State Your Case: Bill Bergey
Lost in the shuffle of great middle linebackers of the 1970s
(Published November 2016)
There wasn’t a middle linebacker more valued in the 1970s than Bill Bergey.
The Cincinnati Bengals traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1974 for two first-round draft picks and a second. Yes, three premium picks for someone who chases the football, not carries it. Then the Eagles made him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL in 1976 with a four-year, $1-million contract. This in an era of Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and the Steel Curtain.
Unfortunately for Bergey, his career has not been held in the same high regard by the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame selection committee, which has never voted him to the semifinals, much less the finals.
Bergey deserves better.
Bergey became a second-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1969, who were entering just their second season of existence. He became a walk-in starter as a rookie and the franchise’s first Pro Bowl defender in his second season, helping the Bengals win their first-ever division title.
Bergey went to five Pro Bowls in the 1970s and twice was named first-team All-Pro. His 48 career takeaways rank third all-time among NFL middle linebackers behind Ray Lewis (51) and Dick Butkus (49). But Bergey missed out on NFL all-decade acclaim, finishing behind Hall-of-Famers Dick Butkus and Jack Lambert in the voting.
The Bengals were notoriously-tight fiscally under Paul Brown, so Bergey became an easy target for the fledgling World Football League when it started up in 1974. He signed a futures contract with the Florida Blazers that would take effect when his NFL contract with the Bengals expired at the end of the 1975 season. His signing bonus alone doubled his annual salary from the Bengals.
So Brown dealt his disgruntled employee to Philadelphia, an NFC team floundering without an identity. The Eagles were in the throes of seven consecutive losing seasons when Bergey arrived, winning only 28 of their previous 98 games.
But in his first season Bergey intercepted a career-high five passes and was voted team MVP as the Eagles ended their losing ways with a 7-7 finish. He went to his second Pro Bowl and was voted first-team All-NFL. The following season the Eagles went 11-3 to win their first division title since 1960, and Bergey was again voted first-team All-Pro. He was a tackling machine for the Eagles.
“His trademark was his intensity,” said his former coach Dick Vermeil. “He played the game with attitude. Every practice was a game-day for him. He could put a runner on his back and make him wonder, `Where did that Mack Truck come from?’”
The World Football League folded in 1975, and the Eagles rewarded Bergey for his impact with that $1-million deal. He returned to the Pro Bowl in 1976, 1977 and 1978, but his trips to Hawaii came to an end in 1979 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game. He spent the offseason rehabilitating his knee and returned in 1980, authoring another 100-tackle season. His Eagles allowed the fewest points and the second-fewest yards in the NFL that season on the way to a 12-4 record, an NFC championship and their first Super Bowl berth. But after a 27-10 loss to the Raiders, and at 36 years of age, Bergey retired.
But he hasn’t been forgotten — not entirely, anyway. Arkansas State, his alma mater, retired his jersey and inducted him into its Hall of Fame. The Eagles inducted him into their Hall of Fame. The cities of Buffalo, his hometown, and Philadelphia inducted Bergey into their sports halls of fame.
But his career has been forgotten by the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame selection committee. The three times he was selected team MVP of the Eagles … forgotten. That two-year window from 1974-75 when Bergey was the best middle linebacker in all of the NFL … forgotten.
And that’s wrong.
Bill Bergey and his professional career are deserving of meaningful discussion for an honor beyond school and city halls of fame.