Search

TOUGH AS NAILS THE GAME'S HARDEST CASES HAVE RANGED FROM COURAGEOUS TO CONTEMPTIBLE TO JUST PLAIN CRAZY

Oct. 06, 1995
Oct. 06, 1995

Table of Contents
Oct. 6, 1995

Cover
Departments

TOUGH AS NAILS THE GAME'S HARDEST CASES HAVE RANGED FROM COURAGEOUS TO CONTEMPTIBLE TO JUST PLAIN CRAZY

Tough guys don't dance: This was the gist of Chuck Bednarik's
message to a group of acne-prone young men when the last of the
NFL's two-way players addressed participants in the Big 33 game,
which each July pits high school all-stars from Pennsylvania
against their counterparts from Ohio. Assembled in the cafeteria
at Hershey (Pa.) High, the all-stars listened politely while
Concrete Charlie, as he was known during his 14-year career with
the Philadelphia Eagles, told them about the final play of the
1960 NFL championship game, in which he wrestled Green Bay
Packer fullback Jim Taylor to the turf and pinned him
there--this was legal in those days--until the game clock showed
goose eggs. Bednarik then wound up his pep talk by telling the
young men what he had said to Taylor: "O.K., you can get up now.
This ---- game is over!"

This is an article from the Oct. 6, 1995 issue

At this the schoolboys went wild. The keynote speaker dropping
the f-word. Cool! They were less enthusiastic about Bednarik's
admonitions against "hotdogging." And, of course, two nights
later one of the kids from Ohio would be flagged for excessive
celebration. "He did some Deion routine," says Bednarik. "I tell
you, it's a different world we live in."

Indeed, even in the NFL these days, this is what passes for
toughness: San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young runs nine
yards without his helmet, and people want to give him a Bronze
Star. Young was liberated of his headgear by a blitzing San
Diego Charger safety in an Aug. 13 exhibition game and his
ensuing bareheaded skedaddle was breathlessly described in the
next day's San Francisco Chronicle as "Young's naked-headed dash."

All the fuss over a nine-yard run in a preseason game tells you
something about the state of the NFL. Rich in talented athletes
with gleaming, unspoiled orthodonture, the league is
nonetheless starved for tough guys and feats of epic toughness.

But if the Gospel According to Bednarik tells us that tough guys
don't dance, how does Bednarik explain his little hornpipe over
the inert Frank Gifford 35 years ago? When the New York Giant
halfback turned upfield after snaring a pass, Concrete Charlie
played wrecking ball to Gifford's condemned building, knocking
him out of football for a year and a half. Of the jig he danced
over his prostrate foe, Bednarik says now that he had just seen
Eagle linebacker Chuck Weber recover Gifford's fumble, "and I
was yelling"--as, apparently, was his wont--"This ---- game is
over!" Upon realizing the gravity of Gifford's injury, says
Bednarik, "I stopped right away."

The preservation of his reputation as a tough but clean player
is clearly important to Bednarik. Other tough guys are less
concerned with their legacy. The question is posed to ex-49er
offensive tackle Bob St. Clair, who at 6'9", 265 pounds was the
league's tallest player in each of his 11 NFL seasons: Were you
a dirty player?

"You have to understand," says St. Clair, who retired in 1963
and was inducted into the Hall of Fame five summers ago, "when
we played, there was no such thing as dirty play. It was dirty
if you got caught. I was looking to head butt someone on every
play. I'd set guys up by throwing a few cross-body blocks, then
throw a leg whip. And at 6'9", I could leg whip the crap out of
you."

This was a scary dude, on and off the field. In the summer of
1961, St. Clair arrived at training camp at St. Mary's College
in Moraga, Calif., in a brand-new, gold ragtop. From among the
rookies he selected a chauffeur--a hotshot tailback out of UCLA
by the name of Billy Kilmer. After practices St. Clair would
order Kilmer to drive him through the orchards of Moraga. From
his perch atop the convertible's backseat, St. Clair kept a
sharp eye out for deer, which, upon spying, he would blow to
kingdom come with his trusty 30.06.

"I'd throw the deer in the trunk, take them back to camp, gut
them and clean them," says St. Clair. "It was usually dark by
then. I remember once I had [rookie safety] Jimmy Johnson hold
the flashlight for me. I took my buck knife, cut myself off a
chunk of the deer's liver and popped it in my mouth. The light
started shaking. I said, 'Hold the light steady, can't you see
I'm eating?'"

Here's a scary thought: St. Clair wasn't the toughest guy on his
team. The 49ers of the early 1950s had defensive tackle Leo
Nomellini--"Now there was a good, tough son of a bitch," says
Bednarik--and fullback John Henry Johnson, whose rampages will be
addressed presently.

But the toughest 49er--some say the toughest NFL player
ever--stood six feet tall and weighed 195 pounds. Hardy (the
Hatchet) Brown was a linebacker who had a cruel knack for
uncoiling into ballcarriers, popping his right shoulder up into
their chins. In 1953 Eagle running back Toy Ledbetter "stuck his
head off tackle and Brown caved in the side of his face,"
recalls Tom Brookshier, a rookie defensive back with
Philadelphia that season.

In 1951 alone Brown was credited with having KO'd more than 20
players. Years later, in an interview with the St. Petersburg
Times, former Niner, Baltimore Colt and New York Giant
quarterback Y.A. Tittle would say that in '51 Brown "knocked out
the entire Washington Redskins starting backfield, everyone
except Harry Gilmer, the quarterback. He retired [Los Angeles
Ram halfback] Glenn Davis--hit him so hard in the head he tore
ligaments in Davis's knee. Did the same thing to [Detroit Lion
end] Bill Swiacki the next year. Hardy Brown was the hardest
hitter that ever played."

Tough guys spawn legends that may or may not be true. While
playing defensive back in 1954, his first year with the 49ers,
John Henry Johnson stove in the face of Chicago Cardinal running
back Charley Trippi, upsetting Trippi and many Card fans. "The
rumor," according to a man who at the time was a highly placed
NFL executive, "was that a certain 'element' in Chicago offered
to take care of Johnson. For good."

Sometimes the legends are true. High winds at a 1960 Packer
practice toppled a 1,000-pound steel tower, which landed on
linebacker Ray Nitschke, puncturing his helmet and pinning him
to the turf. Teammates rushed over and lifted the structure off
of Nitschke, who after taking careful inventory of his moving
parts, returned to practice.

A ravening beast on the field, Nitschke was genteel and
soft-spoken off it. When Brookshier, by then a broadcaster,
introduced Nitschke in a postgame interview as "The Madman of
Green Bay," the linebacker was furious and told his old foe, in
a cry prefiguring that of the cinematic Elephant Man, "I am not
an animal!"

Dick Butkus, of course, could never make such a claim for
himself. In addition to wreaking more certifiable mayhem than
space permits us to document, the legendary Chicago Bear middle
linebacker is said to have bitten a referee in a pileup during
an exhibition game, a charge Butkus has denied. On the other
hand, Conrad Dobler, a guard who played in three Pro Bowls in
the '70s during his career with the St. Louis Cardinals, the
Buffalo Bills and the New Orleans Saints, makes no apologies for
having left teeth marks on several of his opponents.

Ex-Pittsburgh Steeler defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene could
never recall being bitten by Dobler, a testament to Dobler's
intelligence. In addition to being quick and huge, Mean Joe was
perfectly happy to take the law into his giant hands. In a 1977
game he punched out Paul Howard, a Denver Bronco offensive
lineman, later explaining that he was being held illegally and
thus "had to go outside the rules."

Outside the rules. It's a place where tough guys tend to spend a
lot of time. Who could ever forget Greene's teammate, linebacker
Jack Lambert, defending Steeler kicker Roy Gerela by body
slamming Dallas Cowboy safety Cliff Harris in Super Bowl X, in
January 1976?

The aforementioned John Henry Johnson was playing with the
Steelers and carrying the ball in a 1961 game when he applied
his forearm to the physiognomy of Ram captain Les Richter,
breaking Richter's jaw. Later in the game Johnson was laid out
on the L.A. sideline when a procession of Rams came after him.
Johnson grabbed a sideline marker and began bashing it against
the helmets of his antagonists and survived unscathed.

Tough guys also have high pain thresholds, though nobody ever
said tough was synonymous with smart. On the eve of his final
game in 1962, Steeler quarterback Bobby Layne--who claimed to
need just four hours of sleep per night, saying, "I sleep
fast"--nodded off at the wheel of his car and collided with what
he later described as a "parked, swerving streetcar." He was
bloodied in the crash but played the entire game the next day.

Layne brings to mind another tough guy verity: Tough guys call
their shots. In the 1953 NFL championship game Layne's Detroit
Lions trailed the Cleveland Browns 16-10. The Lions had 80 yards
to go and three minutes to get there when Layne entered the
huddle and told his teammates, "Y'all block, and ol' Bobby'll
pass you right to the championship." And so he did. The Lions
won 17-16.

It's one thing to play in pain--Oakland Raider center Jim Otto
endured five knee and two elbow operations but started 210
straight games--quite another to play well. With a cast on each
arm in 1965 after fracturing both hands in a game the week
before, St. Louis Cardinal safety Larry Wilson intercepted a
pass thrown by Steeler quarterback Bill Nelsen. Asked to recount
that improbable pick, Wilson, now a vice president with the
Cards, says, "I stabbed it out of the air with one hand. It was
acrobatic."

Golly, Mr. Wilson, was it painful? "The only painful thing about
it was that I should have scored," he says. But after
successfully eluding several Steelers, Wilson tripped and fell
short of the end zone, a tough guy catching a tough break.

Chuck Bednarik is channel surfing in his kitchen on a sweltering
Sunday in August. "We've got the Phillies, track and field from
Sweden or Indy car racing," he says.

No NFL exhibition game?

"Oh, I can't watch that stuff," he says. "I sit there yelling,
'Look at this ----!' and Emma [his wife of 47 years] says,
'Charlie, you're swearing too much.'"

He and Emma still live in the Coopersburg, Pa., house they built
16 years ago. Back then they still had plenty of kids around.
"Now," he says, "it's really too big for us."

So why not move into a condo or an apartment?

"None of them take cats!" he says. The Bednariks have two cats:
Spanky is 15, Sinbad is two and a kindred spirit of Bednarik's.
"I call him the Wild One," he says.

Well, it is suggested, you could have the cats ... dealt with.

"You mean put them to sleep?" The toughest Eagle there ever was
is mortified by the suggestion. His voice nearly breaks. "Oh
no," he says, "I could never do that."

B/W PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS COVER PHOTO THE TOUGHEST QUARTERBACK EVER BOBBY LAYNE OF THE DETROIT LIONSCOLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS There was no taming Lambert, who put the teeth in the middle of the ferocious Steeler defense. [Close-up of Jack Lambert showing his missing teeth]COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER Any lineup of the game's toughest men should include Wilson (far left), whose broken hands did not prevent him from intercepting a pass, and linebackers Nitschke (66) and Butkus (above), who refused to show their opponents any mercy. [Larry Wilson]B/W PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--Ray Nitschke]COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER [See caption above--Dick Butkus]COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER Layne (22, above) was a quarterback with the temperament of a linebacker; Otto (00, opposite) was immovable at center for 15 seasons; and Johnson was a one-man wrecking crew on both sides of the ball. [Jim Otto]B/W PHOTO: BILL YOUNG [See caption above--Bobby Layne]B/W PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS [See caption above--John Henry Johnson]