When Philadelphia Eagles fans talk about the greatest linebackers in franchise history, Bill Bergey’s name is on that list. Like Chuck Bednarik before him, Bergey became a fan favorite in the city. Bergey recalled, “I affectionately say to every Eagles fan that I have signed autographs for, and people still want autographs, it is pretty cool.”
Bergey started playing organized football at South Dayton High School in western New York. According to Bergey, “I started in the ninth grade. I played playground football before that.”
After high school, Bergey attended Arkansas State University because they were, “The only place that would take me.” According to Bergey, “I played football at a Class C school. There were 47 in our graduating class. We barely had enough guys to play football. So we never even had any films for our football games. I had my guidance director when I was a senior write to maybe eight or ten colleges, and two of them responded. One was the University of New Mexico and the other one was Arkansas State University.”
Bergey recalled how he arrived at his decision: “Now, I was from western New York, between Buffalo and Jamestown. So, I got my map out and saw where Arkansas State was closer than New Mexico, so I decided to go ahead and pursue Arkansas State.”
He detailed, “The [Arkansas State] coaches were in New York City at a coach’s convention. They had asked to see me. It looked like it was going to be good for recruiting for them, having a kid from western New York play football for them at Arkansas State and they asked if I would be willing to go to New York City where they are having a coach’s convention. I said ‘Yes.’ Unbeknownst to me, from where I was in New York, it was about 425 miles away. We went to New York City. We packed up a couple of scrapbooks that I had put together and I just pleaded for any kind of scholarship help that they could give to me, because I didn’t have any money at all. They gave me a partial scholarship.”
Recalling his days at the university, Bergey said, “I went down to Arkansas State and red-shirted my first year. Then, I started four years in a row. I didn’t start at linebacker. It was kind of a platoon system that we had. I was an offensive guard and a nose guard. After a couple of plays, that whole unit would go out and another unit would come in. My junior year, they moved me to linebacker. I was standing up and could see everything. Things just started to click for me.” He continued, “I was a pretty good athlete. I could run real fast. I was big enough. I started out at linebacker in college around 232 or 234 [pounds]. I made All-American. I played in the North-South Game and the Senior Bowl. I played in one of the last Chicago All-Star Games against the world champion New York Jets at the time.”
The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Bergey in the second round of the 1969 NFL draft. “Cincinnati was in the second year of their franchise and they needed a linebacker,” recalled Bergey. “I was about two weeks late getting to the Bengals and I looked at the two linebackers they had and I said, ‘If you don’t beat out one of those guys, you don’t belong in the game of pro football.’” He started in his first game with the Bengals and continued to start the remainder of his career.
Bergey loved playing for the legendary Paul Brown while in Cincinnati. “Paul Brown was a great guy,” commented Bergey. “I loved him. I really liked his values. He loved his players being married. He loved his players having kids. He wanted to see his players have responsibilities off the field, too. He encouraged us to go to church on Sunday morning before we played football Sunday afternoon.” Then Bergey commented on Brown’s coaching style, “[He was] a very scientific guy. He would run out to a wide receiver and tell him to take a half-a-step out on a pattern. He was very quiet and soft spoken, but if you really did something stupid, he would really rip into you. He would embarrass you in front of all of your teammates, which was pretty tough. He didn’t mind if you got knocked flat on your ass, but if you are going into the right hook area when you should have been going left, he really had a big-time problem with that. He was one of the first coaches that measured the intelligence of a football player by these tests that he had for us, to see how much we could grasp at one time. Since then, the [NFL] Players Association has outlawed that.”
Reminiscing on his time with Cincinnati, Bergey said, “I enjoyed playing with the Bengals. I remember much more about playing for the Bengals than I did with the Eagles, if you believe it or not.” He continued, “I got married. I had kids. I had three sons. Nobody got paid a lot of money. On an off day, a lot of players would get together and play cards or have a pot luck supper or something like that. All of that stuff was pretty cool.”
In 1974, Bergey signed a futures contract to play in the upstart World Football League. “It was strictly the money. I will make no bones about it. I was making $37,000 with Paul Brown. The World Football League came along and offered me, I think it was, $625,000 for three years guaranteed, no cut, no trade. I think you can do the math on that. I was strictly in it for the cash.” Bergey signed the contract and cashed the signing bonus check.
That upset Paul Brown. “Paul Brown took me to court, stating that ‘It impairs the integrity of any professional athlete to play for one ball club and to be compensated by another,’” recalled Bergey. “I had already received an $80,000 bonus from the World Football League and that was more than twice my salary. I had one more year under Paul Brown. I had said that ‘I would honor that one year and then I was going on to the World Football League.’ We had the biggest, most unbelievable court battle you can imagine in Philadelphia. I never cried ‘Uncle.’ I knew that I was doing the right thing. I won the court battle. I won the appeal, and I pretty much pissed Paul Brown off and he was not going to have anything to do with me.”
At this point in his career, Bergey could not go back to the Bengals. However, things were not great with the World Football League (WFL), either. Bergey recalled, “My team with the World Football League was Norfolk, which moved to Washington. From Washington, it moved to Orlando. I had flown down there to see what my situation was. The managing general partner told me, ‘The contract that they signed you to was absolutely unbelievable. I can’t believe that anybody would sign you to a contract like that.’ It made me feel like I wasn’t wanted. So, now my head is spinning and I don’t know what to do. I am a very confused young man right now.” He was paid a signing bonus to play in the WFL, but it appeared as though his contract was not going to be honored. Bergey said, “I had to give my [WFL] bonus monies back, but the people in Norfolk wanted it. The people in Washington wanted it. The people in Orlando wanted it. That is when I got very tough. I was ready to do whatever the heck I had to do. We eventually gave the money back to the original guy that gave it to me.”
However, all hope was not lost. Bergey had a few suitors, but the strongest was the Philadelphia Eagles. Bergey said, “Mike McCormack, who was the head coach of Philadelphia, was pursuing me to see if he could get a middle linebacker and go to the Super Bowl. One player does not make a team.” He continued, “I had a chance to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, but I also could have gone to Green Bay, Denver, New Orleans or the Washington Redskins.” The Bengals traded Bergey to the Eagles. “I ended up going on to Philadelphia, and at that time, it was for two number one round draft picks and a number two round draft choice.”
The move was tough on his family, but it turned out well in the end. “We got traded to Philadelphia,” said Bergey. “We moved to the big city. It is almost as if I am now a star. It was really tough on my wife. The demands on my time were unbelievable. This is not a knock on Philadelphia. As a matter of fact, this is a big plus for Philadelphia. I enjoyed playing for Philadelphia. It has been great. That is why I decided to make Philadelphia my home.”
After his first year with the Eagles, Bergey knew that he made the right decision. “I played pretty good football my first year in Philadelphia. I was runner-up to ‘Mean’ Joe Green for Defensive Player of the Year. I made consensus All-Pro at linebacker. Everything connected in Philadelphia. I had an affair with the fans in Philadelphia and it worked out very, very nicely.”
When asked to comment on the differences between the Philadelphia Eagles organization and the Cincinnati Bengals organization, Bergey said, “The Bengals were known for the tight buck.” He continued, “It was almost impossible to get anything out of Paul Brown. He was always fair with me, I thought. It was just like going from Division III college football to Division I. Not saying that Philadelphia was that much better. As far as the organization, the way things were run. Paul Brown did not want to have any superstars on his team. One time, I had a great game against the Green Bay Packers. This television guy wanted me to do an interview with him right after the game. I knew that it would be pretty cool and I said to Paul, ‘There is this guy from the TV station who wants to interview me and do you think that would be good for the franchise?’ Paul Brown told me not to do it. In Philadelphia, something like that never would have happened. They would want to get all of the ink that they could possibly get. It was more of a family business [in Cincinnati]. I am not knocking that either, but it was just more of a family business. Mike Brown being the lawyer of the ball club. When we would have an away game, everybody would eat together, which is fine. Everybody would have to go to a movie together. That is fine. The food was the same thing every single time. It was prime rib. It was peas. It was a baked potato and it was pie a la mode. That was our meal every single time we went anywhere. In Philadelphia, they give you meal money and you go out and eat wherever you want to eat. Some were gourmets and some were greasers. The gourmets would find a three, four or five-star restaurant and really dine very, very nicely. Then, there were players that would get a bag full of McDonalds hamburgers and head to their room and eat it and pocket the money.”
In 1976, Mike McCormack was out and Dick Vermeil was the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. In Bergey’s opinion, he was a welcome change. “Dick Vermeil instilled the discipline that was so obviously lacking by the Eagles’ players. When he first came in, I looked at him and said, ‘This has got to be the hairiest high school coach I think I have ever seen in my life.’ It was the simple stuff, like you don’t take a knee on the field unless you are told to take a knee. You keep your chinstrap buckled all the time. We will have a water break when we want to give you a water break.”
However, not all of the Eagles’ players were on board, but for those who bought into Vermeil’s program, a certain chemistry was formed. “When we went to Super Bowl XV and when we played the Oakland Raiders, from the time he got there until the time we played that football game, I think there were eight or maybe nine of us left over, and I tell you that there is a bond between those guys and Dick Vermeil that you will never, ever see again. He appreciated us for the way we bought in and the way he did things. We stuck with him all the way. We became his leaders and the whole thing worked out real well.”
The Eagles continued to improve under Vermeil’s leadership. But, a serious knee injury in the third game of the 1979 season threatened to end Bergey’s career. He recalled, “I didn’t know [if I could come back]. I knew that we were getting close [to the end of my career].”
With extensive rehab, Bergey was able to come back for the 1980 season, but it would be his last. He recalled, “If I was at one time a 100 percent football player, after my knee injury, I don’t think I got past 65 percent. When I was on top of my game, I could diagnose a play and get to a spot to almost wait for a ball carrier. After the knee injury, I could still diagnose a play, but by the time I could get to that spot, the ball carrier was gone. Nobody had to tell me that it was my time. I would always be up in the two hundreds, as far as tackles goes. I think that the year we went to the Super Bowl, I played in every game and played on every play. I think that I was around 135 tackles. It was just absolutely dreadful. I used to watch film, and I would remember, ‘Gosh, I used to be able to make that play and it was so easy to make that play.’ I just couldn’t make it anymore. That’s when it was time for me to hang up the old strap.”
Even if Bergey did not have his best season, the Eagles had a magical run to the Super Bowl. He recalled the feeling throughout the city that year, “When we went to the Super Bowl, everybody went crazy. The people, they just got so fanatical about everything. Even when the Eagles went to the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, it was the same way. I would just love to see the Eagles go and win one Super Bowl and see what this town would be like. I can’t really envision it, but I can envision it, too. It would just turn this place upside down.”
Bergey retired after the 1980 season. He recalled, “Dick Vermeil, my wife, several other people at my news conference, everybody was crying. My attitude was, ‘Hey, that part of my life is over. I can feel bad about it, or I can turn around and do a big one-eighty and make something happen.’ I just did that and I got into some businesses and everything worked out for me. I was in the hospitality business. I was a part owner of some hotels, golf courses and stuff like that. Everything has worked out real good for me.” Bergey also spent time in broadcasting, “I did TV and radio. In fact, after 23 years on the radio, I just retired from that.”
In 2012, Bergey was inducted into the Professional Football Researchers Association’s (PFRA) Hall of Very Good. The Hall of Very Good is the PFRA’s way of honoring players who have had excellent careers, but are not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bergey commented, “My oldest son called me and said that I was nominated for this. That is wonderful!” He continued, “I appreciate this. Thank you for this nice honor.”
When Bergey was asked about all of the awards and accolades bestowed upon him over the years, he commented, “I have a feeling that this [Hall of Very Good induction] is going to be as special as any of them. I am in eight or nine of these things. When I heard this through my son, I thought this was pretty cool. For me to be on the Eagles’ Honor Roll, that is special to me. I am on [Arkansas State’s] Wall of Fame, too. I was the first person to go up there. That one is pretty special to me, too. A little while ago, [Arkansas State] had a poll and I was named the best player ever to go through Arkansas State. That is a pretty heavy thing.” He finished by saying, “My wife just said, ‘Don’t forget that they retired your number!’”
The Eagles fans always have a special place in Bergey’s heart. They loved and supported him throughout his time in the city. He would sign every autograph and talk to every fan. He knows what the team means to the fans in Philadelphia. Bergey lovingly described the typical Philadelphia Eagles fan, “He won’t take a vacation. He won’t buy a new car if he needs one. He would not buy new furniture for his house. But that guy, come hell or high water, renews his season tickets every single year. That is just the way the Eagles fans are.”
Bill Bergey still lives in the Philadelphia area.
• Member of the Arkansas State University Hall of Heroes
• Jersey retired by Arkansas State University
• Voted by fans as the Best Player in Arkansas State University History (1976)
• Philadelphia Eagles’ Honor Roll (1988)
• Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame (1989)
• Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame (2004)
• Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame (2011)
• Inducted into the Professional Football Researchers Association’s Hall of Very Good (2012)
Ken Crippen is the executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association. He has researched and written about pro football history for over two decades. He won the Pro Football Writers of America’s Dick Connor Writing Award for Feature Writing and was named the Ralph Hay Award winner by the Professional Football Researchers Association for lifetime achievement on pro football history.
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