It was one of the gentlest turn-downs you will ever read.
In 1957, a future Charlottean named Raymond Jones was 9 years old. He lived in Pennsylvania, where the Philadelphia Eagles ruled and Chuck Bednarik was their unofficial king. Bednarik was a future Pro Football Hall of Famer and commonly referred to as the last of the 60-minute men.
For the Eagles, Bednarik had what would be an almost unthinkable task in today’s NFL. He played both middle linebacker and center, which would be like Luke Kuechly not only playing defense for Carolina but also snapping the ball to Cam Newton on every offensive play.
Raymond had heard somewhere that if you invited Bednarik to dinner he might actually show up. So he found Bednarik’s home address – that was easier to do then – and wrote him with a dinner invitation in the middle of the Eagles’ football season.
A handwritten postcard from Bednarik to “Master Raymond Jones” showed up a few days later with a two-cent stamp and no ZIP code (they weren’t used back then). It was postmarked Oct. 18, 1957.
“Dear Raymond,” it started. “I am quiet (sic) busy during the season and will be unable to come for dinner.”
A homemade jersey
Most sports fans have a hero at some point in their lives, often as children.
Mine was Roger Staubach, because I lived in Texas until I was 9 years old, during some of the Dallas Cowboys’ glory years. Young kids these days in the Carolinas might love Kuechly or Newton, Thomas Davis or Kemba Walker, Steph Curry or Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Danica Patrick.
For 9-year-old Raymond, it was Bednarik – No. 60 on the Eagles. Everyone in the neighborhood loved Bednarik. It was as automatic as loving a Philly cheesesteak.
You weren’t able to go online and buy a jersey of your favorite sports star in 10 seconds back then. So Raymond’s mother bought a solid green jersey in a sports store, then hand-cut the numerals “six” and “zero” out of white felt and sewed them on. Suddenly, Raymond had a homemade Bednarik jersey.
“I was the envy of the entire neighborhood,” Jones says now. “No one else had a mother who was a home economics teacher and could sew.”
There were fewer layers between sports stars and their fans back then. You could write a team or a player, sending along a trading card and a self-addressed stamped envelope, and be pretty certain that envelope would one day make its way back to you with the card autographed and intact.
Bednarik frequently answered his own mail. Raymond and his family started sending the Bednariks a Christmas card each year, and each year they got one back (Raymond Jones still has five of these cards). Raymond also sent Bednarik a football card occasionally -- Bednarik would send it back after signing it.
Bednarik, who also served as a gunner for the U.S. Army during World War II and flew 30 combat missions over Germany, never made more than $27,000 a year.
“He lived in an ordinary middle-class neighborhood, and he washed his car in the driveway and played with neighborhood kids and shopped at the neighborhood grocery store, just like every other resident,” Jones says.
Like most athletes back then, Bednarik had a second job in the offseason, selling concrete, to supplement his income. Although off the field he enjoyed playing the accordion and harmonica, on it he was a player so tough he had to have two nicknames. His offseason job provided the second one, “Concrete Charlie.”
The first was “Sixty-Minute Man.” In 14 NFL seasons, he missed a total of three games.
During the season, Raymond watched Bednarik on a black-and-white television when he could. Even though he lived only 15 miles from downtown Philadelphia, not every Eagles game was televised. And when they were on, the antenna on the TV had to be adjusted manually “by a family member who could not see the screen while making those adjustments,” Jones points out.
Edging Green Bay
While the Eagles won the Super Bowl for the first time last month over New England, that wasn’t their first NFL championship. When Bednarik was 35, in the 1960 NFL championship game (which was the pre-Super Bowl era), Bednarik played 58 of the game’s 60 minutes as his Philadelphia team edged Green Bay 17-13.
Bednarik threw Green Bay running back Jim Taylor to the ground just inside Philadelphia’s 10 on the final play to seal the game. Bednarik then stayed atop Taylor until the clock ticked to zero, short-circuiting Bart Starr’s effort to get off another play for Green Bay, before telling Taylor he could get up now because “this (expletive) game is over.” That was the same season Bednarik had given New York Giants running back Frank Gifford a concussion so severe it knocked him out for the entire 1961 season.
Now 68 years old, Raymond Jones grew into adulthood without every meeting his boyhood hero, although he already had all the Christmas cards and a number of football cards Bednarik had signed for him by then.
Jones would eventually relocate to the Charlotte area in 1991. He finished up a successful 42-year career in public relations in 2017 when he retired as the executive managing editor of the Carolinas HealthCare System.
Bednarik passed away in 2015 at the age of 89. At that time, two of his daughters told a Pennsylvania newspaper that Bednarik had dementia, which they believed was at least in part because of football-related head injuries he had sustained.
Fulfilling a dream
But Jones did spend several hours with Bednarik once, in 1982. As part of a job he had in Pennsylvania at the time, he secured Bednarik as the featured speaker for a group of standout newspaper carriers and their parents and employers. Since he was in charge of the luncheon, he also sat himself right next to Bednarik.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous or excited,” Jones says. “I was 34 at the time, and this was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me.”
Bednarik nearly gave Jones a heart attack during his speech when he described the tackle against Gifford. An iconic NFL photo shows Bednarik celebrating with Gifford laying prone on the ground. Although Gifford would himself say the hit wasn’t dirty, the New York media usually referred to it as a “vicious blindside hit.”
Bednarik, with a room with many kids as young as 8 years old listening attentively, roared: “Vicious blindside tackle, my ass! It was a clean hit!”
During a quieter moment that day, Jones told Bednarik about the postcard and the Christmas cards and all the correspondence Bednarik had sent him when he played.
“He was polite about our past ‘connection,’” Jones says, “and seemed vaguely aware of who I was. Did he specifically remember any of the cards or memorabilia that he had provided to me when I was a kid? I really don’t think so. I think any memories of me had probably long faded, due to the fact that he had responded in similar fashion to so many other fans, over such an extraordinary period of time.”
The power of making time
None of this is to say that today’s pro athletes don’t do anything for kids. They do.
Jones saw it himself countless times, as athletes visited Charlotte-area hospitals to cheer up youngsters. More than a half-dozen pro athletes’ charity foundations in Charlotte do consistently great work.
But as pro sports have grown, and the money surrounding them has grown, there aren’t a lot of players who send handwritten postcards to individual kids anymore. There just isn’t time.
Chuck Bednarik, though, somehow made time.
And although that postcard wasn’t much – it had that grammatical error (quiet vs. quite), didn’t even accept the dinner invitation and referred to a possible future dinner date that never happened – it still meant something to a little boy in Pennsylvania.
Sixty years later, Raymond Jones has never forgotten. Bednarik never did come to dinner -- but the impression the hall of famer made with a few scribbled lines has lasted a lifetime.