By happy accident, the city of Philadelphia has been blessed over the years with a number of sports stars who embody the city’s general temperament: pugnacious, diligent, and impolitic. The town has little love for professional athletes in the movie star or gentleman mode. Instead, Philadelphians revere men such as Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Reggie White, Jerome Brown, John Kruk, and Bobby Clarke. The loud tough guys who care about the game.
Last week one of the great Philadelphia tough guys passed away. “Concrete Charlie” Bednarik was 89 years old and Philly through and through. A local boy, he was raised in nearby Bethlehem and after high school went into the Army Air Force, where he served as the waist-gunner in a B-24 Liberator and flew 30 combat missions over Germany. After the war he came home to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he played both center and linebacker, was a three-time All-American, and was generally considered the best defensive player in the country. After demolishing the Ivy League, he was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he played from 1949 to 1962.
Bednarik was one of the last professional football players to play both ways, as a center and a linebacker. And he played with an unapologetic abandon. In 1960 he hit the New York Giants running back Frank Gifford so hard that the insufferable Gifford didn’t play again until 1962. (There is a photo of Bednarik standing over Gifford’s body pumping a fist; Bednarik insists he was just happy that he’d caused a fumble and that the Eagles had recovered it.)
In the championship game that year (the first Super Bowl didn’t take place until 1967), Bednarik made the game-winning tackle on the nine-yard line when he took down Green Bay’s Jim Taylor and refused to let him off the ground until the final few seconds had expired. “Everybody reminds me of [that moment],” Bednarik once said. “And I’m happy they remind me of it. I’m proud and delighted to have played in that game.” That’s high-grade Philadelphia.
Concrete Charlie played 60 minutes a game and missed just 3 games in his 14-year career. As the saying goes, they don’t make them like they used to.