Steve Van Buren, one of the greatest Philadelphia Eagles in franchise history, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the fearless running back on the team’s 1948 and 1949 NFL championship teams, died of pneumonia Aug. 23 in Lancaster, Pa., the team announced. He was 91.
Mr. Van Buren was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1965. He was the first Eagles player elected to the Hall. In 1994, he was selected to the NFL’s 75th-anniversary team. He won four rushing titles and was a five-time all-pro.
Nicknamed “Wham-Bam” for his quick and punishing running style, according to an Eagles release, Mr. Van Buren finished his career with 5,860 rushing yards and 77 touchdowns.
Stephen Wood Van Buren was born in La Ceiba, Honduras, on Dec. 28, 1920. His American-born father was a fruit inspector, and his mother was of Spanish heritage.
His parents died when he was 10, and he moved to New Orleans to live with his grandparents. He failed to make his high school football team as a sophomore but played well enough as a senior to earn a scholarship to Louisiana State University. He had also worked in a foundry as a teenager. “The foundry work was hard, but I liked it, and it built me up,” he told an interviewer.
The Eagles selected Mr. Van Buren out of Louisiana State in the first round of the 1944 draft. He helped turned the franchise into a perennial winner. The Eagles won three straight division titles and back-to-back NFL titles in 1948 and 1949 — the only time a team posted consecutive shutouts in championship play — with Mr. Van Buren in the backfield.
The Eagles beat the Chicago Cardinals, 7-0, at snow-covered Shibe Park for their first crown in 1948 and then blanked the Los Angeles Rams, 14-0, at the Coliseum in 1949.
A foot of snow blanketed Philadelphia the morning of the 1948 title game. Mr. Van Buren woke up, saw the snow, and went back to bed. But he woke up about an hour later and decided he should head to the stadium. So he took a bus, then a trolley, and finally the Broad Street Subway to Lehigh Avenue.
“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.”
Mr. Van Buren scored the game’s only touchdown on a 5-yard run.
The following year, Mr. Van Buren again led the Eagles as he rumbled for 196 yards on 31 carries in the title-game victory over the Rams.
Mr. Van Buren finished his eight-year career in 1951 as the NFL’s all-time rushing leader. He ranks third on the Eagles’ all-time list with 5,860 yards and is the only Eagle to finish a season as the NFL’s leading rusher. He did it four times (1945, 1947-49).
He still holds a number of Eagles records, including rushing yards in a game (205 against Pittsburgh in 1949) and consecutive games with a rushing touchdown (eight in 1947). Current Eagles running back LeSean McCoy eclipsed Mr. Van Buren’s mark for touchdowns in a season (18 in 1945) with 20 in 2011.
In retirement, Mr. Van Buren remained in the Philadelphia area. He owned a used-car lot and a dance hall.