Steve Van Buren, a Hall of Fame running back who led the Philadelphia Eagles to NFL titles in 1948 and 1949, died of pneumonia Thursday in Lancaster, Pa., the Eagles said. He was 91.
The former Louisiana State star, nicknamed "Wham-Bam" for his quick and punishing running style, joined the Eagles in 1944 as a first-round draft pick. He led the NFL in rushing four times and finished his eight-year career with 5,860 yards rushing and 77 touchdowns.
The five-time All-Pro player was selected for the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team in 1994 and was the first Eagles player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 1965.
"I've seen them all — Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski," Greasy Neale, who coached Van Buren on the Eagles, told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1957, "but he's the greatest."
In the 1948 NFL championship game, played in a driving snowstorm at Philadelphia's Shibe Park, Van Buren scored the only touchdown on a five-yard run in the fourth quarter, and the Eagles beat the Chicago Cardinals, 7-0, for the franchise's first title.
Van Buren almost didn't make it to the kickoff. A foot of snow blanketed Philadelphia the morning of the game. He woke up, saw the snow and went back to bed. But he got up about an hour later and decided he should head to the stadium. So he took a bus, then a trolley and finally the subway.
"I couldn't believe it when I got there and saw they were going to play," Van Buren said years later, according to the Eagles Encyclopedia. "It was snowing so hard you couldn't see."
A year later, this time in mud and torrential rain in Los Angeles at the Coliseum, Van Buren ran for 196 yards, and the Eagles beat the Rams, 14-0, to become the first — and only — team to shut out opponents in consecutive championships.
When the 6-foot, 1-inch, 200-pound Van Buren suffered a leg injury in training camp before the 1952 season, he retired as the NFL's career rushing leader.
"I used to take maybe six [pain-killing injections] each half," Van Buren once told the Philadelphia Daily News. "Into the ribs. And the big toe, too. Once you hurt that big toe, it never gets better.... The only time [the shots] bothered me was when they hit the bone. The needle would bend and sometimes it would break. I didn't like it."
Van Buren was born Dec. 28, 1920, in Honduras, where his father was a fruit inspector. After his parents died when he was 10, he was raised in New Orleans by his grandparents. He failed to make his high school football team as a sophomore but after working in a steel mill and gaining 35 pounds, he played well enough as a senior to receive a scholarship to LSU.
In his senior season with the Tigers, Van Buren led the nation in scoring with 98 points and rushed for 847 yards. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. Vision problems kept him out of the military during World War II.
Van Buren's younger brother Ebert also played for the Eagles, from 1951 to '53.
Besides his brother, Van Buren is survived by three daughters.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times