THE HALL OF FAME center/linebacker Chuck Bednarik, who died last Saturday at 89, didn't simply live and play football in another time; he was wholly and unmistakably of that time—a Greatest Generation soldier, a 60-minute man and an unrepentant defender of the era that he defined and which in turn defined him.
Born in Bethlehem, Pa., Bednarik enlisted in the Army before finishing high school. Between August 1944 and April '45, he flew 30 bombing missions over Germany, manning a .50 caliber machine gun, and each safe landing was a fresh lease on life. In a '93 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED profile of Bednarik, John Schulian wrote, "... he did what he did after every mission, good or bad. He lit a cigarette and headed for the briefing room, where there was always a bottle on the table. 'I was 18, 19 years old,' he says, 'and I was drinking that damn whiskey straight.'"
Bednarik went from the war to Penn, where he was a two-time All-America, and then spent 14 seasons with the Eagles, playing both ways—center and middle linebacker—for the first seven and parts of the last seven, making All-Pro eight times as a linebacker.
But Bednarik's influence can't be reduced to biographical records. At 6'3" and 235 pounds, he was quick-footed and powerful in the era that preceded weight training (and steroids), and earned a reputation for crushing hits and intimidation. He is best remembered for two plays from Philadelphia's 1960 NFL championship season. On Nov. 20 he took down Giants halfback Frank Gifford with a hit to the chest that left Gifford concussed and caused him to miss the entire 1961 season. A month later in the NFL title game at Franklin Field, Bednarik tackled Jim Taylor of the Packers in the closing seconds, then lay on top of Taylor until time expired before saying, "You can get up now, the game's over."
The game was never really over for Bednarik. Into his 80s he remained the go-to source for criticism of the modern, pampered athlete. It was a role he earned with his body and soul, speaking in the voice of his generation.
THEY SAID IT
"Ballers make plays. Dudes are dudes. I mean, that's the way life works."
North Florida coach, with his team leading Robert Morris by six at the half. The Ospreys lost 81--77.
HERB SCHARFMAN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BEDNARIK)
SKIP PETERSON/AP (DRISCOLL)