We see so much today, see so much and know so much, that it is impossible not to notice the flaws. It is the downside of our sporting culture. It has never been a better time to be a fan of the game and the spectacle but, at the same time, it has never been harder to manufacture a hero. A celebrity, yes, but not a hero.
Maybe that’s better -- because they were never heroes after all, not really. And while everybody always knew that -- you know, if they were thinking at all -- and while “hero” might not even be the right word, the distance that used to exist between fan and athlete nurtured a mystery that was so, so powerful. The best athletes are more famous today but the best athletes back-when had a greater hold over the imagination.
It was just different. It was black-and-white photographs of indifferent quality. It was Bill Campbell on the radio. It was a hard bench on a cold day in the upper deck of Franklin Field, crowded beyond comfort -- no replay screens up there; no bathrooms, either.
And it was this one man, an Eagles star for a generation, a generation bracketed by championships. It was this one man, ornery and unforgiving, a waist-gunner on fighter planes in World War II, a guy who played on offense, defense and special teams because the team needed him -- virtually every play of an NFL game, game after game for much of the 1960 season -- when he was 35 years old.
Bednarik. Even the name sounded tough.
I never saw Chuck Bednarik play, not a minute at either center or linebacker, which might be why I hold the images I have of him with such reverence -- because I hold them in my head, not my hands, legends part based on truth and part the manufacture of my imagination. His death this morning at the age of 89 was not a shock. The emotion that results is not sadness, not exactly. Mostly it is just a reminder of what was, and how it will never be that way anymore.
Sports have never been better, and that is pretty much a given. Yet we have forfeited something -- the majesty of the mind’s-eye, the occasional suspension of disbelief, some of the fun.
Like “Concrete Charlie.” Has there ever been a better nickname?
The only time I interviewed him at any length, it was on the phone about 20 years ago, pre-Internet, pre-cellphone. It was at a time when the Dallas Cowboys’ Deion Sanders was attempting to play both ways, at least a little bit. I called him a day or two after Sanders started to become news. After introducing myself, he said, “Philly, you’re late -- a guy from Dallas called me yesterday. Emmy, what was that guy’s name?”
Thus began a rollicking half-hour that was a three-way conversation with two telephones -- me, Chuck, and his beloved wife Emma on the side, filling in the details he couldn’t remember.
Put it this way: Chuck possessed neither an appreciation for the modern athlete nor a filter. I might have been able to use half of what he said without getting him in trouble. At one point, he said, “Deion couldn’t carry my jock!” Then he said, “They should put that in the headline.” Seeing as how I worked for obliging people, they did just that, on the back page, in type so big that it had last been used for “Man Walks on the Moon,” or maybe “Japan Surrenders.” You know, big.
Put it this way: Chuck was pleased.
So that is one memory. The other is the picture. It is the picture that everyone has seen. It is the go-to picture for Philadelphians of a certain age who are decorating the bar they built in the basement, the shot that forever symbolizes the man: Bednarik celebrating a victory over the fallen body of Giants receiver Frank Gifford, black and white perfection. Chuck said he never hit a player as hard as he hit Gifford that day (and Gifford wouldn’t play again for a year and a half). From his hospital bed, Gifford acknowledged that it was a clean hit as those around him claimed it wasn’t.
But we really don’t know, do we? All we have is the picture, and our imaginations.
There is still much to say about the man -- he really was a war hero -- and the player. It will be a fond remembrance for some and an education for many more. The man feuded with pretty much everybody over the years at one time or another, including the Eagles. Just know this:
The personality matched the man and the man matched the city. Concrete Charlie. The 60-Minute Man. A kid on the Eagles’ last great teams in the ‘40s and an old man who played both ways when they won it again in 1960. And it all happened in a city that cherished then, as now, toughness and effort above all else.
In that way, Chuck Bednarik was perfect.