Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared on The Sports Network website on Jan. 20, 2010 in David Coulson’s regular, nationally-syndicated column on the Football Championship Subdivision and is reprinted in honor of Chuck Bednarik, the legendary Philadelphia Eagles and Penn Quakers football star, who passed away March 21, 1915 at the age of 89.
By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — When Chuck Bednarik was a kid, growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Bethlehem, PA., he and his friends would sneak into Taylor Stadium at nearby Lehigh University for the chance to play football on a real grass field.
“There was this guy that used to always run us off the field,” Bednarik said during a recent book-signing appearance at the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society in downtown Hatboro, PA.
Showing the skill and agility that would serve him so well in an All-American football career at Penn and during his 12-year, NFL Hall of Fame career with the Philadelphia Eagles, Bednarik and his friends would escape unscathed, surviving to play another day.
Though he played in a period that far pre-dated the Football Championship Subdivision, the NFL’s last two-way performer has some serious FCS roots and competed with the heart and hunger we have come to expect from players who now slug it out at this level.
One of his four brothers, John “Jeep” Bednarik, was an honorable mention All-American during his career at William & Mary from 1951-53 and later served as an assistant coach for Lehigh, further adding to that FCS family tree.
Just call Chuck Bednarik the ultimate type-A role model for today’s successful FCS performer.
Such an attitude was engrained early in this budding, gridiron legend, who said he was “born and raised about three blocks from Lehigh.”
On football Saturdays, Bednarik would find a way to slink into Lehigh’s grand, old facility for the chance to watch the Engineers.
“I would climb the fence and then went into the bottom of the concrete bleachers,” Bednarik said. “I’d crawl down into the bottom until the game began and then I would sneak into the game.”
A product of the tough times of the 1930s, Bednarik did what he could to fuel his love of football.
“I came up through poverty and the depression,” he explained. “You did what you could do to survive.”
It was tougher for Bednarik to convince his mother, Mary, to allow him to play football than it was for him to outlast the security force at Taylor Stadium.
“She wouldn’t let me play football,” he said in the recently released book, Concrete Charlie, An Oral History of Philadelphia’s Greatest Football Legend Chuck Bednarik. “She said she didn’t want anyone hurting me.”
Bednarik finally subverted his mother’s concerns by getting his father, Charles, to sign the permission form allowing him to play football for coach Paul Troxell at Broughal Junior High.
After emerging as a football, basketball and baseball star at Bethlehem Technical High School and Liberty High School from 1940-43, Bednarik answered the patriotic call of his country when World War II broke out.
Sports were put on hold in 1943 as this hard-nosed athlete was drafted into the Army at age 18 and took his intensity to another battlefield, World War II.
“I really wanted to be a pilot, but I flunked out,” Bednarik said. “They sent me to gunnery school.”
Bednarik served with the 467th Bomb Group in the Eighth Air Force, flying 30 missions over Germany in a B-24 Liberation Bomber and was decorated with the Air Medal, with four Oak Leaf Clusters, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Ribbon, with five Battle Stars.
“You’re only 19 years old and you’re dealing with being shot at,” Bednarik said. “I kissed the ground after my 30th mission.”
But the war afforded Bednarik an opportunity he would have likely missed had he remained at home — the chance to play college football.
After being discharged from the military service, Bednarik decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill after talking to his Liberty High coach, John Butler. Butler convinced Bednarik to play for George Munger at Penn.
“I didn’t even know where it was,” Bednarik said of the Philadelphia-based campus. “I was all set to go to work in the steel mill back in Bethlehem.”
Little did he know he would spend most of his career playing at Penn’s historic Franklin Field.
Bednarik quickly became enamored with the now-legendary Quaker coach, who is immortalized with a statue at Franklin Field.
“George Munger was my style,” Bednarik explained. “He knew his football.”
Under Munger’s tutelage, Bednarik developed into one of the top players in the country as a center and linebacker. He finished third in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1948, while winning the Maxwell Trophy that same year.
It might be hard for people who live in Philadelphia to believe it now, but in those days, college football was king and the Eagles were an afterthought to schools such as Penn.
Though fans easily remember Bednarik for his NFL career, which included a iconic hit that knocked New York Giants star Frank Gifford unconscious and a tackle on Green Bay Packers fullback Jim Taylor that clinched the Eagles’ last NFL championship, fewer have memories of his days as a college performer.
“What I remember is 78,000 people coming to our games,” Bednarik said.
Bednarik’s favorite moments in college were the games the Quakers played against Army and Navy, then two of the most prominent names in college football. Penn was also routinely ranked by the wire service polls during those days.
“It was a spectacle when we played those teams,” Bednarik said. “The cadets would march on the field and you’d get goose bumps.”
He also has fond memories of competing against two Heisman Trophy winners from Army, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis – running backs that were nicknamed Mr Inside and Mr. Outside.
“Those guys stick in my mind even today.”
Now 84 years young, with a sparkle in his eyes that befits his still-feisty personality and a firm handshake, Bednarik still shows up at Franklin Field for the annual gatherings of “Munger’s men.”
He was on hand again this fall for Penn’s 9-0 victory over Yale, watching his alma mater play in a hard-fought style that would eventually lead to the Ivy League title.
Though these Quakers were playing to a much smaller audience, Bednarik could appreciate the effort. But he still longs for the days when players played offense, defense and special teams.
“Players today are over-paid and under-played,” said Bednarik. “I think if you asked them, the players of today would love to get out there and play both ways like I did.”
In Bednarik’s way of thinking, football should be played like it was in those days when he and his friends were sneaking into Taylor Stadium. Minus the part about their games being disrupted by that nasty security guy.