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By Joseph Santoliquito
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Everything about him seemed like moving granite. From his familiar grin to Eagles’ fans, to the way he sloshed through the dirty Shibe Park snow in 1948 in the NFL championship, to the way he’d bull through defenders, to that famous manly, jutting jaw.
Steve Van Buren was a special one during a time when the NFL was a nebulous blot on the sports landscape. It was men like Van Buren, who once took three trolleys and walked 12 blocks through a blizzard to make the December 19, 1948 NFL championship game on time, that built today’s NFL into a multi-billion dollar conglomerate.
The Eagles sadly announced Thursday night that the Pro Football Hall of Fame all-time Eagles’ great passed away from pneumonia at the age of 91 in Lancaster, PA. Van Buren is survived by three daughters, 16 grandchildren, and 16 great grandchildren.
“On the field and off, as a player, a leader and a man, Steve Van Buren embodied the finest characteristics of our city and our sport,” said Eagles chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie. “He was a friend and an inspiration to generations of fans, and the model of what an Eagle should be.”
When Van Buren arrived in Philadelphia in 1944 as a first-round draft pick from LSU, the team had never finished above fourth place in its history. In short order, the running back was the key factor in leading the Eagles to three straight division titles and back-to-back NFL championships in 1948 and 1949.
Merrill Reese On Van Buren’s Passing:
Nicknamed “Wham-Bam” for his quick and punishing running style, he captured the NFL rushing title four times. He finished his career with 5,860 rushing yards and 77 TDs. A five-time all-pro, he was selected to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team in 1994, and was the first Eagles player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He remained in the Philadelphia area after his retirement, living a quiet, low-key lifestyle despite continuing to hold a number of all-time team records. Van Buren lived long enough to see several of his records eclipsed in the 2011 season by running back LeSean McCoy.
“Watch those old films and you know that Steve Van Buren was something special,” said head coach Andy Reid. “He was special in person, too, humble about his own accomplishments and encouraging to others. His memory will be with Eagles fans for as long as this team takes the field.”
“Steve Van Buren is one of the all-time Eagles,” said Eagles president Don Smolenski. “He made his mark on the field, in the city of Philadelphia, and in the record books of the NFL. We honor the passing of one of our great ones.”
The greatest Van Buren story centers on the classic 1948 championship. Van Buren, who lived in Drexel Hill, Delaware County at the time, thought the game wouldn’t be played because of the blizzard. Eagles coach Earle “Greasy” Neale had to call him and tell him the game was still on. Van Buren scrambled to catch three trolleys and walk 12 blocks in order to make the game on time.
Ray Didinger On Van Buren’s Passing:
Van Buren scored the 1948 NFL championship game’s lone touchdown in a 7-0 Eagles’ victory over the Chicago Cardinals on a 5-yard fourth quarter run in the snow. The grainy black-and-white celluloid image of Van Buren tip-toeing through the snow is indelible to Eagles’ fans–as iconic a play in Eagles’ lore as Wilbert Montgomery’s 42-yard touchdown sprint in the 1980 NFC championship against Dallas.
The Eagles continued their dominance in 1949 with an 11-1 record in the regular season and a victory over the Rams in the championship game on a rain-soaked Los Angeles Coliseum field. Van Buren again led the Eagles as he rumbled for 196 yards on 31 carries. In those two seasons, the Eagles outscored their opposition 761-290. They were lovingly called “the duffel-bag dynasty.” Many players were young men who had served their country in World War II and returned home trying again to settle into a regular life.
Van Buren finished his career in 1951 as the NFL’s all-time rushing leader and currently ranks 3rd on the Eagles all-time list with 5,860 yards. He is the only Eagle EVER to finish a season as the NFL’s leading rusher, a feat he accomplished four times (1945, 1947-49).
His 205-yard rushing performance vs. Pittsburgh in 1949 is still an Eagles single-game record, while his 77 career touchdowns rank 2nd on the team’s all-time list. He also holds the club record for most consecutive games with a rushing touchdown with eight in 1947.
When the NFL selected its 75th all-time anniversary team in 1994, Van Buren made the Mount Rushmore of running backs that also included Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Gale Sayers.