The Greatest Eagle

NFL PLAYOFFS EAGLES CARDINALS-09022017-0001
Steve Van Buren (15) of the Philadelphia Eagles plunges over the goal line with a fourth period touchdown that defeated the Chicago Cardinals in the driving snowstorm in Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 1948. Other players are, Bill Blackburn (57) and John Cochrane (24) of the Cardinals. (AP Photo)

Editor's Note: This story first appeared on Jan. 29, 2012.

The legend of Steve Van Buren - whose slashing running style revolutionized pro football in the 1940s and who quit after eight explosive seasons and two NFL championships as the league's then-all-time rusher - continues to intrigue Eagles fans, even with the game morphing into a multibillion-dollar entertainment empire that will be capped with next Sunday's Super Bowl spectacle that would be unrecognizable to the sport's "Greatest Generation." It took 66 years for an Eagle - LeSean McCoy - to finally surpass Van Buren's 1945 feat of 18 touchdowns, and it required a 16-game schedule. Van Buren did it in only 10 games.

In this exclusive excerpt from a new Amazon.com Kindle Single titled "Give it to Steve," Daily News senior writer Will Bunch traces Van Buren's unlikely odyssey from a remote island in the Caribbean up to a frantic trolley ride to Shibe Park, where he scored what to this day remains the greatest touchdown in the 79-year history of the Philadelphia franchise for a 7-0 victory and the first of only three world championships the Eagles would ever win.

Next Sunday, one of the hundreds of millions of fans around the globe watching Super Bowl XLVI will undoubtedly be the 91-year-old Van Buren, who lives in an assisted-living facility near Lancaster, Pa., still running against ailments that include trauma-related dementia from the violent hits of the leather-helmet era, clinging to his memories of Greasy Neale, Pete Pihos, and a remarkable game they called "The Blizzard Bowl."

*****

As a snowstorm blanketed the Philadelphia metropolis, just a few short hours before the scheduled 1:30 p.m. kickoff of the 1948 NFL Championship Game, the biggest superstar in professional football was inside his sturdy home in a suburban Delaware County neighborhood called Penfield - 10 long miles from the building hubbub at Shibe Park.

He was sound asleep.

Steve Van Buren actually woke up early that Sunday morning. You would expect that - everything that the 27-year-old halfback had worked for over the last five months had been building up to this day. Training camp up in the Adirondacks. The brutal September rematch of the 1947 NFL title game in which one of the Chicago Cardinals' players had collapsed and died. All the pain shots and finally the Eastern Division title. It was also the chance to avenge his disappointing performance in the previous year's championship game at Chicago's Comiskey Park, when Van Buren could never find his footing on an ice-covered field and gained a disappointing 26 yards on 18 carries, finally breaking his toe after he had changed to sneakers in a desperate bid for better traction.

But when he looked out his bedroom window and saw the snow falling at a furious rate, he muttered there was no way the league would go ahead with the game, not in this kind of blizzard.

He didn't even bother to pick up the phone or turn on the radio. He just climbed back into bed with his new bride, the former nightclub dancer Grace Hewson, and promptly drifted back off into slumber.

*****

It sounds hard to believe, but not to those who knew Van Buren. The franchise player of the 1940s Eagles had always rushed forward to his own unique beat, a rhythm track laid down first in the most unlikely location of his birth on a banana-covered, crocodile-infested island off Honduras called Utila, and then on the hardscrabble, Creole-spiced streets outside of New Orleans where he grew up.

In a more formal era when Sinatra proclaimed that the way you wore your hat defined a man, Van Buren stunned Philadelphia's sports writers when the Eagles' first pick in the 1944 draft arrived in town not wearing socks. Actually, it could have been worse; his wife, Grace, later recalled once watching him disembark at the crowded Philadelphia train station barefoot, carrying his shoes in a bag. Once he turned down an endorsement deal from a hat company because everyone in Philadelphia knew that Van Buren never wore a hat, either. Eventually, the nonfashion statement became a thing for the quirky Van Buren. Called on stage in 1946 to accept one of his many football trophies, he lifted up his trousers and gave a five-word acceptance speech.

"Look, tie and socks tonight!"

Midway through a meteoric career in which he would shatter almost every existing NFL rushing record, Van Buren defied all the best efforts by sports writers and by Philadelphia's rabid fans to define him - no matter how hard they tried. No one had ever seen a running back like Van Buren: so fast (he was one of the nation's top sprinters, running the 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds); so big (he was 6-1, 200 pounds); and so strong. Before Van Buren, there had never been a back with such blinding speed who ran over defenders instead of running around them. And so the sports writers and fans desperately tried to put a name to it - "Wham Bam," "Supersonic Steve," "Moving Van," "The Bayou Bombshell," "Louisiana Lightning, "Weavin' Stephen," "Blockbuster," "The Flying Dutchman." But none of Van Buren's football nicknames ever stuck. Maybe that's because he focused 100 percent of his energy between the goal posts and zero percent crafting his image off the field. Van Buren didn't care what else you thought - as long as you thought he was doing his job. Philadelphia's fans and the media never understood where Van Buren got his on-field swagger, because he never cared to tell anyone.

*****

He came from a family of honest-to-goodness pirates of the Caribbean - British buccaneers who wound up in the Bay Islands off Honduras and battled Spanish conquistadors in the crystal-clear waters that were famously plied by the likes of Captain Henry Morgan, future star of TV rum commercials. The ancestors of Steve Van Buren were the Boddens; family legend, which is as murky as the Caribbean waters are pristine, says that the Boddens changed their surname to Van Buren during a dispute with the British crown over turtle-fishing rights. By the start of the 20th century, the Van Burens had long left the pirate business. Steve Van Buren was born the son of a fruit inspector in the coastal city of La Ceiba on Dec. 28, 1920, the very same year that the National Football League was founded.

Van Buren actually spent his early childhood with his four siblings - three sisters and his inseparable younger brother Ebert - on the more remote, coconut-tree shrouded Bay Island of Utila. Years later, Van Buren regaled his family with tales from a primitive paradise. At night, he told them, it was impossible to go to the outdoor bathroom because so many crocodiles were roaming under the porch, migrating from the ocean to a nearby bay. But as Van Buren grew older, he grew braver. Soon, he worked up a scheme of climbing up trees and knocking the iguanas to the ground, where [his brother] Ebert would club them to death. Steve's mother refused to cook the dead reptiles, so the boys brought them to locals who knew how to prepare the island delicacy.

But at the dawn of the hardscrabble 1930s, paradises rarely lasted. When Steve was 10, his mother became seriously ill and the family went north to New Orleans, where she had been raised. She died a short time later, and Steve's father vanished from the scene. The children were split up; the sisters went with an aunt and uncle while Steve and Ebert were taken in by their grandmother in the working-class suburb of Metarie, in the shadow of the tall Mississippi River levees. The Great Depression hit hard in industrial New Orleans, and Van Buren found himself battling poverty. He was an indifferent student - an oft-repeated legend has Van Buren skipping school to perfect his hobby of taking out streetlights with rocks - but he excelled at one thing: Thrill-seeking. His favorite hobby was hopping barges bound for the wide, muddy middle of the Mississippi River bend, and then swimming back to shore in gar-infested waters. His second-favorite hobby was strapping on a pair of roller skates and hitching rides on the bumpers of roadsters in the streets of the Big Easy.

One uncle introduced young Steve to the sport of boxing, and another was an academic who brought Steve deep into the bayou swamps to help tie up alligators for his research. But when the feisty Van Buren tried out for football as a high-school sophomore, he was only 125 pounds and cut from the team. He dropped out of school for two years to work in the hot blasts of a wrought-iron foundry - and the work bulked him up. Van Buren was 168 pounds when he re-enrolled at Warren Easton High School, and bulked up his grades, too - bringing his average above 90. But Van Buren didn't really plan to go to college until the day a scout for Louisiana State University showed up at a game and offered him a full scholarship on the spot.

*****

It's probably no accident that the rise of pro football in America coincided with the nation's golden era of meritocracy. The Great Depression segued directly into the social upheaval of World War II and then the boom in college enrollment fueled by the government's G.I. Bill. It created an American dreamland where a hard-luck story from a Caribbean backwater like Steve Van Buren could - with a little gumption and a sprinkle of good fortune - get a break. In the middle of the American Century, abject poverty and the horrors of a global war created an entire generation of survivors. Those who were lucky enough to play sports did so in a time when your persistence counted more than where you ranked on a size chart, decades before future athletes were sorted out by Nike sneaker contracts at age 15. Looking back, the truly remarkable thing about pro football's Greatest Generation is not just how many of them overcame unthinkable hardships - from the death of their parents to dodging machine-gun fire on Omaha Beach - but how many had physical infirmities that would have all but disqualified them from a 21st-century NFL scouting combine.  . . . In the late 1940s the Eagles placed their future with a quarterback, Tommy Thompson, who'd been blind in one eye since childhood.

It doesn't fit the conventional storyline, but the powerful running back who became the top physical specimen in the NFL was deemed not healthy enough to fight in World War II. Like

Thompson, his future teammate, Van Buren had terrible vision problems in his left eye, although not quite blind. It's not even clear if his eye trouble was the result of an accident or infirmity, but in the early 1940s Van Buren was classified 4-F (unacceptable for military service) and headed to the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, many of his peers marched off to war, including his brother Ebert, who ended up in the first batch of Marines storming the beach at Okinawa, carrying his unit's .50-caliber machine gun.

But even with college gridiron rosters depleted by World War II, Van Buren almost never got his chance. He was almost always a creature of luck - and sometimes his luck could be unbelievably bad.

At LSU, coach Bernie Moore was convinced that he had found the tailback who would lead the Tigers to the national championship: Alvin Dark, who later achieved fame not on the football field but as a shortstop for baseball's New York Giants and a pennant-winning manager. Moore turned Van Buren - now filled out to 207 pounds - into Dark's blocking back. It wasn't until Van Buren's senior year that injuries forced Moore to make him the Tigers' main ball-carrier, and the coach was mortified when he realized that he - like others before him - had so badly underestimated Van Buren's raw talent. In 1943, Van Buren led the nation in scoring with 98 points, finished second in rushing with 842 yards, and punctuated LSU's upset win over Texas A & M in the Orange Bowl with a 63-yard touchdown run. At the end of the season, Moore pulled Van Buren aside.

"I apologize, Steve," the coach said. "I did you a disservice. I'm sorry."

It was a glowing personal recommendation from Moore that led the Eagles to take Van Buren with the fifth overall selection in the 1944 NFL draft. Even then, not everyone was buying into the Van Buren storyline. How well would he do when football's best players returned from the war?

*****

Van Buren's Philadelphia odyssey was forged in pain before he even arrived in town. In the summer of 1944, he was in Chicago for the annual college all-star game at Soldier Field, He still hadn't signed with the Eagles and had youthfully naïve hopes of a contract for as much as $10,000. Instead, he was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. While Van Buren was still in his hospital bed, Eagles general manager Harry Thayer showed up with a contract - for $4,000, which might not sound like much but was actually decent money, a little more than $50,000 in 2012 dollars. Van Buren didn't have a lot of leverage in his hospital room, and he signed on the spot. "There were no holdouts," Van Buren would explain later. "You took what they gave you. They tried to be fair . . . I wanted to play in Philly and money didn't matter."

But now Van Buren had to prove himself as an NFL rookie and overcome the painful surgery at the same time. "I had this incision seven inches long where they removed my appendix," he recalled years later, "and here I was, running with the football, getting banged around. It sounds crazy, I know. We played an exhibition game in Green Bay and I took a hit on the incision. It began oozing blood right through the padding. I had to take myself out, and [coach] Greasy Neale gave me hell for not being in shape. That's when I knew pro football was going to be tough." Indeed, the appendix woes did cut into Van Buren's playing time in 1944, but he still rushed for 444 yards on an average of 5.6 yards a carry, ultimately second-best in his career.

Football's best players began to trickle back from the military in the fall of 1945. Not only did Van Buren not fade, he produced one of the most remarkable seasons in NFL history. Carrying the ball 143 times from scrimmage, returning punts and kickoffs and playing safety in an era when the best athletes were still expected to play both ways, Van Buren scored 18 touchdowns in a 10-game season - nearly two per game.

Football had never seen anyone like Van Buren. He even carried the ball differently, in his right arm, the result of an early career injury to his left shoulder. But what really set him apart was his speed coming off the ball. In 1947, a West Philadelphia hometown hero named Bill Mackrides signed with the Eagles as a highly touted rookie quarterback out of Nevada-Reno, and he'd never worked with a running back quite like Steve "Wham Bam" Van Buren.

"He had a quick start," Mackrides said. "As a matter of fact, he was so quick that as a quarterback, on a dive play normally you would go down the line. With him, you would have to go into the line to catch him, he was so quick. Which I loved to do - get the ball to him! He was very powerful - he practiced and worked on it . . . If the line didn't move, you'd have to knock somebody out of the way to get there."

"He leaned forward so much and ran so hard, you could actually see the dirt flying off his cleats," another teammate, Russ Craft, later related to an interviewer. "When he hit the line, he looked like a bulldozer going through a picket fence. I saw him knock off more headgear than you could count. I saw him bust up a lot of faces, too. Thank God he seldom got mad. He might have killed somebody."

It's almost mind-boggling to think that Van Buren could have been even better. The rookie quarterback Mackrides entered the huddle with visions of a long pass play to the Eagles' superstar, but Van Buren would have none of it.

"Don't throw any passes to me," Van Buren told him.

Mackrides was baffled. "What's the matter?"

"I can't catch it!" It wasn't until much later that Mackrides learned how bad Van Buren's vision was.

Indeed, a legend developed that the reason Van Buren, in his leather helmet, ran over defenders instead of around was because he couldn't see them coming. But that wasn't really the issue. Rather, it was Neale constantly goading and prodding Van Buren to use his remarkable strength to maximum effect, to hit his tacklers head on. Once, Van Buren underperformed in a practice and the high-strung coach had a fit, telling his star player, "It's either you or me."

"Bye-bye, Greasy," the other Eagles laughed in unison.

But it wasn't just Van Buren's remarkable skills on the gridiron that made him so popular with his teammates. As his records and Eagles wins accumulated, fans and small-business owners showered Van Buren with gift certificates for meals and suits, which he usually handed off to his teammates. When cameramen showed up at practice to snap a shot of "Supersonic Steve," Van Buren wouldn't pose without a few other teammates, making it hard decades later to find many solo photographs of the Hall of Famer in dusty newspaper archives. He probably could have made a lot of extra money on endorsements - but Van Buren simply could not tell a lie.

Halfback Jack Hinkle once recalled a time when an executive for a cereal company showed up and offered Van Buren as much as $2,000 to endorse his product. Van Buren took a bite and declared, "I wouldn't feed this to my dog!" The executive stormed away and took his checkbook with him.

It's not as if ads would have made Van Buren more famous. Everyone in Philadelphia knew that he was the franchise, a point the running back inadvertently proved in 1946 when he was hobbled by injuries and the Birds limped to 6-5 record despite a talented supporting cast that now included quarterback Thompson back from the war. Actually, Van Buren played hurt almost every game of his career.

It's true that pro football in the 1940s was not the collision sport the game would later become - leather helmets and the lack of facemasks discouraged the brutal helmet-to-helmet hits that later became the bane of the NFL - but it was a dirty, violent game. Under the league rules, players could get up and run if they weren't pinned to the ground, and that led to pile-ups where elbows and knees flew freely. Years later, Van Buren told his family that opposing players would tell him before the kickoff, "Van Buren, we don't care whether we win or lose today but we're going to kill you!"

There were limited injury reports in the NFL then, and so there will never be a full accounting of the myriad sprains and torn muscles, broken toes and bruised knees, aching hips and shoulders that piled up for Van Buren as his pro career progressed. Nor were there any complicated rules for dealing with head injuries for a player who wore a flimsy leather helmet for most of his playing days and retired right before the introduction of the face mask. All anyone knows is that the slashing running back got dinged in the head, a lot. Years later, he would talk of one game in which he suffered three concussions and still finished the game.

There were times, Van Buren said, when his eyes were crossed and they sent him back out on the field and then they brought him back off and gave him another shot of Novocain. As the games and the injuries piled up, the NFL's premier running back of the 1940s increasingly needed painkilling drugs to play. Van Buren never talked about that - until years later.

"The last two years, I played with 10 or 12 shots of Novocain every game," he later acknowledged to sports writer Gordon Forbes. "At one time, I'd have it in my ankle, ribs, and toe, all on the same side . . . The worst I felt was after practice. I'd have the ankle shot with Novocain and practice and run on it. When the Novocain wore off, it would be killing me. One time, I finally got a shot of morphine, and after that I'd have no pain at all . . . "

*****

The 1948 season was a pivotal one for Van Buren, and not just on the rigid turf of Shibe Park. One of Philadelphia's most eligible bachelors had also fallen in love with a nightclub dancer. Dads weren't big on how-I-met-your-mother confessions in America's baby-boom years, and so the football star's courtship of Grace Hewson remained a hazy mystery even to their children. No one remembers the name of the club where she performed - somewhere there is a picture of the young Grace in a cowgirl outfit, and there is a story about the night Steve insisted that he saw her fall off the stage. She was a 26-year-old divorcee with a 2-year-old daughter. After the Eagles played a charity preseason game against the Cardinals at the city's cavernous Municipal (later JFK) Stadium on a Friday night, Steve and Grace were married at 11 the next morning, Sept. 11, 1948, at her parents' house in Overbrook.

It was a busy time for Van Buren. In the offseason, he had traveled to Hollywood to play a part in a formulaic football B-movie called "Triple Threat," appearing on screen with other NFL stars including his archrival from the Cardinals, Charley Trippi. With his broad forehead topped by curly hair, his dark complexion and chiseled upper body, Van Buren probably could have become a movie star, but acting was pure torture for the shy athlete. The only role he really seemed to be auditioning for in 1948 was "Father Knows Best." In the early weeks of a season, the search for a new home for him and wife and young stepdaughter took up as much mental energy as preparing for the Packers and the Bears.

By the end, he was so bruised and battered that he sat out the last 13 minutes of the final regular-season game, nursing an injury he'd suffered two weeks earlier. The 16,123 fans who watched the Birds trounce the Detriot Lions at Shibe Park, 45-21, had no inkling that the Eagles almost didn't make payroll that week, that commissioner Bert Bell and the league had bailed out owner Alexis Thompson - who lost $88,000 on the Eagles that year - at the last possible moment. The lost minutes robbed Van Buren of a chance to top the NFL single-season rushing record he'd set in 1947; but he still ended the year with 945 rushing yards, second-highest in his career, and 10 touchdowns. It had all been so exhausting that the white blanket of snow falling on his peaceful suburban neighborhood on the day of the NFL championship game must have felt like a surreal dream.

Somewhere in the corner of sleep, the telephone rang at his Manoa Road home.

It was Greasy Neale, calling from the locker room at Shibe Park. He wanted to know where his star player was, and he was not happy. "You'd better get here," Neale barked at Van Buren.

"Greasy, have you looked out the window? There is no way we will play today."

"Go to the park, for God's sake. It's the championship game."

Van Buren went outside and started to shovel out his car, but the storm was picking up and he wasn't even sure if he could get it out of the driveway, let alone navigate the 10 miles of city streets between Penfield and North Philadelphia. Just down the block was a station for the Red Arrow line, a high-speed trolley whose red streamlined "Brill Bullet" cars could achieve speeds of 80 mph, at least on a clear day. In the blizzard of Dec. 19, 1948, who even knew if the trolleys were running? And if they were, Van Buren would have to switch over to the Market-Frankford El at the 69th Street transit hub on the western city limits of Philadelphia, then change again underneath City Hall for the Broad Street subway to North Philly. And the North Philadelphia stop was still a long seven-block walk from the classic French Renaissance cupola that marked the entrance to Shibe Park.

But what other choice did Van Buren have? The greatest running back in Eagles history lowered his head and rushed toward the platform at the Penfield station.

It was time to commute to work.