career, Bednarik was spoiled, but still thinks maybe he should have been the 1960 championship game’s Most Valuable Player and won the Chevrolet Corvette, not Eagles’ quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. Though he made the passes when he needed to, Van Brocklin did throw two interceptions, including one on the game’s first play.

Bednarik did make the game-saving tackle, and it was his defense that put up the momentous stands, including after that first interception on a fourth down from the Eagles’ seven. Lombardi opted to challenge the Eagles, but Taylor’s run fell short of a first down.

On the Packers’ second possession of the second half, on fourth-and-one at the Philadelphia 25, Lombardi again decided to go for a first down instead of kicking a field goal. Taylor pounded the center of the Eagle line, and was again stopped short. More importantly, on the preceding play, a Bednarik hit knocked the Packers’ all-purpose halfback Paul Hornung out for the rest of the game, except for some kicking duties.

“That was the third guy he put out the same way that year,” says Bob Gordon, the author of The 1960 Philadelphia Eagles: The Team That They Said Had Nothing but a Championship (2001). “They were all clean hits. It was just how he hit you.”

“Mean and clean — that’s my favorite expression,” Bednarik says.

His favorite number, obviously, is No. 60. Emma, who is spry at age 84, says Chuck constantly reminds her of that: “Anything he sees with that number, he says, ‘See, I made that famous,’” she says.

“I wonder how many kids grew up wanting to wear that number because Chuck Bednarik wore it?” he ponders.

J.F. Pirro has been published in more than 75 magazines and dozens of daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. He’s written about social trends, religion, historic preservation, 18th century America, canine curiosities and sports and recreation.

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