Steve Van Buren's birthday should be a kind of a civic holiday here in Philadelphia -- the Eagles are our municipal religion, right?...and it's not even a point of argument that no Bird has done more for his team, or dominated the sport in his era, than the running back who was called about a half-dozen nicknames ("Wham Bam," "Moving Van") as fans tried to quantify a rugged mixture of speed and strength that the NFL had not seen before he came along.
There's a lot to the story, but really all you need to know is this: In 79 seasons of football, including this sorry excuse for one, the Eagles have won just three championships and two of them were on Van Buren's back: 1948, when the LSU grad scored the only touchdown in a raging blizzard at Shibe Park, and 1949, when Van Buren rushed for an epic 198 yards in a virtual monsoon in the L.A. Coliseum, of all places. There's a lot more to Van Buren and the Eagles' remarkable first title in 1948: As I announced earlier this month, I'll be telling it in a three-step journalistic project in January in the Daily News, Sports Week (powered by the Daily News) and an Amazon Kindle Single. Stay tuned.
One reason I'm so drawn to Van Buren's story is the contrast between the can-do brio of football's underpaid and underpadded "Greatest Generation" and the billion-dollar bluster of the NFL in the 21st Century. Ray Didinger had a good look back on Van Buren recently and shared some telling responses about the kind of modest life that the NFL Hall of Famer lived:
He lived quietly in Northeast Philadelphia for many years, hung out at Philadelphia Park race track and watched the Eagles on TV. He didn’t do appearances or autograph shows. He didn’t return to the Hall of Fame for induction weekends. He didn’t like a lot of attention. Ask about his career, as I often did, and he’d say, “I did OK” and leave it at that.
It was with way too little fanfare that Van Buren turned 91 yesterday in an assisted-living home outside of Lancaster, Pa. Today, a group of his remaining football buddies, including Eagles' alumni guru Jim Gallagher and his 1948 teammate Bill Mackrides, among others, are visiting this football legend and paying their regards. Van Buren -- who wears his Eagles' cap every day -- has suffered his share of health problems in the last third of his life, including a stroke. I think I join every other Eagles fan in hoping his 91st birthday week brings him as much pleasure as he brought to his adopted hometown over so many years.