Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik dead at 89

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Bednarik in 2001.

Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik has died at age 89.

The Eagles announced he died early Saturday morning after a brief illness at an assisted living center in Richland, Penn.

His daughters said Bednarik had dementia, according to the Associated Press.

"He died from dementia from football-related head injuries," Charlene Thomas told the The Express-Times of Easton "It was not brief."

Pamela McWilliams, who also believes football injuries played a role in his decline, said her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

"I certainly think it played a big role in it — he took a lot of blows and they certainly didn't have the safety equipment they have now back then," McWilliams told The Express-Times. "It seemed like quite a few of the guys he played with and against had it."

Bednarik played linebacker and center for the Eagles, one of the last great two-way players of the game. His game-saving tackle helped the Eagles capture the 1960 NFL championship, the last title won by the franchise.

After a franchise-record 14 seasons with the Eagles, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, his first year of eligibility.

"With the passing of Chuck Bednarik, the Eagles and our fans have lost a legend," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement. "Philadelphia fans grow up expecting toughness, all-out effort and a workmanlike attitude from this team and so much of that image has its roots in the way Chuck played the game. He was a Hall of Famer, a champion and an all-time Eagle. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones during this time."

Nicknamed "Concrete Charlie" for his offseason job as a cement salesman, he was the son of a Bethlehem, Pa., steelworker and was a gunner on a B-24 in World War II.

"I grew up in the tough days, where on the street corners we had gangs," he said. "I just felt I could take on anybody. Whether I could or not, I didn't know. I just felt that way."

During World War II, he flew 30 combat missions over Germany with the Army Air Corps. "That was pressure. . . . All that anti-aircraft fire they threw at us and being a 19-year-old kid. That gave me some toughness. So when I survived the war and came home and went out on a football field, I figured, 'Shoot, this is easy.' "

He had two signature moments during his career with the Eagles. The first is a snapshot of Bednarik standing over Frank Gifford just after he knocked the New York Giants halfback unconscious with a blindside hit Nov. 20, 1960.

Not only did it cause the fumble that the Eagles recovered to seal the game, but it also showed them they were better than the Giants, who had played for the NFL title the previous two seasons.

The Eagles would go on to finish 10-2 en route to facing the Green Bay Packers in the 1960 title game -- a contest in which Bednarik played 58 of the 60 minutes at center and linebacker.

In the title game, he sealed the 17-13 victory by stopping Jim Taylor in the closing seconds.

"So many of the timeless moments in Eagles history are associated with Chuck Bednarik," said team president Don Smolenski in a statement. "He played his entire career in Philadelphia, college and pro, and he lived his entire life here and in the Lehigh Valley. He was a proud competitor and a dedicated and devout family man who loved Eagles fans as much as they loved him. He left his mark on this team and will forever be a legend within this organization."

Eagles coach Chip Kelly said he had spent time with Bednarik, calling him "one of the most unique players that this game has ever seen."

"The foundation of this organization and this league is built on the backs of past greats, with Chuck at the forefront," Kelly said in a statement. "The way he played the game with an endless passion and tenacity helped establish the standard of excellence that this organization stands for; one that we strive to achieve each and every day."

Bednarik would later scoff at the idea that players today could achieve what he did on both sides of the ball.

"Impossible," he said. "The reason they can't is they're 350-60-70-80 pounds. . . . They would die."

He arrived with the Eagles as the NFL's first overall draft pick in 1949 after two All-American seasons at the University of Pennsylvania.

Known for his toughness, Bednarik made eight Pro Bowls and missed three games in 14 years.

He said he missed none with his worst injury, a torn biceps in his right arm: "They just pushed it up and taped it. I continued playing," he said. "You can feel a little dent up above where the attachment was."

He was an Eagles assistant coach from 1976 to 1982.

Since 1995, the "Chuck Bednarik Award" has been given to college football's best defensive player.

Bednarik is survived by Emma, his wife of 67 years, five daughters, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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