Those hands. You cannot help but stare at them. They are hypnotic. Mesmerizing.
It is thought that the oldest living thing on the planet is a tree that dwells on a bleak, hard scrabble, wind-swept spit of desolation, and it is so cantankerously hardy, so unyieldingly stubborn that it seems to take root in rock. You can’t kill it, and it won’t die on its own.
Those hands, they belong on that tree.
The fingers are bent at grotesque angles, the knuckles hideously swollen. The pinky on the right hand wanders out at a ninety-degree angle, almost as though it belongs to another hand.
Those fingers have been stepped on. Chewed on. Twisted. Bent. Yanked. Cleated. Caught in the ear holes of helmets. Caught in face masks and violently shaken about. All that, plus whatever other atrocities football players commit on each other when they are hidden from the view of the whistle-blowers and the yellow flag-throwers, down there at the bottom of the pile, when the rule is grab hold of the handiest extremity and practice extreme sadism.
Those hands... imagine the stories they could tell.
Well, those hands are the property of Chuck Bednarik. And he is beamingly proud of them, and he will gladly recount for you each dislocation, each firecracker pop that meant yet another fracture, each ligament torn, each muscle shredded, each bit of cartilage ripped loose from its moorings. He can give you down and distance and gruesome detail.
Arthritic? You bet.
Hurt? Only every minute of every day, that’s all.
He says this with a perverse delight. He says this with a perverse delight because those hands, those gnarled, callused claws, are befitting a man who was anointed with the best nickname there has ever been in all of sports: Concrete Charlie.
“Like it? I loved it!” he thunders.
And it is obvious that he loves it still. He not only loved it, he lived it, and now, as a lion in winter, he tries to live it still.
Chuck Bednarik. Last of the 60-Minute Men. Iron Man. Concrete Charlie.
That’s quite a load to be lugging around, quite a lot to live up to, especially when, on the first of May, nineteen-hundred-and-ninety-eight, you have turned seventy-three.
He snorts at the notion of mortality.
“I’m up at six every morning,” he says. “I can run ten miles, play eighteen holes and mow the yard, before noon.”
He winks, blue lagoon eyes twinkling to soften how that sounds. But you look at him there in the swivel chair in his kitchen, half a hoagie in front of him, not ten pounds off his best playing weight and his body yielding only the most grudging of inches to time, and you suspect that if there were money riding on it, if it really mattered to him, he might just do it, might just do the ten miles and the eighteen holes and the two acres of lawn, all in the same morning, and then ask what you’ve got in mind to kill the afternoon.
In 1960 a sportswriter named Hugh Brown wrote in The Bulletin that the middle linebacker and the center for the Philadelphia Eagles--who were both the same man-- “is as hard as the concrete he sells.” Chuck Bednarik sold ready-mix concrete in the off-season. Professional football was not a living by itself in those days.
Even if you were Concrete Charlie.
Even if you were the toughest, meanest, most versatile, most indefatigable, hardest-to discourage SOB on the field.
“I was the No. 1 pick in the draft,” he says, “and you know what I got? I got three thousand dollars for signing my name to an Eagles contract and I got a salary of ten thousand. I bought a new car for twenty-seven hundred and a house for fourteen-five.”
“I played both ways, offense and defense, and I kicked off, I punted, I snapped the ball on field goals and extra points. Now, you tell me, what was left that I didn’t do?”
Uh, sell programs?
“That was about all. And when I say I played both ways, I mean there was contact on every play. You got hit! You got the stuffing beat out of you."
His voice is a rising rumble. This is a sore subject. Concrete Charlie is not just proud of his name and his reputation, not just proud to have been the last of the 60-Minute Men, he is zealously protective of that title, more passionate about guarding it with each passing year, and determined not to concede it someone who doesn’t have hands like his, hands like the roots on the tallest, oldest tree in the forest, hands that got that way by honest, hard labor.
He looks at those hands, looks at the pinky that has set off on its own, and then he laughs.
“The difference between me and today's players are the diamonds on their fingers.”
Yes, Chuck Bednarik is bitter. Yes, he is resentful. Yes, he admits it, and eagerly it seems. Yes, he is blunt, and to a fault. As the wife of Concrete Charlie likes to say: “If you want to know what’s on Charlie’s mind, you don’t have to ask. Usually you don’t even have to wait ten seconds.”
No there is no diplomacy, no pretense. He is what he is, unashamed and unrepentant.
“Sure I’m envious of what they make these days,” he says. “I see what they make compared to what I did and it makes me nauseous. I just scan the games on TV, only scan them. I know they’re bigger today. Everyone goes three hundred pounds. But look at ‘em when they come off the field. They’re sitting there taking their last breath. They gotta have oxygen after one play! Think any of them will live to be fifty? So, yeah, they’re bigger. Faster, too. But better?”
He shrugs, demands: “Show me.”
The glasses he wears seem to be giving off sparks.
“Look, I don’t want to come off sounding like a braggart. But I did what I did. It’s like Ali said, ‘if you did it then it’s not bragging, it’s fact.’ ”
And, yes, he did it. Oh my yes.
When the Eagles won the championship of pro football in 1960, Concrete Charlie played all but ninety seconds of that game. He had retired two years previously, but had come back. He was thirty-seven years old. And on the last play of the game, the Green Bay Packers brutish fullback Jim Taylor had caught a pass and was heading to the end zone for what would have been the winning touchdown.
Except Concrete Charlie got him, wrestled him to the cold, hard ground like a rodeo cowboy bulldogs a steer, and then sat on the squirming, seething Taylor until the clock blinked down to all zeros.
“You can get up now, Jim,” Concrete Charlie told Taylor. “The game’s over.”
It became a line for the ages.
So did Concrete Charlie’s hit on Frank Gifford. It remains even now the definitive tackle in the sport of football. Coaches still scrounge around for the grainy black and white shot from Nov. 20, 1960, to show their charges how to legally decapitate another human being.
It was in Yankee Stadium, the Eagles winning 17-10 inside the last two minutes, Gifford running a pass route directly into the Bermuda Triangle, over the middle, into the Dead Zone, reaching back for the pass that was thrown behind him, snaring it with an elegant ease, the graceful nonchalance that was his signature, turning to head upfield and...
If he’d been hit full with a baseball bat, he wouldn’t have flown backward with such velocity. The ball flew forward. Gifford lay like a corpse.
“Chuck knocked him right out of his shoes,” insists Tom Brookshier, who was Concrete Charlie’s teammate.
That seems a bit overblown.
“No, look.” says Brookshier, and he walks to a wall in his den and points to a photograph that is thirty-eight years old, and there is Gifford, motionless as a cadaver and, yes, it does look as though his shoes are barely hanging to his toes.
And looming over the supine Gifford is Charles Philip Bednarik, in mid-hop, doing a dance of unbridled glee, and for long, bitter years New York Giants fans have accused him of taunting, but Concrete Charlie looks you in the eye and says: “I can tell you word-for-word what I was saying to Frank”
“This f-----g game is over!”
Gifford sustained the king of concussions, and not only was knocked out that game, he was knocked out of the rest of the season...and for the season after that!
And this is what Gifford has said: “It was perfectly legal. If I’d had the chance, I’d have done the same thing Chuck did.”
At the card shows he does, Concrete Charlie has two stacks of 8x10 photographs ready for autograph seekers. They can select one that shows him crouched, poised to pounce on an unseen opponent. Or they can opt for the other one, that famous shot, Bednarik looking down at the unconscious Gifford.
“Nine out of ten choose this one,” says Concrete Charlie, holding up the most famous picture in the history of professional football.
“There was a celebrity roast for Frank a few years ago and I was asked to be one of the roasters. So I told the guy in charge that right after he introduced me he should have all the lights in the room turned out. Total darkness. So he did, and I waited, five-six-seven seconds, and you can hear the crowd wondering what the hell is going on. When the lights came back on I looked at Frank and said, ‘Does that ring a bell?’ The place broke up.”
But behind the gruffness and the bluster, behind the bitterness and the bile, there is a part of Concrete Charlie that is more marshmallow than concrete. In 1997, when Gifford made the front page of all the tabloids and was the centerpiece of all the TV trash shows, caught in a compromising and embarrassing position with a woman not his wife, he found himself at a banquet sitting all alone, shunned like a leper. No one wanted to venture within twenty yards of him.
Except for Concrete Charlie.
“He told me, ‘I’m going to go over and speak to him,’ ” said Emma Bednarik. “He said, ‘This isn’t right. He’s not a killer.’ You never know what Charlie is apt to say, so I was holding my breath the whole time.”
Concrete Charlie made sure the rest of the room saw him as he walked slowly, purposefully to the solitary man and sat down and cheerily boomed: “Hey, Frank, good to see you. How you doing?”
Gifford’s head was bowed. But even though he didn’t look up at first he smiled and said out of the side of his mouth: “I made you famous, didn’t I, Chuck?”
“Yes, you did Frank.”
“I’m still your friend, Chuck.”
“And I’m still your friend, Frank.”
There is a yowling commotion outside. Concrete Charlie sighs heavily. Spanky is bringing Concrete Charlie another gift. Maybe a mouse. Perhaps a mole.
As a scrawny orphan, Spanky was dumped at the bottom of Concrete Charlie’s driveway. Spanky was barely alive, ribs showing, but he hissed and clawed and showed so much fight for such a tiny kitten that Concrete Charlie, tough guy, couldn’t help but take him in.
In gratitude, Spanky hunts down furry critters and delivers them, proudly, to the kitchen door, as a sort of tribute. Concrete Charlie pretends to be annoyed.
Concrete Charlie rises from his chair and walks with only the suggestion of a hitch in his get-along. He had knee replacement surgery (the left one) in 1994. It doesn’t keep him off the golf course. It was the first and only time his legs had ever been cut on. “To me,” he says, “that’s a miracle. Twenty-one years of football and never have to have knee surgery, that’s a miracle.”
He returns with a shopping bag full of letters. They’re from East Moline, Illinois. From Overland Park, Kansas. From Pelham, New Jersey. He averages forty to fifty letters a month. They want his autograph. On collector’s cards. On scraps of paper. Even on a helmet. It is amazing; he is nearly forty seasons removed from his last football game and yet the clamor for him is greater that ever. A new generation has discovered Concrete Charlie and they are agog, like paleontologists who have just dug up the remnants of the most frightening dinosaur of all. The 60-Minute Man.
“Dear Mr. Bednarik: Is it true that you played both ways? Could you please sign this? I am enclosing a pen.”
And all of that attention pleases him mightily, and he doesn’t mind saying so.
“Thank God for grandfathers and fathers,” he says. “They tell their sons and grandsons about me. They tell them: ‘Now there was a football player!’ And then kids see me on Classic Sports shows. And NFL Films has been very, very good to me.”
The supplicants write to him in care of the Pro football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and regularly the Hall forwards another shopping bag full to him, up there in his hilltop Tudor-style house, in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, near his beloved Bethlehem. And he signs them all and sends them back.
“I know there are guys who get fan mail and open the envelopes and if there isn’t money in them, they throw them away. I could never do that.”
No, he couldn’t. Concrete Charlie has a code to live by. It is a code he began to form while still in his teens. He formed it while he was crammed inside those bombers in which he flew combat missions during World War II. He was a machine gunner. He was only eighteen. So young, so very young to be introduced to death. Thirty times he took off, thirty times he landed.
Even now he can hear the flak pinging on the wings and on the fuselage, deadly shards of jagged shrapnel knocking, knocking, knocking to be let inside. Even now, he sees other bombers in flames, men jumping from them, pulling frantically at parachute rip cords.
Some of the chutes open, billowing plumes.
And some of them don’t.
Very quickly, Concrete Charlie got in the habit of the eight a.m. mass.
“I have a lot of devotion in me,” he says. “I go to mass every morning. I have a Virgin Mary monument in the backyard. I’ve had a lot of miracles in my life.”
And those analogies we are always making, the ones equating combat on the football field to combat in a war?
“Yeah, they’re a lot alike,” he says, slowly, considering his words. “But no matter how bad you might get hurt playing football, at least there’s nobody shooting at you.”
Back from the war, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and almost instantly became an All-American. Franklin Field was stuffed full in those days, the glory days of the late 1940’s. Penn played the big-name schools, and the bigger the names the harder Concrete Charlie hit them. Very quickly, he became the biggest name in college football.
And at a Croatian hall dance he first laid eyes on his Emma.