Chuck Bednarik died on March 21, 2015. Many of you who read this will not know who he was. If you come from humble beginnings, if you value hard work and toughness, and if your people came to America in search of a better life and were willing to suffer any hardship to earn it, I encourage you to find out more about him.
Bednarik was famous as a professional football player for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1949-1962. He is remembered as the last of the true “two-way” players, playing each game in its entirety on offense at center and on defense at middle linebacker. On every play Bednarik was at the heart of the violent action. He was the physical embodiment of the fury of the game, and once hit opponent Frank Gifford so hard that he knocked him out of the game, and the league, for eighteen months. Much like his upbringing, Bednarik was brutal and unrelenting. The NFL today is nothing like the league Bednarik played in and helped build. Bednarik was a frequent reminder of the contemporary softness and financial excess of the NFL, and the country as a whole. The hardest part of Bednarik’s harsh criticism is realizing how right he was.
Bednarik’s parents emigrated from Slovakia to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania during the early 1920s. He grew up in the tough steel-town environment and used football as his ticket up and out. But World War II intervened and Bednarik ended up flying more than 30 combat missions over Germany as an air gunner with the 8th Air Force, earning the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters. He was a mature, battle-hardened man when he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1949. He was the first player selected in the 1949 NFL draft. In Bednarik, the Philadelphia Eagles found the backbone of both their offense and defense for more than a decade. In that time they would win two world championships and Bednarik would earn his place in the NFL Hall of Fame. During the off-season Bednarik sold concrete for the Warner Company, and coupled with his toughness on gameday, he earned his nickname “Concrete Charlie”.
We’ve lost more than a pro football legend with Chuck Bednarik’s passing. We’ve lost a living piece of the bedrock the United States was built on, and improved upon during the middle of the 20th Century. We’ve also lost an important part of our national conscience, our toughness, and our ability to overcome. I miss him already. I think we’ll be missing his kind more and more as the years roll on. But as we remember him, and those wonderful tough people like him, we have a chance to recapture the indomitable spirit of his generation, and pump that strength into the heart of America.