It is fitting that on the day LeSean McCoy passed Steve Van Buren in the Eagles record book, he left footprints in the snow. The lasting image of the great Van Buren is the grainy newsreel footage of the Eagles halfback running through a raging snowstorm in the 1948 NFL championship game. It is likely we'll have the same memory now of McCoy slashing through Sunday's blizzard at Lincoln Financial Field.
McCoy ran for a remarkable 217 yards in the 34-20 win over Detroit on a day when eight inches of snow fell in South Philadelphia. The whiteout conditions at the start of the game made it almost impossible to see, and that's how it was when the Eagles met the Chicago Cardinals at Shibe Park in North Philadelphia on December 19, 1948. It was snowing so hard that Van Buren almost didn't show up.
The story has been told many times, but it was first told to me by Van Buren himself. He said it very off-handedly in an interview: "I looked out my bedroom window that morning, saw the snow and went back to bed. I was sure the game would be postponed." I thought he was kidding. He assured me it was a true story.
"Greasy (Neale, the coach) called the house and woke me up," Van Buren said. "He said, 'Steve, you're coming, right?' I said, 'Greasy, they're not going to play in this weather.' He said, 'The game is still on, so you'd better get here.'"
Van Buren lived in Drexel Hill. His car was snowed in, so he had to take public transit to the game: a bus to 69th Street, the Market Street line to City Hall, the Broad Street subway to Lehigh Avenue, and then he had to walk seven blocks through the snow to the ballpark.
The field was covered, but there was so much snow on the tarp that the grounds crew could not remove it. They had to ask both teams to leave their locker rooms and help roll the tarp. The photographs are priceless: the Eagles and Cardinals players, side by side, pushing the snowy cover off the field. Imagine asking the players to do that when the Super Bowl is played in the Meadowlands in February. Good luck.
Neale wanted to postpone the game. The previous year, the Eagles and Cardinals played the championship game on a frozen field at Comiskey Park, and Chicago won, 28-21. He felt the poor footing cost the Eagles that game – Van Buren fell twice just coming out of the huddle – and he was afraid it might happen again. However, NFL commissioner Bert Bell insisted the game be played as scheduled.
"You look at the pictures and the field looks terrible, but the footing wasn't that bad," Van Buren told me. "It was a lot better than the field in Chicago the year before. The only problem was seeing. It was snowing so hard I couldn't see their safety (Marshall Goldberg)."
The game was scoreless for three quarters, but the Eagles recovered a fumble at the Cardinals' 17-yard line, and four plays later, Van Buren scored a touchdown to give the Eagles a 7-0 victory and their first NFL Championship. When the final gun sounded, many of the 28,864 fans who braved the elements poured onto the field and carried Van Buren off on their shoulders.
One of Van Buren's teammates, guard Duke Maronic, described the locker room scene. "A lot of us went straight to the showers," he said. "We didn't take off our uniforms or anything, just our headgear. We stood under the hot water just to thaw out."
That day, Van Buren carried the ball 26 times for 98 yards and the lone touchdown. He put up bigger numbers in the title game the next year – 31 rushes for 196 yards in a 14-0 win over the Los Angeles Rams – but it is that first championship and the photo of him galloping through the snow that people remember. It is his signature moment, just as Sunday's game is McCoy's.
On Sunday, McCoy broke Van Buren's team record for most rushing yards in a game. Van Buren's mark was 205 yards, set in 1949 against Pittsburgh. This wasn't the first time the two had passed in the record book. In 2011, McCoy scored 20 touchdowns, 17 on the ground, surpassing the totals Van Buren set (18 touchdowns, 15 rushing) in 1945.
After Sunday's game, McCoy was asked if he knew about Van Buren. McCoy said, yes, he did. He knew Van Buren was in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He knew it was an honor to be linked with him in Eagles history.
Van Buren and McCoy could be linked again later this month. McCoy leads the NFL with 1,305 yards rushing. With Minnesota's Adrian Peterson hobbled and questionable for Sunday's game, the path is clear for McCoy to win the rushing title. If he does, he will be the first Eagle to do so since Van Buren did it in 1949.
Van Buren is the only Eagle to win the rushing title and he won it four times in five years from 1945 through '49. He was the first player in league history to crack the 1,000-yard mark twice. It was a 12-game regular season back then, so to rush for 1,000 yards was quite a feat.
When Van Buren retired in 1951, his 5,860 yards were the most in league history. Over the years Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith took Van Buren's place as the all-time rusher, but it was Van Buren who set the bar. In my opinion, he is still the greatest back in Eagles history, and that's with all due respect to McCoy, who is a very special player.
Van Buren passed away in August 2012, but I know this: He would have been rooting for McCoy on Sunday. He was that kind of person. In 1978, when Wilbert Montgomery broke his record for rushing yards in a season, Van Buren was watching on TV with his grandchildren and cheering with every other Eagles fan. I spoke to him that night.
"I like that kid," Van Buren said, talking about Montgomery. "He's not a show off. He plays the game and plays it hard. He's going to take the Eagles to the Super Bowl." (Which, of course, he did.)
Van Buren loved the Eagles. He wore a green Eagles cap every day. That's how you could find him in the crowd at Philadelphia Park Race Track, his favorite hangout. He continued to wear his Eagles cap when he moved to the nursing home where he spent his later years. He never missed a game on TV, even the night games, although he admitted it was tough staying awake.
I'm sure Van Buren would have enjoyed watching McCoy run wild in Sunday's blizzard. I'm sure it would have reminded him of the '48 championship game. Two iconic images in Eagles history, two great backs on a field imagined by Currier and Ives. The only difference is one guy took the subway to get there.