Thursday, February 28, 2013

Chuck Bednarik, otherwise known as Concrete Charlie

The full transcript of an interview with football Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik I did for FHM magazine in 2005.

Chuck was the last of the 60-minute men, two-way players, and was flying bomber missions over Nazi Germany when he was 18 years old.

When he speaks, you’d better listen.

J: Okay, you know I’m recording this and you’re okay with that, right?
C: Yeah.

J: State your full name, please.
C: Charles P. Bednarik

J: Date of birth?
C: May 1, 1925

J: Great. Where did you grow up, and what was it like there?
C:  I grew up in Bethlehem, PA. My parents migrated to this country from Czechoslovakia, from the Slovakia part. As I grew up, in my early days, I couldn’t speak English ’til I went into the first grade. I went to a Catholic school, for eight years.
When I was a kid, I played sports right there on the street. Traffic was light, there were few cars in those days. We played football right on the streets. Of course, for us in those days, a football was a stocking stuffed with rags or leaves. That was our football. For a baseball, my parents would save 25 coffee bags and send away for a baseball. That’s the way I grew up.
Lehigh University was only three blocks away from our place, so occasionally, we’d scale the fence and we’d play on grass until some guy named Quigley would chase us and we’d run like hell back over that fence.
But more than anything, we’d play right on the streets.

J: What would possess you to play tackle football on paved streets?
C: Ah…we didn’t hurt each other too badly, I guess. Like I said, there was really no other place to play unless we snuck on at Lehigh University, and what they called their “upper field.” That was grass. Now that’s where we played really hard. That’s where you’d really knock the hell outta a guy. Maybe on the blacktop, you’d ease up on a buddy just a little so you didn’t kill him.

J: So Catholic school toughens a man, no?
C: Yeah, we had nothing but Priests and Nuns as teachers there and if you misbehaved, boy, they beat the shit outta you. And they didn’t let up. They had you scared. That’s the way I was brought up for eight years.
By junior high school, I went to Broughal Junior High in Bethlehem. That’s where I got my first organized football training, from a real coach.
Following that, I was in high school, and the coach asked me what position I was going out for. I told him “I don’t know.” He gave me a football to take home over the weekend and said, “You look like a center. When you come back here on Monday, that’s what you’ll be, so start practicing.” So I went home and practiced snapping the ball between my legs. Of course, in those days, we played offense and defense, too. But that’s how my football career started, in Liberty High School in Bethlehem.
Then, when World War II came, I turned 18 and I couldn’t wait to get into the service. And that’s when I went.

J: Why? You must have had college scholarship offers.
C: All my friends were being drafted. I lost all my friends. They were going to exotic places, but exotic places to me were like the training facilities in New York or Ohio! I couldn’t wait to go.

J: How old were you when you started flying combat missions over Germany?
C: Eighteen years old. I took basic training as was assigned to the Air Corps. I was in the B-24s. We trained in Idaho, and I was assigned to a crew and sent overseas. I turned 19 years of age during my fifth mission, I remember.

J: What was the closest you ever came to death there?
C: Every mission was close. We flew over Cologne, and Berlin, and oh, my goodness! The anti-aircraft guns…good God. It started 10 minutes before you even got to your target to drop your bombs. You flew through that flak for 10 minutes and all around you, you’d see planes exploding and parachutes opening and bombers going down like crazy. You’d hear the flak penetrating your plane—Pshew! Pshew!—making noises that scared the hell outta you. You’d come back and you’d look at your plane, and could count anywhere from 40 to 100 holes—some as big as your head.
One time, we got hit pretty good, and I called the pilot—I was a waist gunner, on the back side of the plane—and said, “I think we have a big hole under the wing where the wheels come down.” Sure enough, we came in to land, they lowered the gear and the wheels were flat, shot full of holes. We had to crash land.

J: How many missions did you fly?
C: 30. I flew the entire 30, and after you finished 30, you were relieved and sent back home. Boy, as you’re on 27, 28…all you do is pray, “Dear God, don’t let these Nazi bastards shoot me down…” I grew up pretty religious, pretty Catholic, and when I was over there, I turned really religious. We had a chapel, and I was attending Mass every day. They say there’s no such thing as an atheist on a foxhole. I tell you, there’s no atheists in chapel the morning you’re flying your 29th mission neither.

J: Your generation, the World War II generation, is sometimes referred to as “the Greatest Generation.” Do you believe this to be true?
C: Yeah. These wars today…that’s stupid. Iraq and stuff? We had a guy, Hitler, he wanted to dominate the world, and I think had we not stopped him…good God, he might have done it. He had already conquered most of Europe.

J: Getting into your NFL career, you played 14 years there. How many games did you miss?
C: Three.

J: Just three?
C: Yeah, I had a cracked rib that punctured my lung. It happened in a pileup. It cracked, I spit up some blood, and…that’s not bad I guess. Three games for a punctured lung.

J: What does it feel like? Thank God, a punctured lung has never happened to me.
C: Well, when you breathe, you have to take a deep breath, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was some pain. But when I was playing, all I knew is that you played. You played. You played two-way, both offense and defense, or some son-of-a-bitch was going to take your job. There were none of these pussycat players, as I call them, who you have playing today.

J: Pussycat players?
C: Yeah, for God’s sake. That’s what I call the game today. Pussycat football, as far as I’m concerned. A guy weighs 350, 360, maybe 380 pounds, he only goes one way, and he’s suckin’ for air. And they’re all millionaires! Pussycats! Boy, that just pisses me off…
When I played, we went both ways, we stayed on the field. I was in good condition. And the positions that I played—center and linebacker—I was hitting on every play. I made contact on every single play. A defensive halfback? This jerk Deion Sanders? He couldn’t tackle my wife, to start with. And how often does a defensive cornerback come up and make contact? They consider him a two-way player? Some consider him the greatest two-way player? That just pisses me off.

J: Now I understand you once had a biceps muscle severed from the bone in a game…
C: Yeah. It’s still gone.

J: How did that happen?
C: I dunno. It’s just one of those plays. Just the way I tackled somebody once. I tackled somebody, and they hit me pretty hard, too, and hit me just right. Man, that sucker snapped and to this day…right now, I try to flex that arm, and it just comes up like this weird bubble.

J: What did it feel like? To have a biceps separated from the bone?
C: Well, it was hurting a little bit. A little bit. But that didn’t cause me to miss any games. They just gave me a shot in the arm, and there you go.

J: Did you miss any time from that?
C: I think two plays. We were a different brand of kids in those days. Not like, again—my favorite expression!—pussycats. Overpaid and underplayed. Remember that—my favorite two words today—overpaid and underplayed. And three words—“pussycats.”

J: Didn’t you almost get the NFL kicked off TV way back in the day?
C: (chuckles) Yeah. Chuck Noll gave me a dirty shot with his forearm that got up in my face. Knocked my helmet right off. I said, “You son of a bitch! I’ll get you after this game!” So I went after him. We went at it. And this was on national TV, right when the NFL was new on TV. Bert Bell, the commissioner at the time, told me we couldn’t have that, couldn’t have players brawling after the game while the TV cameras were still rolling—the network wouldn’t like that. He fined me and so forth. And he made me apologize personally to Noll the next time went to Cleveland. I don’t blame the commissioner; he was just doing his job. But it was a half-ass apology. And a half-ass acceptance, I think. I don’t know for sure how Noll feels about that today. But I liked Bert Bell. He was a good guy.

J: We can’t do this interview without talking about you laying out Frank Gifford. You knocked Gifford out of the game for a year and a half with what was a perfectly clean, legal hit. But do you ever feel any remorse for that?
C: No. No. Not at all. That’s the name of the game. That’s just football.
When you’re on that pattern, the down-and-in, you gotta look for the ball, then you gotta look for a guy like me. I don’t think Gifford ever saw me, and he sure as hell can’t remember now. But as soon as he caught that ball, I hit him chest-high with my shoulder and forearm. His head snapped backwards, the ball flew in the air, and one of our guys, Chuck Weber, fell on the ball. Mind you, we’re ahead 17-13, and they’re driving down for the winning score. This was on the 9-yard-line. I saw Chuck Weber land on the ball, and unbeknownst to me, Gifford is out light a light behind me, stretched out on the ground. I clenched a fist and said “This…fucking…game…is…OVER!” That’s what you see in that famous picture. Some people say I was doing a war dance over his body. But I didn’t know until I turned back around that he was laid out.
That’s what I still do sometimes when I autograph that photo. I’ll ask someone if the want the whole autograph, the whole thing. If they do, I’ll write, “This…fucking…game…is…OVER! Chuck Bednarik.” Or sometimes I’ll put in f-dash-dash-dash. I figure that’s okay, ’cause I’m not using the name of God in vain. That’s just what I just figure is an “expletive.”

J: Has Gifford “forgiven” you?
C: I’ve seen Gifford many times since then. I admit, it took a few times before he was even friendly towards me. But I saw him in Canton one time, at the Football Hall of Fame. He said, “Hey, Chuck—I made you famous, didn’t I?” Well, Frank Gifford, I guess you did. If you’re gonna knock someone out, do it in New York. This was in New York, and he was their most popular player. If you’re gonna do something big, do it in New York. Man, that made headlines. If that same play happened in Cleveland or Detroit, it would have been just another play.

J: You made the final tackle on the final play of the 1960 NFL championship game as the final two-way player in NFL history. Does it ever occur to you just how perfect that moment is?
C: No. Not really. But as the years go by, I think about the game, because that was the last time the Eagles won the championship. They got close this last year, but I am not very friendly with the Eagles’ current management and ownership. They don’t give a damn about us. So why should I give a damn about them? I had my book, Bednarik: Last of the 60-Minute Men, and I approached the owner, Jeffrey Lurie, here at training camp at Lehigh. I gave him one of the books and said, “How about buying one for each of your players? Fifteen bucks a book. If you buy 100 books. That’s $1500.” He said, “Oh, I can’t do it. It’s in our contract, we can’t give the players gifts.”
That son-of-a-bitch. Ever since then, I’ve said I hope they never win a title. They got close this last year, and believe it or not, I rooted against them in the Super Bowl. As long as I’m alive, I want that 1960 team to be the last Philadelphia team to win an NFL championship. The year that I die, I hope they win the title. Let ’em. Just not as long as I’m still alive.

J: When you were playing, what was your peak salary?
C: $27,000. That was 1960. During the season, every year, I had a job selling concrete. That’s where I got the nickname “Concrete Charlie.” They’d say, “He’s as tough as the concrete he sells.” We’d have a meeting in the morning at nine o’clock, practice two hours from 10 ’til 12, then I’d have a sandwich, and go to work. I’d visit job sites where I was selling concrete, go to contractors and sell ’em more concrete. During the season. In fact, I’m still getting a little pension from the company today. But that’s what we did. We had a job to supplement the income we made from football. We weren’t making the kind of money these bastards are making today.

J: So what is an appropriate salary for a NFL football player today? Say, a really good one?
C: Oh, boy…I’d say $100,000.

J: You’re definitely angry with the Eagles. Are you angry with pro football in general?
C: Oh, yeah. I don’t give a shit about it today. These guys are making so damn much money.

J: You once famously said that the NFL could pick you up in a limousine, give you front row seats on the 50-yard-line, and you still wouldn’t go to a game.
C: That’s right. I said that. I admit it—I’m bitter. Look at this owner! He’s a billionaire, and he turns me down for $1500 for my book. That’s bullshit. That was the end of it right there. What does that tell you? What does that show you? He doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about me. So why should I care about him?

J: Is there anything the Eagles or the NFL could do to make it up to you?
C: Oh, no. Oh, no. No. No. No. No. No. Again, ask anyone who played in my generation how they feel. I assure you. They’d have the same reaction.

J: What do you think specifically about Terrell Owens and the “Sharpie incident”? You see that, and as an opposing player on the field, what would you do?
C: I’d kick him right in the ass! That stupid bastard! Who the hell does he think he is? In my day, that wouldn’t have lasted very long. There would be 11 guys looking for his number next time he’s on the field.

J: How about as a teammate?
C: As a teammate…maybe it’s a little bit different question. Ah…maybe I’d think it’s funny. But I’d definitely take him aside after the game and tell him, “You just don’t do that.”

J: You see a Terrell Owens, a Freddie Mitchell, and they’re wearing the same uniform you are. Are they fit to be Eagles?
C: Who’s that other guy?

J: Freddie Mitchell?
C: Yeah, I don’t know him.

J: Loudmouth, calls himself “FredEx,” ’cause he delivers, even though he’s mediocre at best? Eagles wide receiver?
C: No, I don’t know him…

J: If you could lay out any one player today, Gifford-style, who would it be?
C: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think I should answer that question. I might create a problem in that. I don’t think I’ll answer that question.

J: Tell the truth: Is it just too many to choose from?
C: Yeah. It’s not one. It’s not 10. There’s a good three dozen.

J: Are there any of today’s players you actually respect?
C: Well, the Eagles’ current quarterback, Donovan McNabb, is a pretty classy kid. And I recall, watching him in college at Syracuse, I was here watching him on television and I told my wife, “You watch out for this guy—he’s good.” Sure enough, he’s turned out to be a pretty good quarterback and I respect him.
They other guy I like is the Eagles’ coach, Andy Reid. I respect him. Had the Eagles won the Super Bowl, I would have been happy for him and him only.

J: If you had to guess how many times your fingers got broken in the course of your career, how many would you guess?
C: Oh, it’s not too bad. Not too many. Maybe 12 or 13.

J: That seems like a lot. How bad are some of the breaks?
C: Well, I’m looking at one finger right now, and I don’t know if it’s turned quite 90 degrees. I got two fingers right next to each other, same hand, and one goes left and one goes right.
You see, you’d come up to make a tackle, and your hands are open, of course. You hit somebody, and if he’s going full blast, well, it’s gonna break some bones. Especially if he ducks and you get up around the helmet. That’s how fingers get busted.

J: How do your hands feel? Are they arthritic?
C: No, they’re pretty much okay.

J: Can you still play the accordion?
C: Yeah, I just picked it up earlier this morning. I was playing a couple songs. Croatian songs. I can hit it all, except maybe a couple of the high notes.

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