PHILADELPHIA — Chuck Bednarik, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and one of the last great two-way NFL players, died early Saturday. He was 89.
Known as “Concrete Charlie,” Bednarik epitomized the tough-guy linebacker and also was an outstanding center for the Eagles from 1949 to 1962. He is best remembered for a game-saving tackle at the 9-yard line on the final play of the 1960 title game, and it was typical Bednarik. He threw Green Bay running back Jim Taylor to the ground and refused to let him up while the final seconds ticked off as the Eagles held on for a 17-13 win.
“Everybody reminds me of it and I’m happy they remind me of it,” Bednarik once said. “I’m proud and delighted to have played in that game.”
He died at an assisted living facility in Richland, Pennsylvania, following a brief illness, the Eagles said in a statement.
Two of his daughters said Bednarik had dementia, an affliction common in former professional football players.
“He died from dementia from football-related head injuries,” Charlene Thomas told the The Express-Times of Easton “It was not brief.”
Pamela McWilliams, who also believes football injuries played a role in his decline, said her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“I certainly think it played a big role in it — he took a lot of blows and they certainly didn’t have the safety equipment they have now back then,” McWilliams told The Express-Times. “It seemed like quite a few of the guys he played with and against had it.”
Bednarik, who frequently criticized modern athletes, said he played on all but two kickoffs against the Packers and could have kept playing if he needed to, unlike today’s players who “suck air after five plays.” He missed only three games in his 14-year career.
The tackle on Taylor actually was the second hit that season that drew headlines. Earlier in 1960, he knocked out New York Giants running back Frank Gifford with a blow so hard that Gifford suffered a concussion and didn’t play again until 1962.
An iconic photograph captured Bednarik pumping his fist over Gifford’s prone body, though the linebacker insisted he wasn’t gloating. He said he didn’t notice what happened to Gifford after the hit and only saw that he had fumbled and another Eagle recovered the ball.
Bednarik was the last NFL starter to play regularly on both offense and defense until Deion Sanders did so for Dallas in 1996. Sanders’ achievement hardly impressed Bednarik.
“The positions I played, every play, I was making contact, not like that … Deion Sanders,” Bednarik said. “He couldn’t tackle my wife. He’s back there dancing out there instead of hitting.”
Born May 1, 1925, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Bednarik flew 30 combat missions over Germany as a gunner during World War II. He then played center for Penn from 1945 to 1948, and was selected first overall in the 1949 NFL draft by the Eagles.
In 1950, he was All-NFL as a center, then he was voted All-NFL as a linebacker in 1951 through 1957, and again in 1960.
Bednarik, whose gnarled fingers in retirement stood as a reminder of the ruggedness of his profession, said he never made more than $27,000 in a season and supplemented his income by selling concrete, earning his nickname. At one point, he pawned his championship ring and his Hall of Fame ring.
In early 2005, when the Eagles won the NFC championship and had Philadelphia in a Super Bowl frenzy, Bednarik was bitter enough to root for the Patriots in the Super Bowl. He later apologized to owner Jeff Lurie and was a welcomed visitor at training camp and other alumni functions.
“Philadelphia fans grow up expecting toughness, all-out effort and a workmanlike attitude from this team and so much of that image has its roots in the way Chuck played the game,” Lurie said in a statement released by the team.
The Maxwell Football Club presents an award in Bednarik’s honor to the defensive player of the year in college football.
Bednarik is survived by his wife, Emma, and five daughters —Thomas, McWilliams, Donna Davis, Carol Safarowic, and Jackie Chelius, as well as 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.