‘Concrete Charlie’ defined the legend

This undated photo shows Chuck Bednarik, of the Philadelphia Eagles. Bednarik, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and one of the last great two-way NFL players, has died. He was 89. (AP Photo)

His was the best, the absolute most spot-on nickname there has ever been in all of sport:

Concrete Charlie.

That was him. And that was how he played. Hard. Unyielding. Implacable. Undentable.

Yes sir, that was Chuck Bednarik. Last of the 60-Minute Men. Two-Way Charlie. The Iron Man.

The toughest, meanest, fiercest, most cantankerous old SOB who ever put on pads and a helmet, and if you don't believe it, just ask him.

"I'm up at 5 every morning," he said once. "I can run 10 miles, play 18 holes, and mow 2 acres of yard before noon."


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At the time, he was 73 years old . . . and you weren't absolutely-for-sure-certain that he couldn't back that up, even with a plastic knee and two hands so gnarled and so horribly misshapen that they looked like they belonged on somebody else.

Chuck Bednarik was the pure essence of football. He played a violent game with a smoldering and undisguised lust for that very violence. He gloried in the swirling chaos, and even now, all those years later, the most famous picture in the history of professional football remains a grainy, ghostlike black and white photograph taken in Yankee Stadium on Nov. 20, 1960.

It shows Bednarik standing exultantly over the prone, unconscious form of Frank Gifford, the Giants' elegant, pretty-boy receiver who had dared to run a route over the middle, there in those hunting grounds patrolled by the predatorial Concrete Charlie. He used a forearm on Gif, but he might as well have used a baseball bat.

Gifford was de-cleated. Literally. His shoes hung from the tips of his toes. He didn't play the rest of that game or all of the following season. And almost until his death, Chuck Bednarik was signing copies of that photo, sent to him by fathers and grandfathers telling their offspring that, yes, there used to be a man who never came out of the game, really. Invariably, the autograph seekers would ask what he was saying over the prostrate Gifford, and Concrete Charlie would smile and reply:

"This [expletive] game is over!"

Of course, that act of unadulterated savagery endeared him even more to those fans of the Eagles with a carnivorous bent, as did his endgame heroics in the 1960 NFL championship game at Franklin Field, when a game and a title seemed to be slipping away from the Birds as the Green Bay Packers' Jim Taylor was running for the touchdown that would decide it.

But Concrete Charlie intercepted him and wrestled him to the ground and then sat on him, counting off the last seconds while a seething, helpless Taylor squirmed, without success, to get free.

"You can get up now, Jim," Concrete Charlie told his captive. "The game's over."

Maybe it could have been called a penalty, but one never was. Besides, surely the statute of limitations has run out by now, don't you think?

That cemented the legend of Concrete Charlie. And as for that nickname, it sprang from the typewriter of Frank Brown, of The Bulletin, who noted that Bednarik played like that ready-mix concrete he used to sell in the offseason, back in a time long before megamillion-dollar salaries.

Chuck Bednarik had been introduced to life, and death, at the tender age of 18. He was a machine gunner in World War II B-17 bombers. He flew 30 missions - and he saw friends shot down, heard the ping-ping-ping of antiaircraft flak, saw some parachutes open and some that didn't - and he survived all 30. And this is what he took away from it: "I started going to early Mass. Still do, every day. I've had a lot of miracles in my life."

Home from the war, he enrolled at Penn, absolutely dominated everyone, scared the liver out of most overmatched opponents who were cowed by his ferocity, was taken by the Iggles, and proceeded to play every position: center, middle linebacker, punt and kick coverage, and snapper.

"Now you tell me what was left," he demanded.

Concrete Charlie was a prideful man. He loved his nickname and he guarded it zealously. Decades after his playing days, his name was still showing up on assorted lists of the best players ever. On merit. The Maxwell Club identifies the best defensive collegiate player each year with an award in his name.

His post-career relationship with the Iggles was a tempestuous one: Concrete Charlie was bitter at times, outspoken early on, and thunderous where he thought he saw injustice, and never mind what the facts might be. Eventually, a truce of sorts was reached.

"If you want to know what was on Charlie's mind," his wife, Emma, said, "you never have to ask. Sometimes you don't have to wait even 10 seconds."

Concrete Charlie had little use for the modern player. "Some plays, some of them don't even have contact," he would snort disdainfully, and yes, he resented the money, resented it and openly envied it.

"I'd play now," he said. "Yeah, I would. Make more for one game than a whole lifetime. Yeah, I could go in for one play. I could be on kick coverage. You know, just run down there and then run off and collect a check."

But he couldn't do that, Emma said, fondly. No, her Charlie would give in to temptation and hit somebody. It would be The Last Ride of Concrete Charlie, and it would be grand.

"It wouldn't," he agreed, "be a bad way to go out."

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer sports columnist.

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