PHILADELPHIA — A headline Friday on PhiladelphiaEagles.com read, “Steve Van Buren Passes.”
Like hell he did.
I’ll bet you my Tommy McDonald bobblehead that No. 15 left this world doing what he did better than any back in Eagles history:
He probably took one last handoff, burst through the line and collided with Death like a freight train, punishing the Grim Reaper the way he punished so many would-be tacklers during his Hall of Fame career.
Van Buren, who died Thursday at 91 in a Lancaster nursing home, was a vestige of a vanished football era.
That’s not to suggest the players in the 1940s and 1950s were any better or any tougher than today’s. They were neither. What set them apart, however, was their ordinariness. Because the average NFL player then made less than $10,000 a year, these demigods walked among us, lived among us and, in the offseasons, worked among us.
They were regular-guy superstars, and Van Buren was among the last generation of them.
The former LSU star was, by all accounts, a humble man who never made as much as $50,000 in his spectacular prime. He lived in a modest Delaware County house, cut his own lawn and sometimes rode public transportation.
When an unusually heavy Philadelphia snowfall made driving to the 1948 title game at Shibe Park impossible, he got on a bus, transferred to the Market Street El at 69th Street, then to the Broad Street subway at City Hall. He walked the final seven blocks to the stadium at 21st and Lehigh.
Once at the game, the man who had got the Eagles there, was asked to help shovel off the field.
When Van Buren was the unassuming star of the most successful period in Eagles history, leading Greasy Neale’s teams to three consecutive championship game appearances and NFL titles in the last two, pro football itself was a blue-collar game.
Players got their hands as dirty as their uniforms. Owners in the struggling league couldn’t afford many amenities. Van Buren and his colleagues sometimes had to meet their own medical needs and even, in some instances, do their own laundry.
Football wasn’t played on turf or weatherproof grass fields. The surfaces, in fact, were a lot like the competitors — scarred, pockmarked, badly beaten up.
Anyone who ever saw Van Buren — his no-nonsense, square jaw, broad shoulders and narrow, icy eyes — could easily imagine that the tougher the conditions, the tougher he responded.
In the 1947 championship, which his Eagles lost to the Chicago Cardinals, he had to try to run on an icy Comiskey Park field. Time and time again, he would appear ready to break into the clear only to slip. “It was so slippery,” he said afterward, “that I fell twice just coming out of the huddle.”
In 1948’s NFL title game, when he scored the only touchdown in the Eagles’ 7-0 triumph over those same Cardinals, he looked like a great plow horse, trudging through the snow, carrying defenders on his big back.
A year later, for a title-game matchup with the Rams, Van Buren and his teammates had to take a train to Los Angeles. Once there, two inches of pregame rain turned the Coliseum into a barnyard. Van Buren never let the muck bother him, collecting a then-playoff record 196 yards in Philadelphia’s 14-0 win.
I never saw him play live, but my father and his friends spoke of him in hushed tones, as if he were some otherworldy wonder. My only glimpse of his abilities came in the brief film snippets from those championship games. But the black-and-white highlights were more than enough to win me over, black-and-white evidence of this blue-collar star’s black-and-blue nature.
He was one of the toughest in a tough, sometimes brutal game. There were no face masks. The helmets were frailer than Terrell Owens’ psyche. And the word concussion hadn’t yet entered the NFL vocabulary.
And he was immensely popular, beloved really, by Philadelphians who had seen him play. I witnessed that devotion the one time I met Van Buren, at a Philadelphia Sportswriters Association banquet.
He was polite to everyone who wanted to reminisce about his career, which was nearly everyone. He had, after all, won four NFL rushing titles, scored 77 touchdowns and been named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team in 1994.
But it was clear he didn’t think it — or he — was anything special.
He had been, as he said on more than one occasion that night, just doing his job.
Time is cruel. Our heroes retire, fade away, die and sometimes are forgotten.
If Van Buren had been born a half-century later he would have won untold wealth and fame. Maybe he, too, would have been corrupted by the power, the money, the attention and the isolation that is part of the athletic experience in a world where the camera’s red light never shuts off.
It’s somehow comforting, though, to believe he wouldn’t have changed, that heroes like him, no matter how down-to-earth, are truly worthy of the mountaintops.
They can take away victories from Joe Paterno and strip Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France wins.
But no one can diminish what’s in the mind’s eye.
For me and anyone else who recalls Van Buren that day in 1948, even if it’s only from a grainy film clip, he’ll always be running in the North Philadelphia snow, heading for a virtually invisible end zone.
And then the Market Street El.