1 Steve Van Buren. The best ever. How do you judge? How do you cross eras and compare? Just what is universal, what is the tipping point, what is the criteria for such an honor as being named the best ever for a franchise that has existed for more than seven decades?
When it comes down to it, the game of football is about winning championships, and no one was more instrumental in bringing not one, but two championships to the city of Philadelphia than Steve Van Buren.
Yes, it is speculative. It is neither foolproof nor scientific, and it certainly isn't free from argument. There will be those who favor the incomparable Reggie White, who moved men with precision timing and his revolutionary "hump" move. There will be those who favor the rock Chuck Bednarik, the last of the two-way ironmen who was a rookie in 1949 and brought a title to this town in 1960, the final time the Eagles have hoisted a championship trophy.
But the 6-foot, 206-pound Van Buren, with his punishing running style, his goal-line effectiveness, even his horrible eyesight, could have crossed eras. He played in the 1940s and '50s, but those who saw him then say he could have played now. He had the size, the speed, the mentality, the power, the will.
Call Van Buren, as they did in the day, "Wham Bam," "Supersonic Steve," "The Bayou Bombshell," "The Movin' Van," "Weavin' Steven" or "Louisiana Lightning," but also call him this: the greatest Philadelphia Eagle of all time.
His numbers for his time were phenomenal - eight seasons, 5,860 rushing yards (including a then-record 1,146 yards in 1949), 1,320 attempts, four rushing titles, six league records and two championship playoff records. The team's first-round draft pick in 1944, Van Buren helped the Eagles to consecutive world championships in 1948 and '49.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.
"I've seen them all - Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski," Greasy Neale, Van Buren's coach with the Eagles, told The Daily News in 1957, "but he's the greatest."
"Steve Van Buren was maybe the greatest running back of all time," said former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, one of the most respected analysts on the NFL. "We're not just talking about a Jim Brown-type player, or an Emmitt Smith. . . . Although we probably are not acclimated to seeing him run and play, those that are historians understand the impact that he had on the game. He was a great player. He is a Hall of Famer. And they won championships."
Van Buren grew up in Tela, Honduras, until the age of 10, when his parents died and he moved in with his grandparents in New Orleans. They were not particularly strict, and Van Buren frequently skipped school to hang out with friends and throw rocks at street lamps. He didn't make his high school football team as a sophomore, and only after playing as a senior did he earn a scholarship to Louisiana State.
At LSU, Van Buren was primarily a blocking back until his senior season, when he led the country in rushing with 847 yards on 150 carries. At the urging of Tigers coach Bernie Moore, the Eagles drafted Van Buren first in 1944. They never regretted it.
Almost immediately, Van Buren dominated the NFL. In 1945, he led the league in rushing, kickoff returns and scoring (18 TDs in 10 games). He was a first-team all-pro selection his first six seasons. And Van Buren elevated the Eagles, who had never been a contender before his arrival, to powerhouse status - three straight division titles, three straight championship games, two NFL titles.
A year after the Eagles lost to Chicago in the championship game in 1947, the team hosted the Cardinals in the 1948 title game at Shibe Park. Van Buren awoke that morning to a blizzard, and thought the game would be postponed. After reconsidering, he walked, then hitchhiked to the stadium, arriving just in time for kickoff as fans outside paid 25 cents for a ticket.
With the game deadlocked at 0-0 entering the final period, Van Buren got the ball at the 5-yard line. With the crowd yelling, "Give it to Steve," Van Buren ran between the left guard and tackle and into the end zone, scoring the only touchdown of the game. The Eagles won, 7-0.
"When we got down to the 10-yard line," said Bill Mackrides, the Eagles' backup quarterback at the time, "Greasy sent plays in. Everybody in the United States knew that Steve Van Buren was going to carry the ball - and he would still get the touchdown every time."
The next year, Van Buren powered the Eagles to a second title, in Los Angeles. On a drenched, muddy field thanks to more than an inch of rain, Van Buren set an NFL record with 196 rushing yards as the Eagles beat the Rams, 14-0. The winner's cut: $1,090 per player.
"I got 196 yards?" Van Buren said afterward, according to the Dec. 19, 1949, Evening Bulletin. "I thought I was doing pretty good, but figured it was only a little over 100 yards. Boy, that's what you can do with blocking."
Great running back, humble guy. Van Buren was almost universally beloved, by friends, fans and foes. His end, however, was cruel: Playing in a scrimmage in Hershey in 1952, Van Buren broke his leg and had to retire.
His career was over, but his legend was established.
Van Buren lived his life in suburban Philadelphia, working various jobs and betting the races. He now resides, at age 86, in a nursing home outside Lancaster.
"We were in the world championship game, now called the Super Bowl, three years in a row," Mackrides said, "and we would not have been there without him."
Contact columnist Ashley Fox
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