Van Buren, Stephen Wood ("Steve")

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VAN BUREN, Stephen Wood ("Steve")

(b. 28 December 1920 in La Ceiba, Honduras), football running back known for his size, speed, power, and elusiveness, who was the first runner in the history of the National Football League to gain more than 1,000 yards in more than one season; led the Philadelphia Eagles to consecutive shutout championship victories in 1948 and 1949; and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The son of an American fruit inspector, Wood Van Buren, and a Spanish woman, Lenare, Van Buren grew up in a Central American shipping port. At age ten he was orphaned, so in 1930 Van Buren, his brother, and his three sisters went to New Orleans to live with their grandparents. He recalled, "In Honduras, I was too young to play much of anything but running games. We'd never heard of football. But when I was about fifteen, my first year at Warren Easton High School in New Orleans, I used to watch the other boys play football. It seemed like a good game, so I went out for the team. But I only weighed a hundred twenty-five pounds, and all the coach would let me do was run up and down the field—not play or scrimmage. When it came to actually playing football, he told me to forget it. He was afraid I'd get hurt."

Van Buren dropped out of high school, even though he was a good student, and worked in an iron foundry. "The foundry work was hard, but I liked it, and it built me up," he said. Two years and thirty pounds later Van Buren went back to high school. He played football as an end rather than as a running back. After graduation in 1940, Van Buren enrolled in the engineering program at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, where he came close to his professional playing weight of 208 pounds. The six-foot Van Buren finally got to play in the backfield for the Bayou Tigers coached by Bernie Moore, but in his first two varsity seasons he rarely was given the chance to run with the ball. He was primarily a blocking fullback for the halfback Alvin Dark, who later gained notoriety as a Major League Baseball player and manager. When Dark went into military service—Van Buren was exempt because of a chronic eye ailment—Moore moved Van Buren to a halfback position, where he got to carry the ball frequently.

Van Buren responded positively to the change. He led the nation in scoring in 1943 with ninety-eight points and was second only to Notre Dame's Creighton Miller in rushing yardage. In 1944 Van Buren graduated from LSU with a B.S. in engineering.

On Moore's recommendation the Philadelphia Eagles picked Van Buren during the first round of the National Football League (NFL) college-player draft. Van Buren was unfamiliar with the Eagles, a perennial noncontender at the time, saying, "We didn't hear much about pro ball in the South. I only knew about the Washington Redskins and the Chicago Bears." As if to prove his point, Van Buren, on his first trip to Philadelphia, missed his stop at the North Philly station and ended up in New York. Still feeling the effects of an appendectomy, Van Buren missed some early games in his 1944 rookie season, carrying the ball only eighty times. However, his 5.5 yards-per-carry average earned him first team Associated Press All-Pro honors.

In 1945 he led the NFL in rushing with 832 yards and in scoring with 110 points. He also set a record by scoring eighteen touchdowns in a single season. In 1946 he slipped to third place in rushing (529 yards with a 4.6 average), but in 1947 Van Buren and the Eagles came back with a vengeance. In that year, Van Buren gained 1,008 yards—a feat previously achieved only by Beattie Feathers of the Chicago Bears, who in 1934 gained 1,004 yards. Also in 1947 the Eagles were in the championship game for the first time in their history. On the frozen turf of Chicago's Comiskey Park, they lost 28–21 to the Cardinals. In 1948 Van Buren fell below the 1,000-yard mark, but the Eagles were again in the title game—again facing the Chicago Cardinals. The game was played in a blizzard, but neither the snow nor the Cardinals could stop the "Movin' Van," as Van Buren was sometimes called. He scored the game's only touchdown.

In 1949 Van Buren and the Eagles broke new ground. Van Buren became the first NFL runner to have a second 1,000-yard season (1,146). The Eagles won another NFL championship, defeating the Los Angeles Rams, 14–0. This second consecutive shutout victory was unique in the history of football. Van Buren, referred to as "Supersonic Steve" as the jet age arrived, slogged through the Los Angeles Coliseum's quagmire for 196 yards—a mark that still stood in 2001 as an NFL/NFC championship game record. Van Buren married Grace Callahan during Philadelphia's championship era; they had three daughters.

By now Van Buren was a familiar sight in the NFL, both on and off the field. On the streets he looked like any other young professional, except he never wore socks. In postwar America, socklessness was a fashion statement. On the field, "Wham Bam" Van Buren was always seen with the ball tucked under his right arm (a shoulder injury prevented him from carrying the ball in his left arm or from switching the ball when a tackler approached), with his head down. One of his coaches, Earle "Greasy" Neale, told him he would be a better runner if he ran with his head up. Van Buren tried it and came to the bench with a puffy eye. "Greasy," he said, "now I know why I run with me head down." The Eagles end Jack Ferrante was once clipped by Van Buren when he cut more suddenly than Ferrante expected. As Ferrante lay on the ground, an unsympathetic opponent bent over him and said, "Hurts, doesn't it? Now you know how we feel when we try to tackle him."

Neale compared Van Buren to two football immortals, Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski, saying, "Steve is as fast and elusive as Grange, but he doesn't need to have the blocking Red did. He can, and does, run right over would-be tacklers like the Bronk did." The one thing Neale didn't like about Van Buren was his apparent disregard for punctuality. When his star runner was late for a meeting, Neale declared, "I've had enough! Either you or I go, Steve." With one voice, Van Buren's teammates chorused, "Good-bye, Greasy, good-bye."

As the winning Eagles nucleus aged in the 1950s, Van Buren suffered a broken toe and some fractured ribs. He still banged his way to a respectable 629 yards in the 1950 season, but his average fell to 3.3 yards per carry. The effects lingered in 1951, when the once unstoppable "Flying Dutchman" averaged just 2.9 yards to a total of 327 yards. He had also suffered a knee injury in the first scrimmage in training camp before the season. That year the Eagles—on name value alone, or perhaps in hope of recaptured glory—drafted Van Buren's younger brother, Ebert, during their first-round pick. Ebert's three-year career brought him a rushing total of sixty-one yards.

Determined to come back after two subpar seasons, Van Buren took countless whirlpool treatments and ran hundreds of sprints getting ready for 1952, but his ability to pivot, robbed by the knee injury, was gone. He tried so hard to regain it that he developed a bone spur on his once-broken toe. Van Buren retired with records for most career yards rushed (5,860), most career attempts (1,320), most yards rushed in a single season (1,146), and most touchdowns in a season (18). He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1965.

Although he was once named the Southeastern Conference scholar-athlete of the year, Van Buren, to whom money meant little, never put his engineering background to use. He was an Eagles assistant for a while and later worked as a head coach for the minor league Newark (New Jersey) Bears, owned a used-car lot and a dance hall, and indulged a lifelong passion for horse racing. In retirement, he lived in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia.

Van Buren was a prototype for the NFL "franchise" running backs of the late twentieth century. At Eagles Alumni Day games, he is recognized as "Mr. Eagle," and the longest and loudest ovation is always for Van Buren. When former Eagles players reverently mention "Steve," there is no need to ask, "Steve who?" Without a trace of braggadocio, Van Buren once summarized his career by saying, "I set a record every year I wasn't hurt."

Van Buren's life and career are discussed in George Sullivan, Pro Football's All-Time Greats (1968); Murray Olderman, The Running Backs (1969); Myron Cope, The Game That Was (1970); and Lud Duroska, Great Pro Running Backs (1973).

Jim Campbell

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Van Buren, Stephen Wood ("Steve")

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