Rich Hofmann: Van Buren, an Eagles great from a simpler time, remembered at memorial service

Eagles Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald was among those who attended memorial service for Steve Van Buren.
Eagles Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald was among those who attended memorial service for Steve Van Buren. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: September 14, 2012

A BRONZE BUST sat on a table in the sanctuary of the chapel. It was the replica that the Pro Football Hall of Fame gives to its inductees, the one they gave to Steve Van Buren. A bust, an urn, a photograph, a football, a single red rose - and, on the other side of the space, a portrait of No. 15, carrying the ball. The arrangement was simple and dignified, like the man.

More than 100 people came to The Chapel of the Four Chaplains, at the Navy Yard - family, friends, fans. Steve Van Buren, arguably the greatest player in Eagles history, the hero of their 1948 and 1949 NFL championship teams, died last month at the age of 91. The memorial service was arranged as a final goodbye, open to the public. They gathered, and heard speakers, and shared a few laughs, and maybe a few tears, sitting in pews and being looked down upon by a serviceman on stained glass.

Van Buren was before your time, and my time, and more and more people's time now. Only a few members of those championship teams are still with us. In the chapel on Wednesday were Bill Mackrides, the backup quarterback, and Ken Farragut, who actually joined the team in 1951. Several other former Eagles were there but, from those days, that was it.

Chuck Bednarik is in the hospital or he would have been there, said his son-in-law, Ken Safarowic. He told the story about the night at Lincoln Financial Field a few years ago when the Eagles honored those championship teams. All of the players went down to the field at halftime except for Van Buren, who stayed in a suite. After halftime, Bednarik headed to the parking lot to beat the traffic but Van Buren was disappointed. He wanted to see Bednarik. So a call was made, down to the parking lot, and Bednarik came back. They enjoyed the rest of the game together.

Safarowic said, "Maybe the Pope is the only other one that Chuck would come back for, and I'm not even sure I would put a bet on Benedict."

He told the crowd of a comedy routine that the two would often do in their later years. It would play on an endless loop.

Chuck would say, "You were the best."

Steve would reply, "No, you were the best."

A couple of minutes later, after some conversation, they would do it all over again. And again. As Safarowic said, "The only Philadelphia Eagles player who he ever acknowledged was a better player than him was Steve Van Buren."

If that doesn't sum it up, nothing does. To sing Van Buren's praises, to recite his records, is unnecessary. He was the greatest running back in the history of the franchise and, someday, he and Bednarik and Reggie White can get together and arm-wrestle over who was the greatest player in franchise history.

The memorial was not simply about a sports hero who had died, a humble superstar. It was about a father and a grandfather who had passed and, looking around the room, it was about an era that is passing, too. Nineteen forty-eight. Nineteen forty-nine. It really is hard to imagine what the world was like back then and what the NFL was like back in a time when the players would help shovel the snow off the field so they could play a championship game.

It was simpler, it seemed, simpler and easier and remembered in black-and-white. Nothing is like that now. As Van Buren's daughter, Gail, remarked at one point, "In his later years, getting him on an airplane was so hard. He had no ID except for his football cards. After 9-11, they weren't too happy about that."

The next time you are taking off your shoes and your belt at airport security, you should recall that story, and you should laugh, and you should try to think back fondly upon a man and his time, back when a football card was somehow enough.

"I asked him once, what was the greatest honor bestowed on him," said Nathan Pipitone, his son-in-law. "Steve replied, 'I played for the Philadelphia Eagles and I was the first Eagle put in the Hall of Fame.' He then said - with that finger he was always pointing - 'and there were no fans like the Philadelphia Eagles fans.' "

That was just about the last word of the service.


Contact Rich Hofmann at hofmanr@phillynew.com. Follow him on Twitter @theidlerich. Read his blog at philly.com/TheIdleRich, or for recent columns go to philly.com/RichHofmann.

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