Second in a series on iconic NFL games.
The Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants rivalry intensified during the 1960 season. Intent on ending New York’s two-year reign atop the NFL’s Eastern Conference, Philadelphia carried a half-game lead on its big-market adversary going into the teams’ November 20 meeting. One non-scoring play in that game—Chuck Bednarik’s “perfectly legal,” knockout tackle of Frank Gifford, a future TV star—made this matchup one of the defining games in NFL history.
More than 60 years later, Bednarik’s fourth-quarter hit at Yankee Stadium lives on more so than Philadelphia’s 17-10 victory. The Eagles’ linebacker—the NFL’s last player to play on offense and defense—and Giants halfback—the 1956 MVP and one the country’s most popular athletes—combined for 16 Pro Bowls. Each is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, enhancing the play’s mystique.
Stationed on less successful teams compared to Gifford’s Giants for most of his career, Bednarik announced his retirement after the 1959 season but backtracked on it. That proved to be seminal decision.
“Everything that ever happened good—everything—happened to me in 1960,” Bednarik said in 2000.
Collision Changes Stars’ Trajectories
An October 1960 injury to linebacker Bob Pellegrini prompted Eagles coach Buck Shaw to reinstall Bednarik as a two-way player, at age 35. But Bednarik spent most of the second half against the Giants at center, his offensive line position. After the Eagles erased a 10-0 halftime deficit with a tying field goal with a little less than five minutes remaining, Shaw reinserted Bednarik at linebacker. That decision not only swung the 1960 NFL season; it keyed a frightening scene and one of the NFL’s indelible images.
After Bednarik sliced into the Giants’ backfield and forced a fumble that Eagles defensive back Jimmy Carr returned 38 yards for a go-ahead touchdown, New York backup quarterback George Shaw orchestrated a last-ditch drive with just more than two minutes left.
Shaw passed to Gifford, his leading receiver that day (five receptions for 89 yards), at the Eagles’ 30-yard line. As the all-purpose halfback sprinted toward the sideline to get out of bounds to stop the clock, he did not see Bednarik lurking. The 235-pound linebacker leveled Gifford, causing a fumble that Eagles linebacker Chuck Weber recovered to seal Philadelphia’s pivotal win.
While not a dirty play for the era, Bednarik’s full-body clothesline silenced Yankee Stadium and horrified Gifford teammates. The hit knocked the 197-pound Gifford unconscious. The 30-year-old back left the field on a stretcher and departed the stadium in an ambulance. Giants team physician Dr. Francis Sweeney called the injury a “deep concussion.” Giant teammates Sam Huff and Pat Summerall later said they feared Gifford was dead.
Only one video documents the play, and it fails to fully illustrate the tackle’s impact. Gifford later said whiplash from his landing on a semi-frozen field knocked him out, not the collision with Bednarik. No penalty was called, and the NFL did not suspend Bednarik.
“I feel sorry for the guy,” Bednarik said after the game. “But at the same time, I feel justified. It was a good, perfect tackle.”
Gifford spent 10 days at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and did not play again that season. Media initially reported Bednarik sent a card and a fruit basket to Gifford’s hospital room, but the New York Post noted decades later a friend of Bednarik’s made that gesture. Bednarik said days after the game he tried to visit Gifford in the hospital but was not granted access.
Eagle’s Celebration Creates Controversy
While Gifford did not play again for nearly two years, Bednarik—a World War II veteran already known as a fearsome player—saw that reputation enhanced. Bednarik also spent the rest of his life explaining why the New York takedown’s lasting image—Bednarik standing over an unconscious Gifford with a closed fist—misleads.
“He stood on the field pointing at Giff and laughing. It was a disgraceful performance by a guy who’s supposed to be an old pro,” Giants starting quarterback Charlie Conerly, who missed the game with a knee injury, wrote in a November 21 first-person newspaper column.
Conerly and Sweeney shouted at Bednarik after the hit, and Sweeney indicated Bednarik shook his fist at him as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“As soon as I saw Frank fumble, I turned to follow the ball. When I saw Charley Weber recover for us, I started jumping up and down, yelling ‘We got it; it’s our ballgame,’” Bednarik said after the game, according to the Philadelphia Daily News. “I remember waving my fist as a victory signal. I always do that on a play that means the game.”
After missing the Giants’ final three games in 1960, Gifford retired in February 1961. The future “Monday Night Football” broadcaster accepted an offer to begin his media career, breaking in as a WCBS radio analyst. Gifford later said he did not retire because of his injuries suffered on the hit, which also included skull and neck contusions. He returned to the Giants in 1962, as a flanker. No plays from Gifford’s first or second stint with the Giants endure like the infamous tackle.
‘Concrete Charlie’ Rides Momentum to NFL Immortality
The Eagles’ seventh straight victory led to their Week 10 home game against the Giants selling out before game day for the first time in franchise history. The Giants did not exact revenge in the rematch, blowing a 17-point lead in a 31-23 loss. They finished 6-4-2. The Eagles won the Eastern Conference at 10-2 and became the only team to defeat Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in a championship game, beating the West champs, 17-13, in Philadelphia.
Bednarik delivered a storied performance, lining up on 139 of the game’s 142 plays to close out his sixth and final All-Pro season. The revered Eagle and offseason concrete salesman thwarted the Packers’ final push, stonewalling Green Bay running back Jim Taylor at Philadelphia’s 9-yard line as time ran out.
The Eagles’ ascent proved short-lived. Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, the NFL Most Valuable Player in 1960, retired at season’s end, and the Giants traded for future Hall of Fame passer Y.A. Tittle in 1961. New York won the next three Eastern titles. Gifford contributed to Tittle’s late-career resurgence and made his final Pro Bowl in 1963. Bednarik retired after the 1962 season; Gifford’s 12-year career wrapped up in 1964.
Safety Measures Remain Decades Away
While the NFL has passed numerous recent rule changes to protect players, it did not act on this front after Bednarik’s blow. Concussions did not seriously alter the rulebook for decades. The league introduced the personal foul penalty to minimize head and neck contact in 1980, but sweeping changes did not emerge until the CTE crisis gripped the league in the 21st century. The NFL did not enact a concussion protocol for players during games until 2013.
Bednarik was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, in 1967, and voters greenlit Gifford’s enshrinement 10 years later. Linked in perpetuity, the two crossed paths often. Bednarik was ever eager to discuss his signature play, but Gifford was not. In their retirements, the ex-rivals appeared together on TV, at banquets and in golf tournaments. Bednarik participated in a roast of Gifford in the 1980s.
Gifford—who died in August 2015, nearly five months after Bednarik—forgave his fellow Hall of Famer. He called the scary sequence that ended the halfback portion of his career a clean shot and “perfectly legal.”
“We had a long talk; we had a few beers,” Gifford told the New York Daily News following Bednarik’s death. “A lot of stuff was blown way out of proportion. I feel sorry for him. He took a lot of blame.”