Photos suggest that Bednarik taunted Gifford after legendary hit

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Chuck Bednarik sledgehammered Frank Gifford in the chest and forced a fumble that ensured the Eagles beat the Giants.

The most famous photograph in football history always had a story behind it.

Before he died in March at 89, Chuck Bednarik loved to autograph copies of the photograph and tell the story, and before he died Sunday at 84, Frank Gifford used to flinch whenever he saw the photograph or heard the story.

The photograph was taken by Sports Illustrated's John G. Zimmerman on Nov. 20, 1960, during the Eagles' 17-10 victory over the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium, and the image is eternal and visceral and stark in black-and-white: Bednarik standing erect and godlike, his right arm raised as if he is about to plunge a wooden stake into a vampire's heart, looming over Gifford's supine body. Bednarik had sledgehammered Gifford in the chest and forced a fumble that ensured the Eagles would win the game, and he had leveled Gifford with such force that when his head hit the ground, Gifford blacked out, suffering a concussion that ended his season and kept him sidelined for the entire 1961 season, too.

A staff photographer at Sports Illustrated from 1956 to 1962, Zimmerman died from lymphoma in 2002. But his son Greg knows well the photograph and the story behind it - the story that Bednarik repeated over the years in speeches and to writers and TV interviewers and anyone who happened to bring up Gifford in casual conversation, the story that in Bednarik's telling never had any mystery or controversy because the story and the photograph only enhanced Bednarik's own legend, capturing everything that made "Concrete Charlie" the greatest of all Eagles.

The story went like this: Whenever he was asked about the photograph, Bednarik insisted that John G. Zimmerman's camera had caught his reaction to the Eagles' presumptive victory, not to the damage he had delivered to Gifford. "I can tell you word-for-word what I was saying to Frank: 'This [expletive] game is over,' " Bednarik told former Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon in Lyon's 1999 book, When the Clock Runs Out. It couldn't have been that Bednarik was either taunting Gifford or celebrating the injury, because to taunt an opponent or celebrate his injury - particularly in this instance - would be cruel. It would be dishonorable. It would tarnish the legend. It would not be the right story.

But it might be the true story.

Greg Zimmerman has archived all of his father's work from Sports Illustrated, including hundreds of outtake prints that have rarely been seen. He and his sister, Linda, made several copies of those prints available to The Inquirer in the aftermath of Gifford's death, and the succession of photos that John G. Zimmerman took after his definitive shot suggests that Bednarik was indeed mocking Gifford.

"I thought that would be a nice project," Greg Zimmerman said in a telephone interview Sunday night from his home in Monterey, Calif., "to revisit the story and let the photos tell the tale."

The grainy TV footage that survives from the game - footage that NFL Films used during a retrospective on Bednarik's tackle - is inconclusive. After hitting Gifford, Bednarik allows his momentum to carry him forward before realizing that teammate Chuck Weber has recovered the fumble. Bednarik points forward to signal that the Eagles have taken possession, then turns back toward Gifford. The film cuts out.

Zimmerman's next four photos pick up the action. The first is his familiar masterpiece.

In the second, which has been published before, Bednarik crouches over Gifford, his right arm extended down toward Gifford's face mask. In the third, a member of the Giants' medical staff has arrived on the field to treat Gifford, and Bednarik has turned his back to them and begun to walk away.

The fourth photo, though, is the doozy. By now, another Giants official has joined the medic to tend to Gifford, and in an indication of just how long his post-tackle merriment must have lasted, Bednarik is still just a few feet away from them, on the right side of the photo, both of his hands raised and pointed toward Gifford as if they were a boxer's. On the opposite side of the frame, Giants split end Kyle Rote, No. 44, glares at Bednarik.

In March, just after Bednarik's death, Gifford told The New York Daily News that he didn't believe Bednarik was showing him any disrespect by celebrating, although one wonders how Gifford could know such a thing for certain, given his condition immediately following the collision. In fact, Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly, according to a contemporary Philadelphia Daily News article, shouted from the sideline that Bednarik was a "cheap-shot artist." And in an account that jibes with the picture painted by John G. Zimmerman's prints, Conerly wrote in a newspaper column that Bednarik "stood on the field pointing at Giff and laughing. It was a disgraceful performance by a guy who's supposed to be an old pro."

This might seem a small thing, the question of how Bednarik acted and reacted that day. But narratives matter, and there's no wonder why the story, Bednarik's story, has remained the dominant narrative of that moment. Gifford, perhaps too gracious to do so, never publicly contradicted Bednarik's version of events. So, left unchallenged, the story combined all the elements that make people love football: its violence and its stakes and its rivalries and its characters and contrasts - Gifford, the nimble halfback, and Bednarik, the rugged linebacker - and the notion that the men who played the sport were not athletes as much as they were honor-bound warriors, Sunday samurai.

The Zimmerman photograph was an everlasting representation of what Bednarik and the Eagles accomplished that season. It symbolized Bednarik's remarkable physical strength and endurance as the last man in the NFL to play 60 minutes a game and the team's rise to the 1960 NFL championship - an achievement made all the more precious because the Eagles haven't won a championship since.

"It's extremely powerful and will resonate as long as there is football," Greg Zimmerman said.

It also had a powerful story behind it, a story that was told over and over again over time until it became accepted as truth, a story in which its teller was a hero who stood for all that was admirable and noble and selfless in sports and life.

A myth.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski