The Sadness Of Concrete Charlie

Being a sports reporter is, at times, an absolutely horrible job. Sure you get to watch games, travel and interact with athletes, but there is a horrendous downside. (Which is pretty much everything else.) And this is never more disturbingly clear than when a reporter has their first (or 50th) awful experience with a half-naked, exhausted athlete. Sometimes they'll be openly dismissive, sometimes they'll yell, and sometimes, well, they'll fart in your face. Most of these stories never end up in the newspaper the next day. So now, Deadspin proudly presents "The Dark Side of the Locker Room" where current and former sports writers can share some of their most distressing interactions. If you've got your own story to share, please send it along to ajd@deadspin.com.

Mike Sielski is the sports columnist for Calkins Media, a chain of daily newspapers in suburban Philadelphia, and the co-author of "How to Be Like Jackie Robinson: Life Lessons from Baseball's Greatest Hero." The Newspaper Association of America has named him one of the 20 best newspaper people under age 40 in the nation. Today, Mike shares a revealing interview with Philadelphia Eagles' legend Chuck Bednarik.

I was sitting in Chuck Bednarik's living room, stunned into silence, listening to a legend tell me who he really was.

It was January 2003. I was working for the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., in a hybrid position as Philadelphia Eagles beat writer/columnist, and the Birds were in the midst of their most enchanted season since they had reached Super Bowl XV. Despite being without quarterback Donovan McNabb for the final six games of the regular season — McNabb had broken his ankle — the Eagles had gone 12-4 and were prepared to host the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC divisional round. The "last of the 60-minute men," an Eagle for all of his 14 seasons in the NFL, Bednarik remained a franchise icon, a black-and-white image of him from his playing days looming on one of the walls inside the team's practice facility. He was born in Bethlehem, Pa., and was still living in the Lehigh Valley. I called him and asked if I could come over to chat about McNabb and Andy Reid and the 2002 Eagles.

Three times during our phone conversation, Bednarik called Jeff Lurie, the team's owner, a "son of a bitch." He agreed to meet with me two days later. Needless to say, I was curious.

The walls of Bednarik's living room were festooned with photographs and plaques, remembrances of the 1960 season — the last time the Eagles won an NFL championship, the year Bednarik played center and linebacker and became a hero to a generation of Philadelphia sports fans. The room was impressive. I turned on my tape recorder, and Bednarik started to talk. He was not impressive.

He was rooting for the Eagles to lose to the Falcons, he said. He had been in a dispute with Lurie, and he wanted nothing more to do with the franchise. Years earlier, Lurie had refused to buy several copies of Bednarik's memoir and distribute them to the current players because the purchase would have violated the NFL's salary-cap rules, and Bednarik was furious at the perceived slight. "Hey, f—- it," he said. "It would have been a gift from me!" Concrete Charlie, bitter and angry, wishing the Eagles ill? No, this was not impressive, but this was a story.

Then Bednarik offered an unsolicited segue, saying, "And you know what really ticks me off? Put this in headlines. …"

With that intro, Bednarik began to rant, for five to 10 minutes, about the "n——r bull—-t" in present-day pro football. Deion Sanders, end-zone dances, guys who weren't tough enough to play both ways — he took a blowtorch to all of them.

He knew my tape recorder was running. I asked him if he really wanted those words in the story. He said he didn't care. Other writers had quoted Bednarik on these topics before, on his resentment over the million-dollar salaries that players now made and the way that they acted on the field, but in none of those stories had Bednarik used the sort of language he was wielding now. It was one of those moments you rarely encounter these days as a sportswriter, in which the people you cover show you how different they can be from their public images, how self-centered and removed from reality they really are — and really always have been. It was thrilling and horrifying at the very same time.

Bednarik used that language, but in the end, I didn't. I didn't print a word of the rant in my column. For one thing, it wasn't relevant to the primary thrust of the piece: Bednarik's dispute with the Eagles. For another, I felt sorry for him. Here was an old man trapped in his sad, antiquated way of looking at the world, and I didn't want to embarrass him more than he already had embarrassed himself. One terrible sound bite can drown out the music of a man's life.

Understand, though: As irresponsible as it can be to judge someone's full character based on a single word or phrase, it's just as reprehensible to tolerate a superstar's bad behavior out of adulation, to excuse Bednarik's loutishness because he once damn near decapitated Frank Gifford on a crossing route. For no athlete, then or now, is pure as our visions of his triumphs suggest he is. People loved Bednarik for how he played football, for his Concrete Charlie persona, but what I learned in that interview was that Concrete Charlie had given Chuck Bednarik a lifetime pass to be a boor. I had seen the hero in his home, heard what he had said, and he wasn't worthy of worship. He wasn't close to being the man I thought, or hoped, he would be.

After the Morning Call published the column, Bednarik called me to say that he had sent a letter of apology to Lurie. The gesture seemed sincere — maybe there was still a soft heart beneath that bitterness — and I felt better about Bednarik … for a while. Then, in January 2005, Bednarik announced in an interview with the Associated Press that he was rooting for the New England Patriots to beat the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. He was telling the same how-dare-Lurie-not-buy-my-book story all over again, with the same outrage, as if the apology had never happened. A year and a half after that, in August 2006, he showed up at Eagles training camp one day and said of Reggie White, who had died the previous year: "There was something about him I just despised." Later, he appeared on a radio station and claimed he was talking about Terrell Owens, not White.

Me, I just shook my head at what Chuck Bednarik had said and kept saying. I didn't feel sorry for him anymore. There comes a time in this business when you realize that the legends of yesterday are as flawed and fallible as the mercenaries of today, and the pity runs out.