Everyone has that one dream. That “pie in the sky” idea reinforced by staunch determination.

People tell you that your idea isn’t sound or feasible. That pursing it will only lead to heartbreak and despair. That it has no chance of success. Human nature takes over. Tell someone that they “can’t” do something and it motivates them to unparalleled success. The farther away that the dream seems, the harder that you work.

This isn’t an isolated story. It’s the American Dream.

It’s been sixty-five years since Philadelphia’s own NFL Commissioner died at Franklin Field watching his two beloved Pennsylvania NFL Teams play each other.

This April is significant for Bert Bell’s memory, too. It was 1935 when Bell proposed a yearly NFL Draft, in order to preserve the viability of each team financially as well as to level the competitive playing field.

Bert Bell’s expansion NFL team having been born 90 years ago would be his vision. Sure, he could have taken the easy way out. Guy Chamberlain’s Frankford Yellow Jackets put a section of Philadelphia on the map, and won an NFL Championship in 1926.

But this was not Bert Bell’s dream. The former Penn football player loved Philadelphia, and refused to believe that one of America’s oldest metropolitan cities would not fall in love with an NFL franchise. A franchise not just for one section of the city steeped in history, but for all of Philadelphia — from the Delaware River to Center City to the suburbs. A team that shares a mascot with the United States itself.

After borrowing money to fund the franchise, and naming it after the logo from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Eagles were finally born in 1933. FDR’s “Blue Eagle” would be unveiled in the same year.

For nearly a decade, Bell’s vision was as clouded as the Eagles could not muster a winning season. Bell did everything for the floundering team, including to coach it. At the Polo Grounds in New York in 1933, the Eagles began their existence with a 56–0 loss to the Giants. 

At times, the success of Bell’s dream seemed impossible. At one point, the Eagles first ever franchise quarterback even opted for an FBI Field Job for $3,500.00 per year instead of re-signing with the team.

In 1941, after the so-called Pennsylvania Polka, Bert Bell ended up as the Head Coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1946, he replaced former Notre Dame star Elmer Layden as NFL Commissioner.

After World War II, Bell saw his dream and true love fulfilled. The Eagles were a powerhouse with Steve Van Buren and quarterback Tommy Thompson. The Eagles lost the NFL Championship Game in 1947, but won it in 1948 and 1949.

After suffering a heart attack in 1959, Bell was advised by doctors not to attend football games, to which he replied, “I’d rather die watching football than in my bed with my boots off.”

Sixty-five years ago, in October 1959, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell attended the Eagles vs. Steelers game at Franklin Field with his children. As usual for Bell,  he declined the complimentary tickets that the Eagles routinely provided for him,  preferring to sit with the fans instead.

As he looked on into the fourth quarter , the realization of the popularity of the Eagles and Steelers  — both playing in Philadelphia on this day — was evident. His realization, his answered prayers.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter of a game that the Steelers would win 24–17, Bell suffered a heart attack while sitting in the end zone section.

He would die one day later at University Hospital.

If he had lived for another fifteen months, he would have seen his Eagles win yet another World Championship at Franklin Field in 1960. Just another realization of his dream from 1933.

I have a feeling that somewhere, he knew.

Michael Thomas Leibrandt lives and works in Abington Township, Pennsylvania.

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