Stephen [Steve] Van Buren was a professional American football player in the early days of American professional football. He played for the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League [NFL] from 1944 to 1951. He played at the half back position and is still considered one of the best football carriers ever. He was considered outstanding then and was elected to the Football Hall of Fame in 1965, fourteen years after his last professional game.
Steve was born on December 28, 1920 in Cieba, Honduras, where his father was a fruit inspector, presumable before the fruit was shipped to the United States. Before he was 10 years old, both of his parents died and he and his brother were sent to New Orleans to live with their grandparents.
Upon entering Warren Easton High School in New Orleans, he decided to try out for the football team. The coach took one look at him and told him to forget it because he only weighed 125 pounds. Apparently he was seriously disappointed not to be able to play on the football team and decided to drop out of High School and go to work in an iron foundry.
After two years in the foundry, Steve decided that High School was not such a bad place to be. Steve had gained 30 pounds and again applied for the football team and was accepted. He did not just become one of their players, but turned out to be the best player on the team. Being two years older and more mature than the younger team members probably helped.
Before High School graduation, Steve was offered an athletic scholarship by Louisiana State University and accepted it. While there he led in points at 110 and in touchdowns at 16, the highest on any college team in the country that year. He started as an end, but during the last two years of his college career, he was their star running back. With such exposure, it was not a surprise that he was drafted in the first round of the 1944 professional football draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.
From 1944 through 1951, Steve led the Philadelphia Eagles to two National Football League championships and three Eastern Division titles. His style of play was described as ‘pile-driving rushes’. During his first season, he ran for 444 yards in nine games. During that year he also led the league in returning punts.
During his second season in 1946 with the Eagles, Steve led the NFL in rushing for the first time. He would repeat that feat in 1947, 1948 and 1949. In doing so he became the first running back in NFL history to win the rushing title for three consecutive years.
In the 1948 season, Steve scored 50 touchdowns for the Eagles, setting the record for most touchdowns scored in a season. Only three other players since that time have managed to equal that feat. They were Jim Brown (1957–1961, 1963–1965) twice, Earl Campbell (1978–1980), and Emmitt Smith (1991–1993). All four, including Steve are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Van Buren's signature game came on December 26, 1948. Playing in a blizzard for the NFL Championship against the Chicago Cardinals, Van Buren scored the only touchdown of the game to give the Eagles their first league title. They would win their second crown a year later against the Rams. In that game, he set a league record with 196 yards rushing.
Steve almost missed the game. Assuming that the game would not be played in the blizzard, he remained home until Eagles coach Earle "Greasy" Neale called him and told him the game was still on. He had to catch 3 trolleys and walk 6 blocks in order to make the game on time.
Due to a knee injury before the 1952 season, Steve retired as the NFL record holder for career rushing distance at 5,860 yards, and career rushing touchdowns at 69. He also broke Clarke Hinkle's record of 3,860 yards on October 3, 1949, when he rushed for 135 yards on 33 attempts and scored two touchdowns in a 22-14 win over the Detroit Lions.
Steve also scored three times returning kickoffs, three times on receptions, and twice on punt returns for a total of 77 touchdowns. He was also the first running back to pass 1,000 yards in a season twice. He was a fast and powerful back, was 6 feet and one inch tall and weighed 205 pounds.
Following his playing career, Steve worked for the Eagles as personnel director, scout and public relations aide. For a while he also was a minor league coach and executive
Stephen [Steve] Van Buren, the Hall of Fame halfback remained in Pennsylvania following his professional football career and lived in Lancaster. He was born on December 28, 1920 and passed away on August 23, 2012 in Lancaster from pneumonia at the age of 91. His wife Grace predeceased him. He is survived by three daughters, 16 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. There is no information whether Steve was related to President Martin Van Buren, but he probably was a distant cousin.
Steve Van Buren, Obituary, New York Times, August 24, 2012.
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