STEVE VAN BUREN, the slashing Hall of Fame running back who led the Eagles to their first two NFL championships in the late 1940s, died Thursday from pneumonia in Lancaster, Pa. He was 91.
Considered by many the greatest Eagles player of all time, Van Buren took an unlikely path to pro football from a small Caribbean island off Honduras to revolutionize the position of running back in the era after World War II.
The Louisiana State University graduate scored the only touchdown in the fabled "Blizzard Bowl" NFL title game of 1948, when the Birds beat the Chicago Cardinals for the first of their only three championships. The following year, he rushed for 196 yards to lead the Eagles to their second championship, over the Los Angeles Rams in a California monsoon.
"On the field and off, as a player, a leader and a man, Steve Van Buren embodied the finest characteristics of our city and our sport," said Eagles chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie. "He was a friend and an inspiration to generations of fans, and the model of what an Eagle should be."
Van Buren, survived by three of his daughters and his brother, former Eagle Ebert Van Buren, had lived in a nursing home outside of Lancaster in recent years. Several years ago, he was admitted into the NFL's 88 Plan for ex-players coping with dementia, which may have been caused by the many hits he took over his 8-year career.
When Van Buren arrived in Philadelphia in 1944 as a first-round draft pick from LSU, the team had never finished above fourth place in its history. In short order, the running back was the key factor in leading the Eagles to three straight division titles and the back-to-back NFL championships in 1948 and 1949.
Nicknamed "Wham-Bam" for his quick and punishing running style, he captured the NFL rushing title four times and retired in 1952 as the league's all-time rusher unto that time, with 5,860 yards and 77 TDs. five-time All-Pro, he was selected to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team in 1994, and was the first Eagles player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He remained in the Philadelphia area after his retirement, living a quiet, low-key lifestyle despite continuing to hold a number of all-time team records. Van Buren lived long enough to see several of his records eclipsed in the 2011 season by running back LeSean McCoy.
In a meeting with a Daily News reporter in January of this year in his nursing home room, where the NFL Network was on the TV in the background, Van Buren had a firm handshake and occasionally lapsed into the Spanish of his early childhood as he fondly recalled some of ex-teammates. He told relatives that his favorite current Eagle was Michael Vick, perhaps because the quarterback's slashing style reminded him of his own bruising style.
"Watch those old films and you know that Steve Van Buren was something special," said head coach Andy Reid. "He was special in person, too, humble about his own accomplishments and encouraging to others. His memory will be with Eagles fans for as long as this team takes the field."
"Steve Van Buren is one of the all-time Eagles," said Eagles president Don Smolenski. "He made his mark on the field, in the city of Philadelphia, and in the record books of the NFL. We honor the passing of one of our great ones."
Under legendary head coach Greasy Neale, Philadelphia finished the 1948 regular season with a 9-2-1 record and took on the Cardinals in the championship game with a foot of snow covering Shibe Park. Van Buren scored the game's only touchdown on a 5-yard run, while the defense limited the Cards to just 6 total first downs.
Ironically, Van Buren nearly missed the game - going back to sleep when he looked outside his home in suburban Penfield and thinking the game would be postponed. Awakened by a frantic call from Coach Neale and now snowed in, the NFL star hopped a trolley and then two subways to Shibe Park, walking the last mile to arrive just before kickoff.
The Eagles continued their dominance in 1949 with an 11-1 record in the regular season and a victory over the Rams in the championship game on a rain-soaked Los Angeles Coliseum field. Van Buren again led the Eagles as he rumbled for 196 yards on 31 carries.
The Eagles of that era were lovingly called "the duffel-bag dynasty" and adopted by the city's working-class fan base. Players like Hall of Fame end Pete Pihos, quarterback Tommy Thompson and young Chuck Bednarik were a "Greatest Generation," who had served in World War II and returned home trying again to settle into a regular life.
Van Buren didn't fight in the war because of his poor vision, and his path was an unlikely one. The descendent of real-life Caribbean pirates, he moved to New Orleans when he was 10 after his mother died and his father left. He discovered football as a way out of the Great Depression.