November 5, 2009
In the 1944 NFL player draft, the Philadelphia Eagles selected the Honduran-born halfback Steve Van Buren from LSU with their first pick. The Eagles, a perennial losing team since joining the league in 1933, had combined with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1943 due to a shortage of players as a result of World War II and the “Steagles” compiled a 5-4-1 record. With the Eagles back on their own for the ’44 season, innovative Head Coach Earle “Greasy” Neale continued putting the parts together to build a contending team.
The 6’0”, 200-pound Van Buren proved to be a big part of that effort. An outstanding blend of power and speed, he excelled as a kick returner as well as a runner from scrimmage. On November 5, 1944 in a game against the Brooklyn Tigers at Ebbetts Field, he rushed for 129 yards on just 12 carries, including touchdown runs of 44 and 70 yards in the first quarter. It was all the points the Eagles needed – they added one more TD in the second quarter on a 57-yard pass play from QB Roy Zimmerman to HB Mel Bleeker and held on to win easily, 21-7, improving the team’s record to 4-0-1 (Brooklyn finished 0-10 and merged with the Boston Yanks for the 1945 season).
Van Buren ended up with 444 yards rushing on just 80 carries, for a league-leading 5.6 average gain per carry. He also averaged 15.3 yards on 15 punt returns with a 55-yard touchdown and 33.3 yards on eight kickoff returns, again including a TD on a 97-yard return. The 129-yard rushing game remained a record for an Eagles rookie until 2001. It was the first of 19 hundred-yard games in Van Buren’s Hall of Fame career that would see him lead the NFL in rushing four times, twice set the season record, and retire as the league’s career rushing leader.
As for the Eagles, they finished at 7-1-2, losing the Eastern Division title by a half game to the 8-1-1 New York Giants. With Van Buren leading the way, and supplemented by halfbacks Bleeker, Jack Hinkle, Ernie Steele, and Jack Banta, they were the NFL’s best rushing team, both in terms of yards gained (1661) and average gain per carry (3.9). They also scored the most points (267). But while they handed the Giants their only loss, ties with the Giants and Redskins kept them out of the postseason.