The Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers were in the final minutes of a close game at Franklin Field. Tommy McDonald caught a touchdown pass from Norm Van Brocklin to put the Eagles ahead, but the celebration was interrupted by the sight of an ambulance coming through the gate and rolling down the track behind the visitors bench.
From our seats in the end zone, we could see security guards rushing through the lower deck and helping to carry a man down the aisle. He was a heavy-set figure in a white shirt and he appeared to be unconscious. The police lifted him into the arms of the medical staff who put him in the ambulance and drove away.
An hour later we were riding home when we heard the news on the radio. The man we saw taken away in the ambulance was NFL commissioner Bert Bell. He was pronounced dead at University of Pennsylvania hospital, the victim of a heart attack. He was 65 years old.
The date was October 12, 1959. It was 55 years ago this week.
Today, in the age of Twitter and text messaging, the news would have spread immediately. We would have known what happened before we ever left the stadium. Back then we had no idea. But the memory of that day and watching the ambulance disappear through the gate stayed with me.
Years later, I visited Franklin Field with Bert Bell, Jr., and he talked about that day. He talked about how he went to the game with his father, brother Upton and sister Jane. His father went to sit with the Rooney family, owners of the Steelers. Bert, Upton and Jane sat with friends in the west stands. They were celebrating the McDonald touchdown when they noticed the commotion on the opposite side of the field.
"I knew right away it was my father, I could tell by the way he was dressed," Bert, Jr., said. "We rushed over but by then he was in bad shape. It happened so quickly. Going to the game he was in great spirits. He loved going to Franklin Field and it was a beautiful October day. Then just like that, he was gone."
Over the years, Bert, Jr., often reflected on that day. The more he thought about it, he came to see it in almost poetic terms. His father died in Franklin Field, where he once played quarterback for Penn. He was watching the Eagles and Steelers, two teams he owned prior to becoming NFL commissioner.
"It was my father's definition of a perfect day," Bert, Jr., said. "Sad as it was, there was something very fitting about it. There is nowhere he would have rather been. I know that."
Two days later, there was a funeral Mass for Bell at St. Margaret's Roman Catholic Church in Narberth, Pa. The church was packed with dignitaries. The owners of the 12 NFL franchises served as honorary pallbearers. Three months later, the owners elected a new commissioner, 33-year-old Pete Rozelle, who led the NFL into the Super Bowl era.
But Bell poured the foundation for the league's growth. As his daughter Jane once said, "Dad took the NFL out of the dark ages and brought it into modern times." A rich kid from Philadelphia's Main Line, Bell did not want a career in politics or Wall Street. "All I ever wanted to be," he once said, "was a football man."
Bell founded the Eagles' franchise in 1933 (he bought the rights for $2,500) and ran the team until he became commissioner in 1946. The other owners thrust him into the role because they felt he was smart enough and tough enough to see the league through difficult times. Pro football was considered a minor league operation at the time, dwarfed in popularity by baseball, college football and even horse racing and boxing.
Bell changed all that by selling the NFL to network TV, introducing the revolutionary concept of sudden death overtime (which decided the memorable 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Colts and Giants) and, in the biggest advancement of all, creating the college draft. The system allowed teams to select the top players in reverse order of finish rather than have open bidding which would favor the richer teams. It worked so well it was adopted by the other professional leagues.
"Dad got the owners to realize no matter how much they squabbled, how much they cared about their own product, that unless they stuck together, they'd all perish together," Upton Bell said. "The draft is still in effect today. Every court has tried to knock it down and it's still there."
On Tuesday night, Ray Didinger presented "A Night Of Heroes And History" in the auditorium of the NovaCare Complex to help raise funds for Eagles Youth Partnership...
Thanks to all the people who came out for Eagles Heroes, History and Highlights night at the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday evening. More than 100 people filled the auditorium to see videos on the Eagles' 1948-49 NFL championship teams as well as Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald and Brian Dawkins.
Merrill Reese, Harold Carmichael and Tra Thomas talked about their time with the Eagles and answered questions from the audience. Prizes were awarded for correct answers to trivia questions. Everyone in attendance received a copy of my book, The New Eagles Encyclopedia, and all proceeds went to the Eagles Youth Partnership.
It was a great effort on the part of Sarah Martinez-Helfman, executive director of EYP, and Rachel Weiner, manager of programs, for putting it all together.
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 Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the season for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of The New Eagles Encyclopedia, which is already among the hot sellers on Amazon.