How could they have left Bednarik off NFL stars?

September 21, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

Selection of the National Football League's 75th Anniversary team, accompanied by the fanfare of drums rolling and trumpets blaring, was nothing more than ceremonial. It would have to be. There was no Chuck Bednarik.

He personifies, this man of concrete and steel, what the game is all about: a physical specimen strong enough to knock down a building, tougher than pig iron and a gifted athlete endowed with coordination, agility and an ability to make all the plays. A winner.

Name any linebacker in history. We'll take Bednarik. A two-time All-American, the first player picked in the 1949 NFL draft, eight years an All-Pro with the Philadelphia Eagles, member of two world championship teams and the last man to go both ways, the full 60 minutes -- linebacker on defense, center on offense -- in the 1960 title win over Green Bay when he was 35 years old.

The physical part of Bednarik is so imposing, 6 feet 3, 235 pounds, it's easy to dismiss something more important . . . the man himself and the character within. There's a strong sense of right and wrong, a desire to be counted in all controversy and a desire to defend the weak against the strong. Bullies beware.

Bednarik took a shop course at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa., and admits to being overmatched academically at the University of Pennsylvania. But every night, instead of spending his time socializing in such off-campus beer joints as Smokey Joe's, he craved the assistance he received from a tutor, who patiently reviewed the day's classroom work and prepared him for what was upcoming. He knew football wouldn't earn him a degree from the Wharton School of Business.

Bednarik has always done things the right way. He was 18 when he enlisted in a pilot program during World War II. But the country had an over-supply of candidates, qualifications were tight and Bednarik became a mid-gunner on a B-24.

At age 19, he completed 30 missions over Germany.

How far was a bombing run?

"About nine hours," was his reply. "That's if we went to Hamburg. Four-and-a-half hours to get there because we had a full load of bombs, close to the same time coming back. German planes would be up in the air to greet us on the way over and some of the same ones were meeting us on the way home, shooting holes in the fuselage."

He remembers how the debriefing would go after they got back to England. Once on the ground, the crew would huddle around a table. There was a fifth of whiskey at each end in case the airmen needed something to settle their nerves. The intelligence officers wanted to know where they met resistance, their observations en route, where was the anti-aircraft fire the thickest and if the target they were assigned to hit was taken out.

Was there a low point in the war for Bednarik? "Yes, I won't ever forget Christmas, 1944," he said. "The other crew in our Quonset hut didn't make it back. That meant you had to pack up their belongings and ship them home. Pictures of parents, wives, girlfriends. It tore you up."

He knew firsthand the severe toll war extracted. When they were bound on a mission, the mess hall served fresh eggs, as if it might be their last meal. Otherwise, if they weren't flying, eggs were artificial.

Bednarik, fearless on a football field and deeply religious, is a man who believes in a Higher Power and admits to praying his way through the war.

"I promised the Blessed Mother if I got home safely, I'd say a rosary every day in thanksgiving," he said. "I don't know if you know anything about Catholics, but a rosary is over 50 prayers. I've never missed. Not a single day in 50 years.

"Sometime, I say eight or 10 rosaries as I drive my car. I might be praying for a friend, whose wife is undergoing surgery, or a kid who has become a worry to his family. Then I miss a three-foot putt on the golf course and curse in disgust. I look up and say, 'Please, God, forgive me for that kind of language.' "

On Sunday, at church, the Bednarik family is invariably in the first row, front and center. "If you go to a Broadway play, you want to have the best seat, don't you?" he said. "That's how I feel. I'm no religious freak, but my faith is a part of me."

After his football career was over, Bednarik was drawn to golf. He hit 1,000 practice balls a day, picked them all up, and went from a 24-handicap to the club championship at Whitemarsh Country Club in only a year. Does this tell you about incredible determination?

The morning he was married in Bethlehem, Pa., he asked his wife, Emma, if she would mind going to a baseball game after the ceremony. So the new Mrs. Bednarik sat in the stands while Chuck caught a doubleheader for a town team. Then they headed for their honeymoon.

Pro football has made Bednarik, now 69, a legendary figure, but his personna is distorted. He's enshrined in both the college and pro football halls of fame. The NFL named him to its 75th anniversary two-way unit but not to its all-time team, which is a sacrilege.

There's no reputable way to pick a lineup of the game's elite and not include Charles Philip "Chuck" Bednarik, whose parents emigrated from Slovakia and gave America a football warrior of extraordinary talent, plus a man of sensitivity, whose deeds almost read like fiction -- except it's all hard muscle and fact.

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