Sixty minute man

Updated: March 23, 2005, 4:46 PM ET
By Ron Flatter | Special to ESPN.com

"A linebacker is like an animal. He's like a lion or a tiger and he goes after prey. He wants to eat him, he wants to kick the ---- out of him. That's a linebacker," says Chuck Bednarik on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

In the fifties, the "Sixty Minute Man" was "Lovin' Dan," Billy Ward and his Dominoes' hero of double entendre. The nineties brought Deion Sanders, a wide-receiving, defensive-backing, kick-returning general practitioner, the latter-day "Sixty Minute Man." Both were works of fiction.

Some would argue no man has lived up to the reputation of "Lovin' Dan," and Deion never clocked in close to a full hour, not even in the primest of his time.

Want to find the real-life "Sixty Minute Man?" Turn to the one who was known as "Concrete Charlie." Almost four decades since he last played for the Philadelphia Eagles, Chuck Bednarik is remembered as the last of pro football's true full-timers - center on offense, middle linebacker on defense, in the trenches on special teams (even before they were called special teams).

Bednarik was no "Lovin' Dan." His plaque in the Pro Football Hall of Fame says he was a "rugged, durable, bulldozing blocker" and a "bone-jarring tackler." That meant he was no Deion, either.

"Deion couldn't tackle my wife Emma," Bednarik said. "He's not what I'd call an iron man. The iron man is up front where the action is, where the hitting is constant."

Bednarik speaks from a vastly different reference point, remembering a time when he was not such an exception to the ever-changing rules. In 1950, a year after the Eagles made him the first choice in the 1949 draft, the NFL permanently instituted free substitution. Platoons and offensive and defensive specialists were born, and the clock was ticking on the Sixty Minute Man.

More and more, players chose one side of the ball or the other. Not Bednarik - at least not right away. In his 14 years with the Eagles, he missed only three games (none in his last five seasons) and for half those years he seldom left the field, even though his hard-hitting style helped earn him the nickname "Concrete Charlie."

"There was contact on every play," he said. "You got the stuffing beat out of you, not like this pantywaist stuff today."

Chuck Bednarik
Bednarik (# 60) stands over the injured Frank Gifford.
Bednarik did a lot more dishing out than taking in his career. Just ask Frank Gifford and Jim Taylor. Gifford fell victim to a ferocious Bednarik tackle in November 1960. Because of the resulting concussion, Gifford did not play again for the New York Giants until 1962.

In the NFL championship game in 1960, Bednarik stepped up again. This time it was at Philadelphia's Franklin Field, where Bednarik had played college ball at Penn. Twelve years after becoming the first offensive lineman to win the Maxwell Award as college football's outstanding player, Bednarik made more history.

With the Eagles leading the Packers 17-13 late in the game, Bart Starr moved the Packers down the field. The ball was on the Eagles 22 when Starr threw a swing pass to Taylor, who was heading to the end zone.

Enter Bednarik. At 35, he was the oldest player on the field. But even after playing 58 minutes and leaving the frozen field only for his team's kickoffs, Bednarik still had enough left to get to Taylor. "He got through a couple of our defenders," Bednarik said, "but he had to go through me. That wasn't going to happen."

Bednarik met Taylor at the nine-yard line, and in the words of sportswriter Bill Lyon, "wrestled him to the cold, hard ground like a rodeo cowboy bulldogs a steer and then sat on the squirming, seething Taylor until the clock blinked down to all zeroes."

Bednarik punctuated the moment with a verbal exclamation point, telling Taylor, "You can get up now, Jim. The game's over."

It was the Eagles' last NFL championship and the only time Vince Lombardi lost a title game as head coach.

Two hits for the ages from the Sixty Minute Man wearing No. 60 in '60, a year that started with him just concentrating on offense. That was all changed when linebacker Bob Pelligrini was injured in the fifth game. The inexperience of Pellegrini's backup, John Nocera, led coach Buck Shaw to have Bednarik playing both ways again.

"Buck told me that the other guys just weren't doing a good enough job [at linebacker] and that he needed me to play both ways," Bednarik said. "So I did it."

This seemingly unflinching work ethic was only appropriate for this product of Pennsylvania's Steel Belt. Born May 1, 1925, Bednarik grew up in his native Bethlehem, Pa., to be a 6-foot-3, 230-pound football machine with an imposing mean streak. What he lacked in speed, he made up for in a reckless style and an instinct that seemingly always had him close to the ball. In 1942, he helped Liberty High School to an undefeated season in his junior year.

During World War II, Bednarik flew 30 missions over Europe for the Army Air Corps as a B-24 waist gunner in 1944 and 1945. "How we survived I don't know," he said. "From then on, great things happened for me."

Bednarik stayed close to home after the war, enrolling at Penn in 1945 with the goal of becoming a coach and a teacher. He lettered in football for four years, being named an All-American in 1947 and 1948. Besides becoming the first lineman to win the Maxwell Award, Bednarik finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting when SMU's Doak Walker won it in '48. At the time it was the highest finish for an interior lineman in the award's history.

After turning down an offer to be drafted as a catcher by the Philadelphia Athletics, Bednarik joined the Eagles the year after they won their first NFL title. It didn't take long for him to establish himself as a bulldozing blocker and a ball-hawking defender, and as a rookie in 1949 he helped the Eagles retain their championship.

In 1953, he intercepted a career-high six passes, even then a high number for a middle linebacker. In the Pro Bowl after the season, he was voted the player of the game.

Chuck Bednarik
Bednarik made the key play in the Eagles last championship in 1960.
By 1958, Bednarik seemed to have seen his last days as a defender. At the end of the season he announced he was quitting, although his retirement didn't even make it through the summer. Bednarik returned in 1959, played his best season in 1960, and retired for good this time after the Eagles fell to last place in 1962.

He was an Associated Press All-Pro selection every year from 1951-56 after having been named All-Pro at center his first two seasons (1949 and 1950). He also played in eight of the first 11 Pro Bowls (1951-55, '57, '58 and '61).

On Aug. 5, 1967, Bednarik was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His place as the center on the all-time NFL team followed in 1969, the same year he was named to the College Football Hall of Fame. He was a charter member of the Eagles Honor Roll in 1987, the year the team retired his No. 60.

Today Bednarik is chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, for which he has served more than 20 years. He lives in Coopersburg, not far from where he grew up in Bethlehem. He still plays golf, still plays the accordion, still goes to football games - mostly at Lehigh - and after more than 50 years is still married to Emma, the woman whom he compares favorably to latter-day Sixty Minute wannabes.

"Emma says my proudest thing is marrying her," he said. "My proudest thing? I guess it's the playing all the time. My upbringing, the survival of a war, making All-America, making the College Football Hall of Fame, making the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I'm perfectly happy with my entire life."

A lifetime of success for the Sixty Minute Man.

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