The Philadelphia Eagles' saga of Wounded Knee, which began on Sept. 16, 1979, may have ended last Friday night at Veterans Stadium. At precisely 7:51 p.m., Inside Linebacker William Earl Bergey diagnosed a fullback trap, played off a block, met New York Jet Fullback Clark Gaines with a head-on tackle and forced a fumble, which the Eagles recovered. Two plays later the Eagles scored a touchdown to increase their lead to 14-0, and then went on to beat the Jets 28-13.
As Bergey takes his slow steps toward recovery from an injury to his left knee that ended his 1979 season after only three games, the Eagles—a synonym for football futility for much of the last two decades, or since the glory days of Chuck Bednarik and Norm Van Brocklin—are taking giant strides toward their first Super Bowl. This is heady stuff for a team that, as late as 1977, had a 5-9 record. But that was only Year 2 in the reign of Coach Dick Vermeil.
Philadelphia has looked impressive in its two preseason games, having beaten the Buffalo Bills 24-9 before thrashing the Jets. But the signs of the Eagles' rising are not new. They were there in 1977 when Vermeil's newly installed 3-4 defense, led by Bergey, was one of the best in the NFL despite the 5-9 record. They were there in 1978 when the Eagles went 9-7, their first winning season since 1966. And they were there last season even after Bergey caught his foot in the AstroTurf of the Superdome, tearing ligaments and rupturing cartilage in his knee.
The loss of such a player would have been disastrous to the old Eagles, but not Vermeil's; they won four in a row after Bergey went down and out and finished the season with an 11-5 record, the club's best since 1961. But despite the Eagles' excellent performance during the regular season, something was missing. After beating Chicago 27-17 in the NFC wild-card game, the Eagles were flat in a 24-17 loss to Tampa Bay in the divisional playoff. That followed the pattern set in 1978 when Philadelphia was upset by underdog Atlanta 14-13 in the wild-card game.
Now, though, the pervasive feeling around Philadelphia—a city whose many frustrations are divided among the Phillies, 76ers, Flyers and Eagles—is that this is the Eagles' year. Several preseason football publications have stoked that fire by picking the Eagles to—say it and gulp—meet the Steelers in an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl. This may sound a little improbable, particularly if you watched the Eagles lurch to a 73-142-9 record between 1962 and 1977. But last season the Eagles beat the Steelers 17-14 in their first regular-season meeting since 1974, and in the City of Brotherly Love there is a belief that Pittsburgh cannot forever be the City of Champions.
If Philadelphia does make it to Super Bowl XV, the journey will be complete for the 35-year-old Bergey, four times an All-Pro but never a Super Bowler, and the 43-year-old Vermeil, the NFL's Coach of the Year last season. Bergey obviously has few productive seasons left at linebacker, even if his knee heals, and he's trying to disprove the whispered sentiment that the Eagles don't need him as much as they once did. It was irony at its worst that Bergey, the Eagles' best—some say "only"—player from 1974 to 1978, a period during which they were 29-43, sat out most of 1979. His arduous rehabilitation program in the off-season, which made even the demanding Vermeil whistle with amazement, drove home a point: if there is to be a Super Bowl season in Philadelphia, No. 66 will be a part of it.
"I remember when Dr. [Vincent] DiStefano had me up on the table and was telling me all that was wrong with my knee," says Bergey. "All I kept thinking was, 'It doesn't matter, I'm going to be back.' I say this honestly—there was not one time during the rehab that I didn't think I'd be playing again."
Despite Bergey's positive approach, his return still isn't guaranteed. As with many severe football injuries on artificial surfaces, very little contact took place on the fateful September day when Bergey went down. Bergey was lined up across from New Orleans Guard Conrad Dobler, who moved out to pull on a sweep for Chuck Muncie. Bergey went to the outside of Dobler, and they brushed. When Bergey tried to swing around to reverse direction, his left foot caught in a seam in the turf. Before the game Bergey and fellow Linebacker Frank LeMaster had been talking about how you had to pick your feet up on the surface, and that conversation was one of the first things Bergey thought of as the pain shot through his knee.
Bergey knew he was hurt but couldn't gauge the severity of the injury because he had no basis of comparison; in his 10 full seasons, including five with Cincinnati, Bergey had never suffered a serious injury. In fact, he had missed only two games during that period, both in 1972. "It's almost like a sixth sense I seemed to have," he says. "I could feel when trouble was coming. I can't say exactly what it is. I just had it."
That feeling of invulnerability, common among football players, made Bergey think at first that he could go back into the game. But when he told rookie Guard Petey Perot to make a "test hit" on the sideline, Bergey realized he was through for the season. One of the first things Bergey heard on the operating table was Dr. DiStefano telling him his injury was similar to the one suffered the year before by John Bunting, another Eagle linebacker. In that evaluation the news was good and bad. Good because Bunting had come back, bad because Bergey had seen the torture Bunting had endured to get back.