COACH: GREASY NEALE
DID YOU KNOW? VAN BUREN BECAME THE NFL'S ALLTIME LEADING RUSHER DURING THE '48 SEASON. HE FINISHED HIS CAREER WITH 5,880 YARDS AND 72 TDS.
EARLE (GREASY) NEALE was a winner. Playing rightfield for the Reds, he won a World Series against the infamous Black Sox in 1919. As a collegiate coach, he led tiny Washington & Jefferson to the '22 Rose Bowl. He even won the NFL draft lottery. Following the Eagles' victory in the '48 NFL championship game Neale secured the No. 1 draft pick by pulling the right slip of paper from a hat. He then used that pick to draft a stud lineman from Penn by the name of Chuck Bednarik.
Neale's ability to build and then lead a football team soon became apparent. He was called a genius in his day for the way he scrutinized game film and prepared tirelessly for each draft. (For example, he compiled 64 books of scouting data, which raised eyebrows when he carted them into his first draft in '40.) Among his early draft picks were Al Wistert, who went on to become an All-Pro tackle, and Pete Pihos, a future Hall of Fame end.
One of Neale's best draft choices was Steve Van Buren, a relatively unheralded halfback who came out of LSU in '44. The Bayou Bruiser led the NFL in rushing four times in his first six seasons, and '49 was perhaps his finest year. Van Buren led the league with 11 rushing touchdowns, and he set NFL season rushing records for yards (1,146) and attempts (263). In a 34-17 Nov. 27 drubbing of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he went for 205 yards, which still stands as the Eagles' single-game rushing record.
But Van Buren saved his best record for last in '49. The 11-1 Eagles traveled to Los Angeles on Dec. 18 to face the 8-2-2 Rams in the NFL title game. Playing before a sparse crowd of 22,245 because of a driving rain, the Eagles toughed out a 14-0 win. Pihos hauled in a 31-yard TD reception in the second quarter, and Leo Skladany returned a blocked punt for another score in the third, but the outcome was hardly ever in doubt: Van Buren did the dirty work, slogging through the mud 31 times for 196 yards, then a title-game rushing record.
" Steve Van Buren ran today the best I ever saw a man run," the normally stoic Neale effused afterward. Of course Neale's defense also acquitted itself well—the Rams gained just 21 yards on the ground, a record low for a championship game. Never before, nor since, has a team won two consecutive title games by shutouts. Thanks to the lifelong winner and the Bayou Bruiser, the Eagles closed out the decade as champions once more.