Into the Rafters

Reflections on a football dream cut short.

| Winter 2017

  • Gifford is the player who got brained, Bednarik is the player who brained him.
    Photo by Wikimedia Commons
  • A football game at Yankee Stadium in the 1960's.
    Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Dickleonhardt
  • Boston University’s Dr. Ann McKee, one of the neurologists most deeply involved in research into the issue, reports that thousands of kids playing football at all levels would eventually develop serious brain damage.
    Photo by Getty Images/Richvintage
  • “The hits, the man-to-man contact that echoed into the rafters — all interwoven with the highest level of individual athleticism any sport could offer.”
    Photo by Getty Images/Georgemarks

It’s an iconic football image: the aftermath of a devastating blindside tackle executed at full speed. November 20, 1960, the game in its final minutes, players and coaches on the sidelines wrapped in parkas against the late afternoon chill. The victim, New York Giants’ 30-year-old running back Frank Gifford, lies supine and unconscious on the Yankee Stadium turf, having just suffered a concussion that will cause him to miss the next 18 months of football. The perpetrator, Philadelphia Eagles’ 35-year-old linebacker Chuck Bednarik, known as “Concrete Charlie,” stands celebrating over him, hips twisted, fist cocked in triumph.

For the last 56 years, stories about either of these two Hall-of-Famers routinely referred to the collision. It’s not just a defining moment for the way the NFL is perceived, it’s also a defining moment for the way Gifford and Bednarik are perceived. Despite long and distinguished careers during and after their playing days, Gifford is the player who got brained, Bednarik is the player who brained him, and such collisions are the essence of the sport. As Gifford later wrote in his book The Glory Game, “Professional football had speed and it had brutality,” and the sport’s violence was just as compelling as its speed and grace. “The hits, the man-to-man contact that echoed into the rafters — all interwoven with the highest level of individual athleticism any sport could offer.”

When Bednarik died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease in March 2015, used the occasion to reflect on the play, describing it succinctly: “Gifford caught a pass over the middle. Bednarik dropped a shoulder into Gifford, knocking the ball out of Gifford’s grasp and knocking him out cold.” These bare facts understate the blunt force of the impact, the suddenness with which Gifford went from blazing forward movement to shocking stillness.

Gifford himself describes it in greater detail in The Glory Game. “I didn’t see Bednarik coming full speed at me from the far side of the field. Bednarik, taking aim, actually turned his head away. There was no helmet-to-helmet collision. There was no clothesline; his arms weren’t even raised. Bednarik’s left shoulder pad hit my left shoulder pad … In a backward free-fall, with no time to cushion myself, my helmet slammed to the hard ground; that caused the concussion.” This latter point, in the macho world of football, is so important to Gifford that he mentions it a second time: “It wasn’t the Eagle linebacker who hurt me. It was the hard, frozen Stadium dirt that did the damage.”

When the New York Times revealed that Gifford, who died five months after Bednarik, had suffered from the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), they brought up the play in their lead sentence, calling it “one of the most brutal collisions in NFL history.” In obituaries and tributes to Gifford, it was described as “a legendary hit,” “a crushing blow,” “the NFL’s most vicious tackle,” “as famous a concussion as there had ever been in the National Football League,” “a near-beheading,” and “one of professional football’s signature moments.” Bednarik’s teammate Tom Brookshier said, “Chuck knocked him right out of his shoes.” Gifford’s teammate Sam Huff said, “I thought Bednarik killed him.”

Football’s characteristic violence, its sanctioned mayhem and head trauma, combine in this image with the very human story of two men in their professional primes, both of whom will eventually develop degenerative brain diseases, their lives twined like a double helix, part of football’s DNA.

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