When the NFL picked its 75th Anniversary Team in 1994, Steve Van Buren was selected as one of the running backs. He was on the list with Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, and Bronko Nagurski, the greatest runners of all time.
Van Buren, who led the Eagles to back-to-back NFL Championships in 1948 and '49, was surprised when he learned of the honor.
"I didn't think they'd remember me," he said with typical modesty.
Van Buren passed away in 2012 at the age of 91, but I'm sure he would have the same reaction now when he was selected as one of the top dozen runners on the NFL 100 All-Time Team which was voted on by a panel of experts as part of the league's 100-year celebration.
The list includes some of the game's greatest names. In addition to Brown, Payton, Sayers, and Simpson, the panel chose Lenny Moore (Colts), Dutch Clark (Lions), Earl Campbell (Oilers), Emmitt Smith (Cowboys), Eric Dickerson (Rams), and Barry Sanders (Lions).
Van Buren would probably say he doesn't belong, but he surely does. Any list of the game's top runners that doesn't include "The Moving Van" is incomplete. He wasn't only the best running back of his era, he was the dominant player of the 1940s.
He still holds the Eagles' record for career rushing touchdowns with 69. Wilbert Montgomery is a distant second with 45. He is fourth in career rushing yardage (5,860) even though he played in an era when the seasons were shorter (10 or 12 games) and the defensive lines were stacked to stop the run.
He was the first Eagle voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Class of 1965). While the team has had other very good backs – Montgomery, LeSean McCoy, Brian Westbrook, Ricky Watters, Duce Staley, and Timmy Brown – I still believe Van Buren is the best in franchise history.
It is hard for fans today to appreciate just how great Van Buren was. Most of the players from that era are gone, so they can't talk about all the things the 6-1, 210-pound Van Buren could do. There isn't much film from that time either, just a few highlights shot from high above and they don't do justice to his speed and power.
I think the best comparison for Van Buren is John Riggins, who was a league MVP and Super Bowl MVP with Washington. Like Riggins, Van Buren was a big man who combined a fullback's power with a halfback's speed. Both men were high school sprinters, so when they broke through the line, they could run away from the defense.
A few Van Buren highlights:
• He led the league in rushing four times from 1945 through '49.
• He scored 18 touchdowns in a 10-game season in 1945.
• He scored the winning touchdown in the 1948 NFL Championship Game.
• He rushed for 196 yards in the 1949 championship game, a postseason record that stood for 38 years.
• He retired as the NFL's all-time leading rusher. His 5,860 yards was finally surpassed by Jim Brown. The record is now held by Emmitt Smith.
"Steve was the best runner in the game," said Bosh Pritchard, who played in the backfield with Van Buren for the championship seasons. "People thought I was fast but Steve could outrun me. I never saw anyone bring Steve down one-on-one. He'd lower his shoulder and run right through them."
Earle (Greasy) Neale, who coached the Eagles from 1941 through 1950, said Van Buren was the greatest runner he ever saw, better than Nagurski and Red Grange, better than Jim Thorpe and Ernie Nevers.
Perhaps the simplest way to establish Van Buren's greatness is to look at the team's record. The Eagles never finished higher than third place in the years prior to his arrival. After he joined the team as a first-round draft pick in 1944, the Eagles became a powerhouse. In 1949, they were 11-1 in the regular season, the best win percentage in franchise history.
"Steve was our paycheck," said Frank (Bucko) Kilroy, the All-Pro guard. "He could do everything. He was the best blocking back in the league. He could catch the ball. He could return punts and kickoffs. And there was no one better running with the ball. Steve was the prototype (back) that every team has been looking for ever since."
The Eagles were a great team in the years immediately after World War II. They had a Hall of Fame coach (Neale), a Hall of Fame receiver (Pete Pihos), and two Hall of Fame linemen (Chuck Bednarik and Alex Wojciechowicz), but they all agreed Van Buren was the player who set them apart.
I never had the chance to see Van Buren play but I had the pleasure of getting to know him years later. When I was covering the Eagles in the '70s, Van Buren sat in the back row of the press box watching the game. He was there to shake Montgomery's hand when he broke Van Buren's Eagles rushing record in 1978. I asked if he had any regrets seeing his record fall.
"Wilbert's a great player. He's better than I was," Van Buren said. "Why shouldn't he have the record?"
I have the utmost respect for Wilbert – the Eagles would not have gone to Super Bowl XV without him – but he wasn't better than Steve Van Buren. I'm glad the panel selecting the greatest players of the NFL's 100 years saved a spot for him.
When you think about the running backs who didn't make it – Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, Franco Harris, even Nagurski didn't make the cut this time – you understand what an honor it is.
Steve Van Buren would never say so, but he deserves it.
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of hisEagles History columns here.He is also the author ofThe Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition which is in bookstores now.