The first thing you notice about Ebert Van Buren are his hands.
They’re hands worn by his 90 years of living but still strong to the grip. They’re hands that carried a football across LSU and NFL football fields. Hands that lugged a 21-pound Browning Automatic Rifle across the sands of an Okinawa beach while under enemy fire. Hands that held his brother Steve’s hands when he broke his leg during practice with the Philadelphia Eagles. And hands that reached into his wallet over five decades and paid for cleats and prom dresses for needy clients of his child psychology practice in Monroe.
On Friday night at the L’Auberge Casino Convention Center, those hands cradled a plaque that signified Van Buren would be enshrined in the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame, joining his late brother Steve as the first siblings to be so honored by the school.
“It means a great deal,” Van Buren said, relaxing in his hotel suite Friday morning. “It would have meant a lot to my brother, too.”
Steve died three years ago at 91.
For the first time in more than 60 years, the Van Buren brothers are on the same team again.
Steve, one of three former LSU players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Ebert played for the Philadelphia Eagles together in 1951. Steve was a halfback, Ebert a fullback.
They never played together before that, in large part because Ebert came so late to the game.
The Van Buren brothers were born in Honduras. For fun, they didn’t play sports but chased iguanas.
When Steve was 12 and Ebert was 8, their mother died. Their father, a fruit inspector, packed them off to live with an aunt and uncle in New Orleans. Steve played a season at Warren Easton before earning a scholarship offer from LSU in 1941. Ebert went to old Metairie High but never played any sports there.
Soon games were far from Ebert’s mind.
He was drafted into the Army in 1943. He earned two bronze stars in 1945 on Okinawa, one for charging a machine gun nest, another for taking a hill. He was wounded in both legs and his left arm.
Van Buren returned to New Orleans and started playing sand lot football. No pads, no helmets. A friend from high school told LSU coach Bernie Moore about Ebert, and in 1947 he joined the team. He played on the 1949 Cinderella Tigers who upset Southeastern Conference champion Tulane and earned a berth in the Sugar Bowl. He was LSU’s team captain in 1950.
In 1951, the Eagles made Ebert the seventh overall draft pick, a fact he said he wouldn’t learn until 10 years later. The Eagles offered a $5,000 contract.
“I sent it back, thanked them, but told them I had an offer of a good job in New Orleans and would take that,” he said. “Then they sent me a plane ticket to Philadelphia and gave me a contract for $7,500. I took that.”
Van Buren only played three NFL seasons, disenchanted when the Eagles coach gave his Pro Bowl spot to another player, a 13-year veteran whom he favored. By then Van Buren was 30 and looking for the next chapter in his life.
He returned to LSU, earned his bachelor’s degree and a master’s. Since 1965, he has been a psychologist, still seeing patients, mostly children, at his practice in Monroe. Van Buren also served as Ouachita Parish coroner from 1972-80 and was for years a certified diving instructor, though he jokes his five children don’t let him dive anymore.
The Van Buren contingent, 30 strong, filled three tables at Friday’s banquet. They petitioned for years to have their father inducted into the Hall of Fame while he could still enjoy it.
“I have the pleasure of calling all the inductees and telling them they were inducted,” LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva said. “I never called someone who was so happy. It’s well deserved and long overdue.”
The man who may well be LSU’s greatest living Tiger is finally getting his just reward.