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Chuck Bednarik's storied legacy goes far beyond infamous photo


Chuck Bednarik, known as one of the all-time greatest tacklers, died Saturday at the age of 89. (John G. Zimmerman/Sports Illustrated)

It was a picture that defined a career.

The famous shot of Philadelphia Eagles star Chuck Bednarik celebrating with great vigor over the knocked-cold Frank Gifford in a 1960 game against the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium lives in football lore as an apt depiction of who Bednarik was as a player. It's often the only thing many fans know of him.

It shouldn't be.

As we celebrate the career and life of one of pro football's greatest players, a Hall of Famer in his first year of eligibility who died Saturday morning at the age of 89, we have the opportunity to correct any misguided notions and paint Bednarik as the gifted NFL player he ultimately was.

You can start with his toughness. Not the kind people associate with the devastating hit he put on Gifford. No, he was the diesel engine, duct tape-type. A Paul Bunyan-esque man from Eastern Pennsylvania in cleats. That toughness was seen in World War II before it ever graced a college or pro football game.

Bednarik was a waist gunner on the B-24 bomber, participating in 30 missions over Germany. The "Liberators," as they were called, were some of the most dangerous planes to fly, or fly in, during the war. One can only imagine the 6-foot-3 Bednarik crouching down, trying to navigate through the plane's cramped catwalk with antiaircraft fire blasting everywhere around the hull. Bednarik earned an Air Medal, four Oak Leaf Clusters, four Battle Stars and the European Theater Operations Medal.

His reputation for being tough and hard-nosed as a football player grew after the war, when he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. A two-time All-American, Bednarik finished third in the Heisman voting in 1948 and ultimately had an award named after him. Since 1995, the Maxwell Club has presented the Chuck Bednarik Award to the top collegiate defensive player in the country. 

Toughness and durability often go hand in hand, especially in 1950s-era pro football. "Concrete Charlie," as he came to be known, was all things durable, missing just three games in 14 seasons at center and linebacker, while generally being considered the last of the "two-way men." That meant he was playing both offense and defense during games. In the 1960 NFL championship, at the tender age of 35, Bednarik started at center and played linebacker for the Eagles. Totaling 58 minutes on the field, he made the final tackle of the game when he brought down Green Bay Packers fullback Jim Taylor to hand Philadelphia a 17-13 win and its last league title in franchise history.


Unstoppable might be more apropos, because in his prime Bednarik was a tackling machine. After starting more than half of his rookie season (1949) at center and linebacker -- a year the Eagles won the NFL title -- Bednarik became a star, particularly on defense. He was named first-team All-Pro five straight seasons, and would go on to make eight Pro Bowls.

Call it an indictment of the prehistoric days of scouting, but Bednarik was the first top overall draft pick to be named an All-Pro, much less to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also football's ultimate tough guy -- a father to five girls.

Perhaps most important to him, as with any great player, Bednarik wanted to win. He was an NFL champion twice: In his first year and in his 12th, playing both ways both seasons.

That is where the hit on Gifford truly comes into focus.

Bednarik's infamous football moment came at a critical time in a critical game. The Eagles and Giants were in a dogfight for the Eastern Division crown. Philadelphia came in at 6-1, New York at 5-1-1. Trailing 17-10 late in the game, the Giants were driving in the Eagles' territory. Gifford caught a key third-down pass and tried to cut across the field to get out of bounds.

The perfectly timed hit knocked Gifford to the ground and the ball loose. As Gifford lay unconscious, Eagles defender Chuck Weber jumped on the ball to preserve the win for Philly. Gifford would be carried off the field on a stretcher -- and ultimately miss the whole next season -- while the image of Bednarik towering over Gifford's fallen body, fist in the air, was shown in newspapers across the country.

It is, to this day, the most well-known tackle in NFL history. The photo of Bednarik's hit is as iconic as "The Catch" or the image of a bloodied and battered Y.A. Tittle in 1964.

It's easy to look at that photo and reach a conclusion of Bednarik as a player. But doing so is essentially developing an incomplete picture of him. Bednarik wasn't reveling in an opponent's injury, he was saying "this (expletive) game is over" because the play resulted in a timely turnover. What that image doesn't show is what happened afterward; he sent a basket of fruit and a card to Gifford in the hospital. The play, like any other in Bednarik's illustrious career, barely scratches the surface of his brilliant accomplishments in the pro game.

If we do need an image to define his career, however, perhaps a Mount Rushmore of the greatest pro football players of a bygone era would be more appropriate. To paraphrase another football legend, Bum Phillips, if Bednarik isn't in a class by himself, when that group he's among gets together, it won't take long to call roll.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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