by Peter Richmond
He was the archetypal poster-boy for a lunch-pail league that was finally escaping its status as a sport whose reputation lay one step above pro wrestling (as Charlie Conerly’s widow once told me about the early days). The old NFL has gone all fuzzy and rose-colored in retrospect, but it harbored more than its share of madmen, with styles of play that were routinely borderline felonious (see Bill Pellington, Baltimore Colts, 1958).
Now the old Eagle linebacker Chuck Bednarik is dead, at 89, and amid all the deserved paeans to his balls-out style of play, we will not read this: That the first true taunt in NFL history, the seed that’s led to the routine mocking and self-celebration that asterisks the modern game, was laid down by Chuck Bednarik.
On November 20, 1960, in Yankee Stadium, Frank Gifford caught a pass from George Shaw, whereupon Bednarik tackled him, throwing him to the frozen ground, whereupon Gifford’s head bounced very hard, and knocked him out. Gifford instantly lost consciousness.
The ball popped loose. Bednarik did not chase it. Instead he stood over Gifford and began counting, throwing his arm down again and again, like a referee dramatically counting out a fallen champion. If he’d done it today, of course, flags would have filled the sky. But back then, tacky celebration wasn’t outlawed…because as far as I can tell, no one had ever done it, until Chuck did.
History has chosen to ignore the The Taunt, dwelling instead on “The Hit:” the moment that defined “Concrete Charlie’s” illustrious career. This passage from a Sports Illustrated profile in 2007 exemplifies the way the play has been long celebrated: “Gifford tucked the ball under his arm and turned back in the right direction, all in the same motionâ€”and then Bednarik hit him like a lifetime supply of bad news”…except that, uh, no, he didn’t.
Even a cursory look at the play on Youtube makes it clear: Bednarik actually moves his head away so as to not go head to head, then, corrals Gifford by the shoulders — on icy dirt, Frank was going moving just above a fast walk — and slams him to the ground by grabbing both of his shoulder pads.
But don’t trust your own eyes. Listen to Frank, from the “The Glory Game,” which I co-authored:
“Itâ€™s time to set the record straight on that play. It wasnâ€™t the Eagle linebacker who hurt me. It was the hard, frozen Stadium dirt that did the damage.
“Shaw hit me on a slant, coming across the field on our own 30 yard-line. I was wide-open, and as I looking to cut upfield, I didnâ€™t see Bednarik coming full-speed at me from the far side of the field. Bednarik, taking aim, actually turned his head away. There was no helmet-to-helmet collision. There was no clothesline; his arms werenâ€™t even raised. Bednarikâ€™s left shoulder pad hit my left shoulder pad as we ran in opposite directions. Period. Our helmets never even touched.
“But with no traction on the hard turf, I was immediately knocked right off my feet. Now I was in free-fall, backward, with no time to cushion myself, my helmet slammed to the hard ground â€“ just as Bednarik threw his entire weight on top of me, his stomach landing on my head. That caused the concussion: hard turf and a huge body as it piled on.
“There was no reason for Bednarik to jump on me; Iâ€™d fumbled the ball away before I hit the ground. He could have chased the fumble. He chose to throw himself on top of me. So if history wants to think that I was somehow leveled by the hardest hit ever thrown, let it. But the truth is completely different.”
The takeaway? How to truly remember Concrete Charlie (he sold the stuff in the offseason) at the very time we’re bemoaning CTE and concussions and uncontrollable violence? Maybe we should praise Bednarik for trying to set an example on the play, and not trying to hurt Frank. Those days of civility would soon pass, as we soon learned to gauge the likes of Lawrence Taylor not by the number of tackles he made, but the number of QBs he’d disabled.
Yes, he epitomized the old lifeblood of the game, this son of Slavic emigrants who grew up in the shadow of the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces where his parents worked. But let’s not forget that he also opened the Pandora’s Box of Self-Promotion.
So the next time you rail against a wide receiver mockingly wagging a finger in the face of the cornerback who blew the coverage, pause and thank one of the true pioneers. RIP, Concrete Charlie. You were only human, like everybody else.