Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Forty Greatest Philadelphia Eagles of All Time: Part 6 (##1-3)


Finally we come to the end of our countdown. The following three players are not only the greatest in team history. They are legends who rank among the very greatest players ever to play in the National Football League. [For my previous posts in this series, see herehereherehere, and  here].

3. Chuck Bednarik (C, OLB, 1949-62)

Bednarik  celebrating after his famous hit of Frank Gifford, November 1960

Nothing can be said about Chuck Bednarik that hasn't already been said by countless others. The last "iron man" two-way player in NFL history, the 6'3", 233 pounder out of Bethlehem, Pa. and the University of Pennsylvania (!) is perhaps the single toughest player ever to stalk the gridiron. In his 14 years with the Eagles, "Concrete Charlie"—so-called because he sold concrete in the off-season as well as after practice!— missed only 3 games to injury, was named to 8 Pro Bowls, and was a 5-time 1st Team All Pro selection both at center (1950) and linebacker (1951-54), where his bone-jarring tackles became the stuff of legend. Most famous of all was his fumble-causing tackle of Giants' Hall of Famer Frank Gifford in November 1960, which preserved a 17-10 Eagles victory, propelling the team to the 1960 NFL championship. The clean hit knocked Gifford out and hospitalized Gifford for several days with both a deep brain concussion and, it was later learned, a "spinal concussion," the fracture of one of his neck vertebrae. As a result of the hit, Gifford had to miss the entire 1961 season. Bednarik's signature moment came, however, in the 1960 championship game against the Packers at Franklin Field on 26 December. Bednarik, at the age of 35, was on the field for every play from scrimmage as both a center and linebacker, the last time that ever was done in an NFL game. More importantly for Eagles fans, however, was his tackle of Packer Hall of Fame fullback Jim Taylor inside the Eagle 10 yard line on the game's final play, cementing the win in what has remained the last league championship won by the franchise. Bednarik is the only player to have spanned the last two Eagles championship victories (1949, 1960). In 1967 he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, and in 1969 was named the NFL's all-time greatest center.

Now THAT is a football
player (
Bednarik with Hall of Famers Paul Hornung (l) and Jim Taylor (r)
after the 1960 championship game (

2. Steve Van Buren (RB, 1944-51)


Van Buren with teammates Al Wistert (l) and Alex Wojciechowicz (r) in 1947
Steve Van Buren, a 200-pound, Honduran-born halfback out of LSU, is the greatest offensive player in Eagles history. When he died last summer here in Lancaster, I wrote the following in appreciation:

"Van Buren, with 5860 yards, ranks third on the Eagles all-time rushing list behind Wilbert Montgomery (6538) and Brian Westbrook (5995). ... 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.

Van Buren scoring the winning TD in the 1948 NFL Championship Game
at Shibe Park, Philadelphia, 19 December 1948 (

Van Buren shredding the Rams for  some of his 196 yards
in the Eagles' 14-0 victory in the NFL Championship
Game, 18 December 1949 (
"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."

1. Reggie White (DE, 1985-92)


Reginald Howard White, a 6'5", 291 pound left defensive end, is, with all due respect to Lawrence Taylor, the greatest defensive player ever to play in the National Football League (see this article by Jason Whitlock for corroboration). No player in league history ever possessed the lethal combination of size, strength, and speed (he was timed, early in his career, at 4.5 in the 40-yard dash). He simply could not be blocked one-on-one, and—in contrast to other famous defensive ends like Deacon Jones, Carl Eller, Bruce Smith, and Michael Strahan—was equally effective against the run and the pass.


The "Minister of Defense"—so-called because of his outspoken Christian faith and reputation for clean living—came to Philadelphia after two seasons with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL, and made his impact felt immediately, registering 31 sacks in 29 games with the Eagles in 1985-86. But it was in 1987 that White had what is arguably the greatest season ever for a defensive player in the NFL. During that strike-shortened season, White not only amassed a then-league record 21 sacks in only 12 games—Strahan's current record of 22.5 in 16 games in 2001 pales in comparison—but also forced four fumbles, returning one 70 yards for a TD against the Washington Redskins. The next season White once again led the league with 18 sacks, and for his career in Philadelphia amassed an incredible 124 in only 121 games. He served as the backbone of Buddy Ryan's famous "Gang Green" defense of the late '80s-early '90s, one of the great units in league history. White played a leading role in one of the most famous games in league history, the so-called "Body Bag Game" of 12 November 1990, in which the Eagles' defense knocked 8 Redskins out of the game with injuries, including both active quarterbacks, en route to a 28-14 "butt-kicking," as analyst Dan Dierdorf called it that night. White that night registered two sacks and intercepted a pass, returning it 33 yards. 

White making Redskins' quarterback Mark Rypien aware of his presence

After the 1992 season, despite White's 14 sacks and key contribution in the Eagles' only playoff victory of the era (a sack of Saints' QB Bobby Hebert for a safety in the 4th quarter), brain-dead owner Norman Braman (derisively referred to as "the man in France" by coach Buddy Ryan) declared White "an old 31" and allowed him to sign with the Packers as a free agent. During his years with the Eagles, White made the Pro Bowl every year from 1986-92, was a consensus All Pro from 1986-91, and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1987. He registered double digits in sacks every year he played in Philadelphia.


White, however, was far from done. He made the Pro Bowl in each of his first 6 seasons in Green Bay, earning All Pro honors in 1995 and 1998, after the latter of which he was, for a second time, named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But the undisputed highlight of his career came in Super Bowl XXXI after the 1996 season, when he set a Super Bowl record by recording 3 sacks against Patriots' QB Drew Bledsoe, propelling the Packers to a 35-21 victory. He finished his illustrious career after a lone season with the Carolina Panthers in 2000. He ended up with a then-record 198 career sacks in 232 games, which now ranks second only to Bruce Smith, who needed 47 more games than White to record the two sacks that separate the two greats. He was elected posthumously to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

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