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Credit: Isabel Liang

The camera followed NFL Hall of Famer and Penn alumnus Chuck Bednarik as he walked through the streets of his hometown of Bethlehem, Pa. on his way to surprise his mother. 

“Poď sem tu, pod’ sem tu,” Bednarik said in Slovak, instructing his mother to come out of his small brick childhood home. “Look here, you’re on television!”

Thinking of something to say to the camera, Bednarik’s mother opted for a childhood story — one that predated his NFL fame.

“When he was in school, lots of kids wanted to fight him,” Bednarik’s mother said. “I told him, if anybody hits you first, give it to him.”

Bednarik always had fight in him. Known as one of the most hard-nosed, tough players in NFL history, Bednarik earned himself a fitting nickname: Concrete Charlie. 

As the child of poor Slovakian immigrant parents, Bednarik learned that grit and determination were needed to succeed in life. After just getting started with football in high school, Bednarik put his college career on hold to serve in the United States Air Force during World War II. 

Returning from Germany with 30 combat missions under his belt and several military medals awarded for his heroism, Bednarik chose Penn to begin his college football career.

Bednarik excelled in a number of positions as one of the last 60-minute men — a full-time two-way player that took the field with both the offense and defense. 

Throughout both his time in the NFL and at Penn, Bednarik excelled playing the linebacker and center positions, while occasionally filling in as the punter. In 1946, he recorded seven interceptions, placing him tied for third in Penn’s history for most picks in a season. 

Bednarik earned All-American honors three times in addition to the Maxwell Award — given annually to a collegiate football player deemed to be the best all-around in the United States. He also finished third in voting for the Heisman Trophy. 

Bednarik continued his defensive dominance in the NFL after being picked first overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1949 draft. His bone-shattering tackles and high football IQ led him to a total of 20 interceptions in 169 games played. He won two championships while also picking up first team All-Pro honors 10 times and selections to the Pro Bowl eight times. 

In the 1960 NFL Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers, it was Bednarik who won the game for the Eagles. 

On first down with half a minute remaining at the Eagles’ 30-yard line, Green Bay burned its final timeout to stop the clock and draw up a potential game-winning play. The Packers’ quarterback, Bart Starr, got a look on second down and threw a short pass to receiver Gary Knafelc. Knafelc was tackled inbounds and the clock continued to run, forcing Starr to quickly set up the offense. On third down, Starr found his fullback, Jim Taylor, wide open at the 17. 

The only thing between Taylor and a Green Bay victory was a single Eagles defender in open space. Taylor raced past the 15. Then the 10. Then the 5. A Packers’ championship was merely seconds away. 

But before he knew it, Taylor was met by a concrete wall, knocking him all the way back to the nine-yard line. Slamming him to the ground, Bednarik remained on top of Taylor as the final seconds of the game ticked away, ensuring an Eagles victory.

“You can get up now, Taylor,” Bednarik said. “This damn game’s over.” 

On Mar. 21, 2015, Bednarik died in Coopersburg, Pa. at the age of 89. 

“To think that me, Charlie Bednarik, a poor kid from the streets of Bethlehem, making it to the top, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve lived a full life,” Bednarik said in an interview with the Eagles. “Concrete Charlie, the ironman, really had a hell of a life.”