From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, September 6, 1993
HE WENT DOWN HARD, LEFT IN A HEAP BY A CRACKBACK BLOCK AS naked as it was vicious. Pro football was like that in 1960, a gang fight in shoulder pads, devoid of the high-tech veneer its violence has taken on today. The crackback was legal, and all the Philadelphia Eagles could do about it that Sunday in Cleveland was carry a linebacker named Bob Pellegrini off on his shield. � Buck Shaw, a gentleman coach in this ruffian's pastime, watched for as long as he could, then he started searching the Eagles' sideline for someone to throw into the breach. His first choice was already banged up, and after that the standard 38-man NFL roster felt as tight as a hangman's noose. Looking back, you realize that Shaw had only one choice all along.
"Chuck," he said, "get in there."
And Charles Philip Bednarik, who already had a full-time job as Philadelphia's offensive center and a part-time job selling concrete after practice, headed onto the field without a word. Just the way his father had marched off to the open-hearth furnaces at Bethlehem Steel on so many heartless mornings. Just the way Bednarik himself had climbed behind the machine gun in a B-24 for 30 missions as a teenager fighting in World War II. It was a family tradition: Duty called, you answered.
Chuck Bednarik was 35 years old, still imposing at 6'3" and 235 pounds but also the father of one daughter too many to be what he really had in mind—retired. Jackie's birth the previous February gave him five children, all girls, and more bills than he thought he could handle without football. So here he was in his 12th NFL season, telling himself he was taking it easy on his creaky legs by playing center after all those years as an All Pro linebacker. The only time he intended to move back to defense was in practice, when he wanted to work up a little extra sweat.
And now, five games into the season, this: Jim Brown over there in the Cleveland huddle, waiting to trample some fresh meat, and Bednarik trying to decipher the defensive terminology the Eagles had installed in the two years since he was their middle linebacker. Chuck Weber had his old job now, and Bednarik found himself asking what the left outside linebacker was supposed to do on passing plays. "Take the second man out of the backfield," Weber said. That was as fancy as it would get. Everything else would be about putting the wood to Jim Brown.
Bednarik nodded and turned to face a destiny that went far beyond emergency duty at linebacker. He was taking his first step toward a place in NFL history as the kind of player they don't make anymore.
HE REALLY WAS THE LAST OF A BREED. FOR 58� minutes in the NFL's 1960 championship game he held his ground in the middle of Philly's Franklin Field, a force of nature determined to postpone the christening of the Green Bay Packers' dynasty. "I didn't run down on kickoffs, that's all," Bednarik says. The rest of that frosty Dec. 26, on both offense and defense, he played with a passion that crested when he wrestled Packers fullback Jim Taylor to the ground one last time and held him there until the final gun punctuated the Eagles' 17-13 victory.
Philadelphia hasn't ruled pro football since then, and pro football hasn't produced a player with the combination of talent, hunger and opportunity to duplicate what Bednarik did. It is a far different game now, of course, its complexities seeming to increase exponentially every year, but the athletes playing it are so much bigger and faster than Bednarik and his contemporaries that surely someone with the ability to go both ways must dwell among them.
Two-sport athletes are something else again, physical marvels driven by boundless egos. Yet neither Bo Jackson nor Deion Sanders, for all their storied shuttling between football and baseball, ever played what Bednarik calls "the whole schmear." And don't try to make a case for Sanders by bringing up the turn he took at wide receiver. Bednarik has heard that kind of noise before.