Obituary: Steve Van Buren / Hall of fame running back for Eagles

Dec. 28, 1920 - Aug. 23, 2012


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Steve Van Buren, the Honduran-born son of an American fruit inspector who took up the unfamiliar game of football in high school and went on to stardom with the Philadelphia Eagles, died Thursday in Lancaster, Lancaster County. He was 91.

The Eagles announced his death, giving pneumonia as the cause.

The square-jawed Mr. Van Buren, who became a Hall of Fame running back and, many said, one of the greatest to play the game, was nicknamed Wham-Bam, and for good reason.

He combined punishing strength with explosive speed. He was regarded as the first to apply that kind of attack from the T formation, paving the way for successors like Jim Brown, Ollie Matson and O.J. Simpson.

It was a style of play he was built for, packing about 205 pounds into a 6-foot-1-inch frame with broad shoulders, a small waist and the slim legs of a college sprinter who had run 100 yards in 9.8 seconds. He carried a football with his head down.

He hated passing. "The fellow who threw the first pass must have been all through as a football player," he said, "or just too tired that day to run with the ball."

His contemporaries said he had few rivals. Earle Neale, better known as Greasy Neale, who coached Mr. Van Buren with the Eagles, called him "the best halfback in modern times."

"Red Grange had the same ability to sidestep," Mr. Neale said, "but he never had Van Buren's power to go with it. He was better than Grange because Grange needed a blocker. Van Buren didn't. He could run away from tacklers like Grange, or over them like Bronko Nagurski."

Allie Sherman, an Eagles teammate and later the head coach of the New York Giants, called Mr. Van Buren "the Jimmy Brown of his time," adding, "People didn't appreciate what he did."

What Mr. Van Buren did was "usher in the era of the speedy big back who could take advantage of the quick-hitting T formation," the sports columnist Murray Olderman wrote.

From 1944 through 1951, Mr. Van Buren, with his "pile-driving rushes," as The New York Times described them, led the Eagles to two National Football League championships and three Eastern Division titles.

The first title game, on Dec. 19, 1948, was a rematch of the previous year's divisional winners, Philadelphia and the Chicago Cardinals.

They met during a blizzard at Shibe Park in Philadelphia in front of more than 28,000 fans. The snow was so deep that both teams had to help the ground crew remove the tarp, and with few line markers visible, a single referee was designated the sole judge of first downs and touchdowns.

Mr. Van Buren scored the only touchdown of the game, late in the fourth quarter, after Chicago had fumbled on what was believed to be its 17-yard line. The Eagles held on, 7-0, for their first championship.

Weather conditions were slightly better for the 1949 championship game against the Los Angeles Rams. In a driving rain at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Mr. Van Buren carried the ball 31 times in the mud for 196 yards as the Eagles won, 14-0.

In his eight seasons, Mr. Van Buren led the NFL in rushing four times and was named a first-team All-Pro five times. When he retired, he held the NFL career rushing records for yards (5,860), attempts (1,320) and touchdowns (69). All three records were broken by Jim Brown.

Mr. Van Buren was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965. In 1994, he was selected to the NFL's 75th anniversary team, in a backfield with Mr. Brown, Simpson, Nagurski, Gale Sayers, Walter Payton and Marion Motley.

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