Friday, August 24, 2012

Good-bye to an Eagles Hero: Steve Van Buren, R.I.P.

Steve Van Buren in a classic pose

Philadelphia fans may be somewhat geographically circumscribed, but they are a loyal bunch — and they have looooooong memories.  Let an ignorant "fan" of some other team ridicule the Eagles for never having won a Super Bowl, and the Birds fan will immediately lecture the history-challenged offender that the NFL did not begin with the 1966 season, and that the Eagles have actually won three NFL championships: in 1960 (led by Norm van Brocklin, Tommy McDonald, "Concrete" Chuck Bednarik, and Tom Brookshier), and back-to-back titles in 1948-49.  The major reason the Birds won those first two titles was a Honduran-born, 200-pound halfback out of LSU (where he was a teammate of Al Dark, later the New York/San Francisco Giant infielder and manager) named Steve Van Buren.  Van Buren died yesterday of pneumonia at the age of 91 in Lancaster, PA.

I was not yet alive when Van Buren played, and so I have only seen his exploits on video.  Nevertheless, of all Eagles players, I consider Van Buren greater than all but two, Bednarik and the incomparable Reggie White.  Van Buren, with 5860 yards, ranks third on the Eagles all-time rushing list behind Wilbert Montgomery (6538) and Brian Westbrook (5995).  Montgomery is the greatest Eagles offensive player I have ever seen.  His 194 rushing yards against the hated Cowboys in the 1980 NFC championship game remains my most treasured football memory, and I will maintain to my dying day that a healthy Montgomery was the greatest rusher of his era, better than Tony Dorsett and even Walter Payton (an opinion shared by Vikings' HOF coach Bud Grant, by the way).  As good as he was, however, Montgomery never did what Van Buren did: four league rushing titles (1945, 1947, 1948, 1949) and five first team all-pro selections (1944-45, 1947-49).  He was the first player ever to lead the NFL in rushing three consecutive seasons (since done only by Jim Brown [twice], Earl Campbell, and Emmitt Smith).  Van Buren was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965, and in 1994 was one of four halfbacks (the others being Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, and O. J. Simpson) named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary team.

But to Eagles fans, Van Buren is best known for his exploits in the team's first two championship games.  The first, on 19 December 1948, was played in a driving blizzard in old Shibe Park in North Philadelphia.  Van Buren had to walk, take a trolley and the subway from his home on Manoa Road in Havertown to the subway exit at Broad and Lehigh, and then walk seven blocks through the snow to get to the stadium.  In the game Van Buren rushed 26 times for 98 yards, making up for quarterback Tommy Thompson's inability to pass due the inclement conditions (2-for-12 for only 7 yards!), and in the fourth quarter scored the game's only points with a five yard run into the end zone off tackle to give the Eagles a 7-0 win over the Chicago Cardinals.  The following year Van Buren outdid himself, rushing for 196 yards on 31 carries to lead the Birds to a decisive 14-0 victory over the Rams in Los Angeles.  This game marked the apex of Van Buren's career, as injuries limited his effectiveness the next two seasons, leading to his retirement, at the age of 32, prior to the 1952 season.

To me, what always has endeared Van Buren was his humility, such a rare attribute in people with marked athletic prowess (see the fine article by Hall of Fame writer Ray Didinger here).  When I see the preening and posing of players with but half of Van Buren's accomplishments in today's NFL, I can only shake my head with sadness in the recognition that Van Buren's tribe, though perhaps not yet extinct, is certainly an endangered species.  May he rest in peace.

Van Buren plunging into the end zone in the fourth quarter of the NFL Championship game against the Chicago Cardinals on 19 December 1948 at Shibe Park, 21st and Lehigh, Philadelphia (

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