One of the best things about LeSean McCoys marvelous 2011 season in addition to keeping the Eagles playoff hopes alive is the way it brought Steve Van Buren back to the NFL stage.
In recent weeks, every time McCoys statistics appeared on the TV screen, it was noted that he was closing in on club records set by Van Buren. Older fans may have heard the name before, but most people probably had no recollection of the great halfback who was the first Eagle voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1965).
But thanks to McCoy, Steve Van Buren is back in the news and that is a very nice thing. He deserves to be remembered, especially now as he approaches his 91st birthday (Dec. 28). He is not only one of the greatest players in Eagles history, but he is also one of its finest gentlemen.
On Sunday, McCoy surpassed Van Burens records for touchdowns in a season (18) and rushing touchdowns in a season (15), both set in 1945. Knowing Van Buren, Im sure he was watching on TV and cheering as McCoy crossed the goal line three times against the New York Jets. He is that kind of guy.
In 1978, when Wilbert Montgomery broke Van Burens club record for rushing yards in a season, Van Buren was babysitting his grandchildren. He watched the game on TV and I called to get his reaction. He was genuinely thrilled for Montgomery, saying: This kid is going to take the Eagles to the Super Bowl. (Which, of course, he did).
The Eagles invited Van Buren to the next home game and afterwards, he went to the locker room to meet Montgomery. He edged his way through the crowd of reporters around Montgomerys locker and shyly extended his hand.
Im Steve Van Buren, he said, and Id like to say congratulations and tell you that youre a great, great football player.
Montgomery seemed at a loss for words as he shook Van Burens hand, saying: You were a great player, too.
Yes, he was. His No. 15 is retired for a reason.
Van Buren played for the Eagles from 1944 through 51 and was the star halfback for a team that won three consecutive conference titles and back-to-back NFL championships in 1948 and 49. He led the NFL in rushing four times. No Eagles running back has won the rushing title since, although McCoy has a chance trailing Maurice Jones-Drew by 60 yards going into the final two games.
Van Buren twice went over the 1,000 yard mark in an era of 12-game regular seasons and seven-man lines when such a feat was unheard of. He was 6-1 and 210 pounds yet he was the fastest player on the team at 40 yards. His combination of power and speed made him a player ahead of his time.
The true measure of his greatness is the fact that 60 years after his retirement, Van Buren still holds numerous club records. McCoy has broken a few and may break others, but Van Buren still holds the record for most rushing yards in a game (205), most career rushing touchdowns (69), most consecutive games with a rushing touchdown (eight), highest career kickoff return average (26.7) and highest punt return average for a season (15.3).
But, really, all you need to know about Van Buren is this: the Eagles were a joke of a team before he arrived, they were lucky to win more than two games a season, but when they added him, they became the best team in football.
We used to say Steve was our paycheck, said Frank (Bucko) Kilroy, an All-Pro guard with the Eagles. He could do everything. He was the best blocking back in the league. He could catch the ball. He could return punts and kickoffs. And there was no one better running with the ball. Steve was the prototype (back) that every team has been looking for ever since.
Van Buren was born in Spanish Honduras, the son of a fruit inspector. He was orphaned at the age of 10 and went to live with his grandparents in New Orleans. He went to LSU on a football scholarship, earned All-America honors and broke the Southeastern Conference rushing record.
The Eagles made Van Buren their first selection in the 1944 college draft. He signed for 4,000 It seemed like all the money in the world at the time, he said and became the first pro football superstar in the citys history.
His teammates held Van Buren in awe as much for his character as his talent. He was the most unassuming member of the team without the slightest hint of ego. He would receive gift certificates for free clothes and free dinners and he would hand them to his teammates saying: Here, I dont need this. Photographers would come to practice to get shots of Van Buren, but he would call his teammates over to join him in the picture. He did not want to be treated like a star even though he was one.
Van Burens modesty was reflected in the way he lived after his retirement. If you went to his modest apartment in Northeast Philadelphia, you never would have known he ever played football. The only photos on display were photos of his grandchildren. There were no trophies, no game balls, no football portraits. Most of them, he simply gave away. His MVP trophy for the 1948 season, for example.
A friend came over one day and saw it, Van Buren said. I said, You like it? Here, take it. I never cared about that stuff, just like I never cared about records. The only thing that mattered to me was winning. If we won, I figured I did my job.
Basically, Im a shy person. I almost didnt go to my Hall of Fame induction. My family made me go. I dont like a lot of attention. I never did. This might sound odd, but I never thought I was that good. I thought I was a guy who worked hard and hated to lose, but I never said, Boy, Im great. I wasnt raised that way.
Van Buren is the kind of guy who took public transportation to and from the 1948 NFL championship game, riding the Broad Street Subway to North Philadelphia to score the winning touchdown in a 7-0 Eagles victory over the Chicago Cardinals. The next year, he rushed for 196 yards to lead the Eagles to a 14-0 win in the title game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Maybe one day LeSean McCoy will get a chance to play in a championship game for the Eagles and maybe he will come up as big as Steve Van Buren did. If he does, no one will be happier than Van Buren himself.
E-mail Ray Didinger at email@example.com