Second in a series on iconic NFL games.
The Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants rivalry intensified during the 1960 season. Intent to end New York’s two-year reign at the top of the NFL Eastern Conference, Philadelphia had a half a game ahead of his opponent in the big market before the teams meeting on November 20. One non-scoring play in this game – Chuck Bednarik’s “perfectly legal” knockout tackle against future TV star Frank Gifford – made the game one of the defining games in NFL history.
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Over 60 years later, Bednarik’s fourth-quarter hit at Yankee Stadium is more alive than Philadelphia’s 17-10 victory. The Eagles linebacker – the last NFL player to play both offense and defense – and Giants half-back – the 1956 MVP and one of the nation’s most popular athletes – combined for 16 Pro Bowls . Each is entered into the Professional Football Hall of Fame, reinforcing the mystique of the game.
Stationed in teams underperforming the Gifford Giants for most of his career, Bednarik announced his retirement after the 1959 season, but backtracked. This turned out to be a defining decision.
“Everything that happened right – everything – happened to me in 1960,” Bednarik said in 2000.
The collision changes the trajectories of the stars
An injury to linebacker Bob Pellegrini in October 1960 prompted Eagles coach Buck Shaw to reinstall Bednarik as a two-way street player at 35. But Bednarik spent most of the second half against the Giants in the middle, his offensive line position. After the Eagles erased a 10-0 halftime deficit with a tying field goal with just under five minutes to go, Shaw reinserted Bednarik as linebacker. This decision not only changed the 1960 NFL season; it marked a scary scene and one of the indelible images of the NFL.
After Bednarik sliced through the Giants’ backfield and forced a fumble as Eagles defensive back Jimmy Carr returned 38 yards for a touchdown, New York quarterback George Shaw orchestrated a last-minute practice with just over two minutes to play.
Shaw passed to Gifford, his main receiver that day (five receptions for 89 yards), at the Eagles’ 30-yard line. As the versatile half-back sprinted to the sideline to get out of bounds and stop the clock, he didn’t see Bednarik in hiding. The 235-pound linebacker equalized Gifford, prompting a fumble that Eagles linebacker Chuck Weber recovered to seal Philadelphia’s crucial victory.
While not a dirty game for the time, Bednarik’s full-length clothesline silenced Yankee Stadium and horrified his Gifford teammates. The blow knocked out the 197-pound Gifford. The 30-year-old left the field on a stretcher and left the stadium by ambulance. Giants’ team doctor Dr. Francis Sweeney called the injury a “deep concussion.” Giant teammates Sam Huff and Pat Summerall later said they feared Gifford was dead.
Only one video documents the play, and it doesn’t fully illustrate the impact of the tackle. Gifford later said the whiplash from landing on semi-frozen terrain knocked him out, not the collision with Bednarik. No penalties were called and the NFL did not suspend Bednarik.
“I’m sorry for the guy,” Bednarik said after the game. “But at the same time, I feel justified. It was a good perfect tackle.
Gifford spent 10 days at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and has not played again this season. The media first reported that Bednarik sent a card and a fruit basket to Gifford’s hospital room, but the New York Post noted decades later that a friend of Bednarik made the gesture. Bednarik said days after the game he tried to visit Gifford in hospital but was not allowed access.
The eagle celebration creates controversy
While Gifford did not replay for nearly two years, Bednarik, a World War II veteran already known as a formidable player, saw his reputation improve. Bednarik has also spent the rest of his life explaining why the enduring image of demolition in New York City – Bednarik standing over an unconscious Gifford with a clenched fist – is misleading.
“He was standing on the pitch pointing to Giff and laughing. It was a shameful performance from a guy who’s supposed to be an old pro, ”wrote Giants starting quarterback Charlie Conerly, who missed the game with a knee injury, in a column in the first person of November 21..
Conerly and Sweeney yelled at Bednarik after the hit, and Sweeney indicated that Bednarik clenched his fist at him as the final seconds passed.
“As soon as I saw Frank fumbling around I turned to follow the ball. When I saw Charley Weber recover for us, I started jumping up and down screaming ‘We have it; it’s our ball game, ”Bednarik said after the game, according to the Philadelphia Daily News. “I remember waving my fist in victory. I always do it on a game which means gambling. “
After missing the last three Giants games in 1960, Gifford retired in February 1961. The future “Monday Night Football” broadcaster accepted an offer to begin his media career, as a WCBS radio analyst. Gifford later said he had not retired due to his injuries sustained during the blow, which also included bruises to his head and neck. He returned to the Giants in 1962, as a flanker. No play in Gifford’s first or second pass with the Giants lasts like the infamous tackle.
‘Concrete Charlie’ builds momentum towards NFL immortality
The Eagles’ seventh consecutive win led to their Week 10 home game against the Giants before game day for the first time in franchise history. The Giants did not retaliate in the rematch, losing a 17-point lead in a 31-23 loss. They finished 6-4-2. The Eagles won the Eastern Conference at 10-2 and became the only team to defeat Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in a championship game, beating the Western Champions, 17-13, in Philadelphia.
Bednarik delivered a remarkable performance, lining up 139 of the game’s 142 games to close his sixth and final All-Pro season. The revered Eagle and the offseason concrete salesman thwarted the Packers’ latest push, blocking Green Bay running back Jim Taylor at the Philadelphia 9-yard line as time passed.
The Eagles’ rise proved to be short-lived. Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, the NFL MVP in 1960, retired at the end of the season, and the Giants traded for future Hall of Fame passer YA Tittle in 1961. New York won the next three Eastern titles. Gifford was instrumental in the resurgence of late Tittle’s career and made his last Pro Bowl in 1963. Bednarik retired after the 1962 season; Gifford’s 12-year career ended in 1964.
Security measures remain in decades
While the NFL has passed many recent rule changes to protect players, it has failed to act on this front after Bednarik’s coup. Concussions haven’t seriously changed the rulebook for decades. The league introduced the personal foul penalty to minimize head and neck contact in 1980, but drastic changes did not emerge until the CTE crisis gripped the league in the 21st century. The NFL did not adopt a concussion protocol for players during games until 2013.
Bednarik was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1967, and voters gave the green light for Gifford’s dedication 10 years later. Linked in perpetuity, the two paths have often crossed. Bednarik was still eager to discuss his signing game, but Gifford was not. In their retreats, the ex-rivals have appeared together on television, at banquets and golf tournaments. Bednarik participated in a Gifford roast in the 1980s.
Gifford, who died in August 2015, nearly five months after Bednarik, forgave his fellow Hall of Fame member. He called the scary streak that ended the half-back of his net shooting career “perfectly legal”.
“We had a long conversation; we had a few beers, “Gifford told the New York Daily News after Bednarik’s death. “A lot of things were out of proportion. I’m sorry for him. He took a lot of blame.”