The NFL’s best rebuttal witness in its legal battle against concussion lawsuits died Saturday at the ripe old age of 89.
Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik was called “Concrete Charlie” and not just because he was a concrete salesman in the off season.
The name stuck because he hit so hard on both sides of the ball — one of the last two-way players in the league, a center and linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles — and was considered to be the poster boy for NFL brutal toughness.
Literally, he was the poster boy, featured in one of the most iconic photos in NFL history — Bednarik standing over a fallen Frank Gifford in a 1960 Eagles-New York Giants game celebrating his hit, though Bednarik would later say he was celebrating the fumble and not the hit that devastated Gifford.
Gifford didn’t get back on the football field for 18 months.
The photo became a symbol of the growing NFL.
Now, the same week that Concrete Charlie died, the NFL’s symbol is Chris Borland — a 24-year-old linebacker coming off his rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers who told the world that he was quitting the game rather than risk the brain and body damage so many former NFL players have suffered.
Talk about a league going in different directions.
“From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” Borland told ESPN. “I feel largely the same, as sharp as I’ve ever been. For me, it’s wanting to be proactive. I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late.”
After being honored as part of the Eagles’ 75th anniversary team in 2007 at Lincoln Financial Field, Bednarik — at the age of 81, said, “When I’m on that field, I feel like they ought to put me in and let me play.”
The NFL was built on the shoulders of players like Bednarik.
It faces a crisis because of the still-unscrambled brains of players like Borland.
The two players represent the evolution of football.
Bednarik was born and raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and lived the rest of his life there. His father was a Czechoslovakian immigrant who worked at Bethelehem Steel. Bednarik joined the Army Air Forces after graduating high school and, as a gunner, flew 30 bombing missions in World War II over Europe. After he got out of the service, Bednarik enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where he would be a two-time All-American and finish third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1948.
He was the first pick in the 1949 NFL draft, selected by the Eagles, and played on a championship team as a rookie. He would win another NFL title in 1960, and played both sides of the ball — center and linebacker — in the title game against the Green Bay Packers.
Bednarik represented the fearsome, hard-hitting NFL, the league that captured the attention of an America.
“Dick Butkus was the one who manhandled people,” former Eagles defensive back Tom Brookshier told Sports Illustrated in 1993. “Chuck just snapped them down like rag dolls.”
Borland now represents the frightened NFL, the league trying the legislate the Chuck Bednarik out of football.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Borland told ESPN. “I can’t claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long, healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”
There is a long list of players who have not led long, healthy lives after their NFL careers — players like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, who killed themselves, and players like Wesley Walker, the former New York Jets Pro Bowl wide receiver who told the New York Daily News last week that his 13 years in the league were not worth the pain he is in now.
“I would have taken another path,” Walker said. “Maybe become a commentator. Just from a physical standpoint, there is no way I would put my body through what I do now. I don’t wish this on anybody.”
Concrete Charlie? You never heard anything like that from him. He was still chasing kids off his lawn in his 60s. He got into an argument with a bulldozer operator near his home after it was making too much noise. Bednarik wound up being fined by the local authorities for “choking,” according to Sports Illustrated.
“For what my generation did and went through and so forth, and what these glamor boys earn for what little they play, it’s a joke,” Bednarik told reporters. “Is it football? Are you guys football players? Is that what they call football? It’s not iron-man football, where you stay on the field for 60 minutes. We were iron men. Not a bunch of pussyfoots.”
Rest in peace, Chuck Bednarik, who lasted longer than most of his NFL brothers, getting a good roll of the dice.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.