Bednarik, Charles Philip ("Chuck")
BEDNARIK, Charles Philip ("Chuck")
(b. 1 May 1925 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania), professional football player who, despite other considerable accomplishments, is most famous for his performance during the 1960 championship season as "the last of the sixty-minute men."
Bednarik grew up in a blue-collar section of Bethlehem, a community in the Lehigh Valley whose economy depended heavily on the huge steel mill named for the town. His Slovak immigrant parents, Charles Albert Bednarik, a mill-wright at "the Steel," as the locals referred to the sprawling mill, and Mary Pivovarnicek, a homemaker, provided sufficiently for "Chuck" and his two siblings. Bednarik, a sturdy youngster, was a fine all-around athlete. Ironically at Bethlehem Catholic and Liberty High Schools he was a good football player but an excellent basketball and baseball player. As World War II raged, Bednarik was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps when he turned eighteen in May 1943. Like others of "the Greatest Generation," the teenage Bednarik had many harrowing experiences as a waist gunner in a B-24 bomber over Europe. He survived thirty bombing missions and was awarded the Air Medal with five battle stars and four oak leaf clusters. Bednarik recalled his last mission of 23 April 1945: "It was our thirtieth, the required number. When we got back to England, I jumped out and kissed the plane, kissed the ground, and vowed I would never fly again. Never! Of course, I was wrong. You couldn't play in the National Football League [NFL] and not fly."
When Bednarik enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1945, choosing the Ivy League school over Pennsylvania State University, he had grown from a six-foot, 180-pound high school senior to a six-foot, three-inch, 230-pound returning war veteran. His Penn career was a storied one. He was consensus All-America his final two seasons, and he won the Maxwell Award, second only to the Heisman Trophy in prestige. Bednarik played twenty-seven games at Penn, and the Quakers won twenty-four of those games. Before his last collegiate season, on 5 June 1948 Bednarik married Emma Margetich. They had five daughters. Soon after his graduation, with a B.S. degree in physical education, Bednarik was the first player taken in the National Football League (NFL) draft for 1949 by the Philadelphia Eagles.
The professional team Bednarik joined was destined to become NFL champions in 1949. It was a cliquish team on which a rookie, especially a highly touted, local, out-spoken one, had a hard time fitting in. But Bednarik's talent and desire could not be denied. He backed up the offensive center Vic Lindskog in 1949 and in 1950 began a run as one of the best linebackers, both outside and middle. Nicknamed "the Clutch" because once he got his large, strong hands on a ball carrier the play was usually over, Bednarik played in every Pro Bowl from 1951 to 1958 with the exception of 1956. He was for many years one of the few points of light on Eagles teams that were quite dismal.
With a trade for the quarterback Norm Van Brocklin in 1958 and a runner-up finish in 1959, the Eagles and Bednarik were set for the storybook season of 1960. The season did not begin well as the Browns bashed the Eagles 41–24. Two close wins over Dallas and St. Louis and a solid victory against Detroit placed the Eagles in a rematch with the Browns in Cleveland. Bob Pelligrini, an outside linebacker, was injured early in the game, and Coach Buck Shaw asked Bednarik, playing center, to play Pelligrini's position in addition to his own. "Concrete Charlie," another nickname acquired during his days as an off-season cement salesman, played a then unheard-of fifty-two minutes, and the Eagles won, 31–29, on a long, late field goal by Bobby Walston. The Eagles did not taste defeat again until the last game of the season, when many regulars, but not Bednarik, were rested. Coming into that final game Bednarik averaged fifty-eight minutes of action over a stretch of crucial games.
On 20 November 1960 in New York City, Bednarik made "the tackle heard round the world." Late in the game, with the Eagles ahead 17–10, the Giants drove for the tying score. Frank Gifford, the Giants Hall of Fame halfback, caught a pass and dodged and darted dangerously close to scoring territory. He instinctively cut back without looking and ran right into the pursuing Bednarik. Gifford went down as if shot. The ball came loose and was recovered by the Eagles, assuring victory for Philadelphia. An elated Bednarik danced a Slovak version of an Irish jig. The Giants and their fans misinterpreted this as disrespectful of the fallen Gifford, who suffered a concussion, but the always emotional Bednarik simply was celebrating an important victory. In a scheduling oddity, the Giants played the Eagles the next Sunday in Philadelphia. During the week, especially in New York City, much talk focused on getting Bednarik. It never happened. With Bednarik "going both ways," the Eagles won the grudge match 31–23. Gifford sat out the entire 1961 season as a result of the deep concussion. When Gifford married Kathie Lee, he told her, "A name you'll hear often is Chuck Bednarik—get used to it." He then explained the connection. Lee once said, "When I first heard Chuck Bednarik, I thought it was a pasta dish."
By winning the Eastern Division the Eagles were pitted against Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers in the NFL title game. After Green Bay went ahead 13–10, the Eagles used a long kickoff return to set up their own go-ahead touchdown. But the Packers drove as the clock ran down. With only seconds left Jimmy Taylor caught a pass from Bart Starr, and the powerhouse fullback rumbled toward a touchdown. He pinballed past several Eagles, but finally "the Clutch" grabbed him. The Packers had no timeouts, and Bednarik continued to hold Taylor until the Franklin Field clock showed 0:00. The Eagles were world champions, the only team that ever defeated Lombardi in a championship game. Bednarik recalled, "I said, 'Okay, Taylor, you can get up now—it's over.'"
Bednarik, thirty-five years old at the time of his iron man performances, had planned to call it a career after the 1960 season, but he was persuaded to play another two years. When asked how he prepared for his sixty-minute role, Bednarik said: "I practiced with the offense all during the week, and would stay out afterwards with [defensive coordinator] Jerry Williams and work on the defenses. Physically, I was in good enough shape to go both ways, although at times I felt a little silly standing out there in the middle of the field by myself as forty-two other guys ran on and off."
Bednarik was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967 after the mandatory five-year wait. He was a College Football Hall of Fame inductee in 1969. He settled in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, not far from his native Bethlehem. A vocal critic of the modern NFL, he became an advocate for better pensions for the pro pioneers of his day and before.
Bednarik was an outstanding player who at thirty-five became a throwback to twenty or more years before, when all players "went both ways." His contributions to his team in the 1960 championship season became one of the enduring legends of pro football history. Any legitimate all-time team, college or pro, would have to give serious consideration to Bednarik. In 1994, at age sixty-nine, Bednarik wrote a friend, "I guess I'm a dreamer, but I feel like I could still snap the ball [for punts, extra points, and field goals] in the NFL today."
Jack McCallum wrote a biography of Bednarik, Chuck Bednarik: The Last of the Sixty-Minute Men (1977). Bednarik's life and career are discussed in George Sullivan, Pro Football's All-Time Greats (1968); Murray Olderman, The Defenders (1973); and George Allen with Ben Olan, Pro Football's 100 Greatest Players (1982).