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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Philadelphia Eagles
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Philadelphia Eagles History
By Steve Silverman
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Steve Silverman
All rights reserved.
THE EARLY YEARS
BERT BELL AND THE ORIGIN OF THE EAGLES
From humble beginnings did the Eagles take wing.
The Frankford Yellow Jackets, the city's first professional football team, played their last game in 1931, after which they filed for bankruptcy and went out of business. It was a fate suffered by many businesses in Philadelphia — and throughout the country — as the nation struggled through the height of the Great Depression.
But just because that team had withered away didn't mean that there was no interest in pro football in the city. Philadelphia's football future was saved by DeBenneville "Bert" Bell in 1933. The man who would eventually become one of the game's great innovators wanted to bring football back to Philadelphia. Growing up in one of the richest families in Philadelphia, he went on to play college football at Penn (as a 150-pound quarterback). He loved the game despite his upper-crust upbringing.
Bell later coached at both Penn and Temple. He got involved with the professional game when he formed a syndicate with former Penn teammate Lud Wray to buy the Yellow Jackets for $2,500 in 1933. The two also agreed to guarantee the debts the team owed to the Chicago Bears, the New York Giants, and the Green Bay Packers. Bell's first act as owner was to rename the team, and the Philadelphia Eagles were in business.
Wray had been recommended to Boston Redskins owner George Preston Marshall as a head coach by Bell the previous year, and he had coached that team to a 4–4–2 record. He left the Redskins after that season to take over the sideline duties for the Eagles.
An early highlight for the Eagles came not on the field but at the negotiating table. Pennsylvania blue laws at that time strictly forbid holding sporting events on Sundays. Bell was able to overcome those arcane laws, receiving a license to play on Sundays — which, as everyone knows, have since become the day for professional football.
Sadly, the Eagles had limited talent on the field, dropping their first three games before recording a road win over the Cincinnati Reds. They came home to face the defending league champion Chicago Bears; the Eagles held George Halas's team to a 3–3 tie.
It would be a long time before the Eagles would become respectable on the field or profitable at the box office. The low point may have come during the 1939 season, when the Eagles played a scoreless tie against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Municipal Stadium in a driving rainstorm before less than 100 fans.
Bell became the coach and sole owner of the team in 1936. He coached the team unsuccessfully for five years before a very strange business deal took place. In 1940 Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers (then known as the Pirates), sold his franchise to Alexis Thompson; Rooney then became Bell's partner in Philadelphia. The two teams then traded locations: Thompson took the original version of the Steelers to Philadelphia and the Bell-Rooney coalition went to Pittsburgh with the Eagles.
The Eagles, merged with the Pittsburgh team, continued to struggle through the 1942 season. The 1943 season was nearly suspended because so many of the players had left the league to take up military service during World War II. But the league soldiered on. Since there weren't enough players, the Eagles and the Steelers decided to combine to become the "Steagles" for one season. The combined team went 5–4–1, marking the first time the Eagles — in any form — had a winning season.
The two teams separated the following year; the Eagles resumed playing on their own while Bell's Steelers merged with the Cardinals. The Eagles became a football power in 1944 with a 7–1–2 record and a second-place finish, while the Card-Pitts went 0–10.
Bell escaped the ongoing mess of professional football in the area two years later when he agreed to succeed Elmer Layden as commissioner of the league. Not only was Bell charged with leading the league in the postwar era, he also had to deal with the heavy hand of George Halas in Chicago. Halas was one of the founders of the NFL and had had a hand in nearly every decision the league made. While Bell had a vision that would take the league into the future, Halas tended to focus only on how each issue would impact his own team. However, Halas recognized Bell's strengths and Bell realized that he needed to get along with Halas. The two did just enough compromising to allow the league to move forward.
Bell endorsed the creation of a players association, a group that would eventually become the National Football League Player's Association (NFLPA). NFL owners were aghast that the commissioner would help the players unionize, but Bell thought it was the right thing to do, since the league was being built on the players' backs. He also instituted the league's first pension plan. And it was Bell who negotiated the merger with the All- American Football Conference (AAFC), an agreement that ended the war between the two leagues and brought the Cleveland Browns, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts into the NFL.
Bell came up with the concept of sudden death overtime for playoff games, a rule that became reality in perhaps the most important game in pro football history when the Colts defeated the Giants 23–17 in the 1958 NFL Championship game. That overtime contest transfixed a nation of fans — including Lamar Hunt, who was also destined to become an important figure in the history of pro football.
In 1959 the 26-year-old Hunt, son of oil magnate H.L. Hunt, was far more interested in owning a football team than he was in pumping oil. But the NFL rebuffed Hunt at every turn, denying him both an expansion franchise and an existing one. So Hunt decided to start his own league — the American Football League (AFL).
Surprisingly, Hunt received some of his strongest encouragement and his best advice from Bell. Even though he was commissioner of the NFL, Bell thought his league had its strongest growth period when it was competing with and then eventually merged with the AAFC. Bell believed that Hunt's new league, if it could get off the ground, would create more interest in the game of professional football among the fans and the media, something that would help both organizations.
Bell's thinking about the AFL turned out to be prophetic. The new league eventually became one of the biggest success stories in the history of pro football — but sadly Bell was not around to enjoy a congratulatory hug from Hunt. Bert Bell died when he suffered a heart attack on October 12, 1959, while watching the Eagles play the Steelers at Franklin Field. He was 65 years old.
Bell's death scuttled his secret plan to reacquire the Eagles. He had planned to step down from the commissioner's office and then buy the Eagles just three days later for $900,000. He had told no one of his plan except for his son, Bert Jr.
Bell's vision, decisiveness, and ability to grow a product have led to quite a legacy — the most successful professional sporting league in the world. And while the venerable Halas may have been the backbone of the league, Bell was clearly its conscience.
HITTING THAT CHAMPIONSHIP STRIDE
The majority of football fans can easily identify the best defensive teams in NFL history. The legendary Steel Curtain under Steelers head coach Chuck Noll is often viewed as the best defensive team of all time. The rowdy 1985 Chicago Bears come within a hair of those Steelers, with Don Shula's undefeated Dolphins right behind them. Vince Lombardi's Packers, the Purple People Eaters of Minnesota, and the Rams' Fearsome Foursome must also be taken into consideration.
The 1948–49 Philadelphia Eagles may not be as well known as those teams, but they were probably just as good on the field. Head coach Earle "Greasy" Neale was the top defensive of his time, putting together an inventive five-man defensive line that featured two added linebackers and four defensive backs. The group was led by Frank "Bucko" Kilroy, Alex Wojciechowicz, Vic Sears, and eventually Chuck Bednarik — a group of defenders who inflicted punishment on nearly every play.
Opponents complained that the Eagles were dirty, claiming that Kilroy was particularly nasty. He was even featured in a Life magazine profile on professional football entitled "Savagery on Sunday." The story portrayed Kilroy, who would go on to become a longtime executive with the New England Patriots, as one of the "bad guys" of the game.
Kilroy did not take these accusations of dirty play lightly. He fought in the trenches on both sides of the Philadelphia line and didn't admit to anything except playing hard. He resented what was said and written about him. "That is the reply of losers," he said. "The losers will never admit that the Eagles were just the more physical team, or that the Eagles just wanted it more. The losers will not state, 'Wow! The Eagles physically blew us off the line of scrimmage running [Steve] Van Buren down our throats!'" The Eagles relied on Van Buren for both offense and their nasty defense.
This dominating Philadelphia squad shut out the Chicago Cardinals 7–0 in the 1948 NFL Championship and then blanked the Los Angeles Rams 14–0 in the following year's NFL Championship. No team in NFL history before or since had reeled off shutouts in consecutive NFL Championship games.
"Being a member of back-to-back championship teams was a great feeling! But to be a part of a defense that posted back-to-back championship shutouts is very special," recalled Kilroy.
Kilroy's nasty style forced a fumble in the game versus the Cardinals, and the Eagles recovered the loose ball. That play led to the game's only touchdown, a five-yard run by Van Buren. Kilroy's tough play allowed the Eagles to limit the Cardinals to just six total first downs. "Defensively, coming hard off the ball, I just took a crease and found myself in the backfield. I think it disrupted the running back, and I stripped him of the ball," Kilroy told writer Gary Kravitz.
Neale was a thinking man's coach. Gruff in language and tough in appearance, he knew that the late 1940s were a changing era in the nation as a whole and in professional sports in particular. Many of the Eagles' players were returning World War II veterans, so Neale thought it unnecessary to take the tough disciplinary approach many coaches favored. He reasoned that four years of participation in the war effort entitled the players to be treated like men instead of schoolchildren. He allowed them to tease and kid him, although they never crossed the line with behavior that would have impeded his authority.
Neale also valued his players' opinions, inspiring a great deal of love among them. He treated men like men — and even sought out their advice on things like play calling. Neale reasoned that his players were intelligent "college men," and he recognized that they were in a perfect position to see who might be the opponent's weak point and where to focus the team's attack.
The Eagles could have achieved three consecutive championships if they had beaten the Cardinals in the 1947 championship game. The game was played on a blisteringly cold day on a frozen Comiskey Park field. The Cardinals had covered their field with a tarp all week, but 24 hours before the game the ground crew took it off so the Cardinals wouldn't have to pay them extra to come and do it on the weekend.
By the time the game began the ground was more like a sheet of ice than a football field. The Cardinals came out wearing gym shoes with cork cleats, while the Eagles put on their regular spikes, filed down to keep them from getting stuck in the ice. But the officials ruled that those shoes were not safe, so the Eagles changed to regular sneakers — but without the cork the Cardinals had. That disadvantage, combined with the cold, virtually killed the Eagles running game; Van Buren was held to just 26 yards.
Despite the conditions, the Eagles fought valiantly. The passing game was particularly effective: unheralded quarterback Tommy Thompson completed 27 of 44 passes for 297 yards and a touchdown. The Eagles also outgained the Cardinals (357 yards to Chicago's 336) and controlled the ball, gaining 22 first downs to Chicago's 11. But with Van Buren's performance compromised, the team struggled, finally losing 28–21.
Philadelphia got its revenge — and the first half of its two-year championship run — the next season. They were hard-hitting, nasty, and played with a purpose. Nobody ever mentions this team's name among the NFL's greatest, but back-to-back championship game shutouts speak for themselves. This team was a true gem.CHAPTER 2
TOP CLUTCH PERFORMERS
In a sport filled with fearless warriors, Chuck Bednarik stands out as one of the toughest guys to ever play the game.
The list of the roughest football players ever — while open to much debate — also includes Doug Atkins, Dick Butkus, Joe Greene, Charles Haley, Dan Hampton, Deacon Jones, Jack Lambert, Ray Lewis, "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, Gino Marchetti, Lawrence Taylor, Randy White, and Jack Youngblood. This author's bet is that if you put them all in a room, Bednarik, Butkus, or Taylor would be the only one to walk out again.
Legendary running back Jim Brown, perhaps the greatest football player of all time, is a man of immense pride. He has walked with the titans of the sports world, as well as the stars of Hollywood. "Chuck Bednarik was as great as any linebacker who has ever lived," Brown said. "I don't know how old he is, but I'll bet nobody could kick his butt today."
Bednarik was born in 1925. He was 79 when Brown made his assessment.
Bednarik played center on offense and middle linebacker on defense for the Eagles. He grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, played college football at Penn, and had a 14-year career with the Eagles, from 1949 to 1962. He was one of the last of the two-way players and was often called "The 60-Minute Man," although that was a slight exaggeration. Bednarik "The 60-Minute Man," although that was a slight exaggeration. Bednarik played every snap on offense and every snap on defense, but he was on the sideline for kickoffs. But in the 1960 NFL Championship game, he was on the field for more than 58 actual game minutes.
"Concrete Charlie" was a warrior who earned his spot in the Hall of Fame alongside legends like George Halas and Vince Lombardi. He is best known for two legendary plays: a knockout hit on Frank Gifford during the Eagles' 1960 championship season and a last-second tackle of Jim Taylor that preserved the Eagles' win over the Packers in that season's title game.
The repercussions of the Gifford hit have been reverberating through the NFL for decades. With the Eagles leading the Giants 17–10 at Yankee Stadium in the fourth quarter of their battle for first place in the Eastern Conference, New York had the ball and was driving for the tying touchdown. Giants quarterback Charley Conerly hit Gifford with a pass over the middle, but before he could make a move upfield, he was met head-on by Bednarik. The full-speed hit sent Gifford flying backward, his head hitting the frozen turf and his arms and legs splaying back. Gifford did not move.
The great stadium went silent. Everyone who witnessed that moment shared the eerie feeling that something awful had happened to Gifford.
"I knew I did a lot of damage as soon as I hit him," Bednarik said. "It was like a truck hitting a Volkswagen. Frank never saw me or heard me until it was too late."
The force of the collision shocked teammates — men who made their living obliterating opposing ball carriers. "I played the game a long time, but I never heard a sound on the football field anything close to that hit," said Tom Brookshier, an Eagles defensive back and a longtime partner of Pat Summerall on CBS's NFL broadcasts. "It wasn't the usual kind of thud that you hear on a big hit. It was a loud crack. Think about an ax hitting dry wood. I saw Frank on the ground and he looked like a corpse. I thought he was dead."
Thankfully, Gifford was still breathing and suffered no permanent damage. But he did take the 1961 season off before returning for three more seasons in 1962. Gifford would later become a longtime Monday Night Football announcer.
But back in 1960, things looked much grimmer. As the ball rolled away from the unconscious running back, Eagles middle linebacker Chuck Weber rolled on the ball and recovered. A Sports Illustrated photo published at the time seemed to show Bednarik celebrating the damage he had done to Gifford, but he was merely reacting to his team's recovery of the ball and the fact that it ensured victory.
"I said, 'This f---ing game is over,'" Bednarik said. "I wasn't directing it at Frank. I was just happy we won. If people think I was gloating over Frank, they couldn't have been more wrong." Nevertheless, that play symbolized what Bednarik was all about and the standard that he set. The Eagles went on to win the Eastern Conference title, earning the right to meet the up-and-coming Green Bay Packers and Vince Lombardi.
Even though the game was played in Philadelphia, most experts expected the Packers to win. Green Bay had Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Willie Davis, and, of course, Vince Lombardi prowling the sideline. The Eagles had Norm Van Brocklin and Bednarik, both of whom were aging by that time, and a slew of role players.
The Eagles played with passion and guts, holding a 17–13 lead in the closing seconds. But it was Green Bay that held the ball at the Philadelphia 22-yard line when there was time for just one more play. Starr could not find an open receiver in the end zone, so he dumped the ball off to Taylor, a concrete block of a man who lowered his head and powered his way to the 9-yard line. Bednarik was right there to meet him. He stopped Taylor, got him to the ground, and did not get off of him until the game was over.
Excerpted from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Philadelphia Eagles by Steve Silverman. Copyright © 2008 Steve Silverman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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