Events honoring Hilliard and Bednarik spotlight Liberty's sports legacy

Two Liberty and Bethlehem sports icons were feted last week.

Two Liberty High sports icons. Two different sports. Two very different generations.

But make no mistake, while they are two very different people, Chuck Bednarik and Darrun Hilliard featured the same work ethic and desire to succeed.

That's why a plaque of Bednarik was dedicated inside Memorial Gym on Friday afternoon and why, maybe, Hilliard will have the same honor one day.

Both men took center stage last week.

Hilliard was featured on Wednesday night as part of a special Villanova night at the SteelStacks sponsored by the Christmas City Classic, the high school basketball tournament held in honor of the late George Yasso and Todd Rothrock.

Hilliard, who is coming off a big sophomore season with the Wildcats, is looking forward to two more years filled with promise on the Main Line.

Two days later, Bednarik took a bow as Liberty honored him in two separate ceremonies culminating with the unveiling of a new statue at Bethlehem Area School District Stadium.

Current Liberty student-athletes enjoyed the Bednarik festivities and would have loved the question-and-answer session with Hilliard. The Hurricanes boys basketball team saw both events.

Hopefully they got more out of it than just a night out or time out of the classroom. Hopefully, the idea that hard work can lead to success resonated.

"You try to get that message across to kids and these two very special events brought it home," Liberty basketball coach Chad Landis said. "Bethlehem has changed a lot over the years, but a lot of those underlying principles are all over the place around here."

During his presentation, Hilliard was asked about getting up at 5 in the morning — even in the dead of winter — to get to the gym and get in a workout with assistant coach Mike Bachman long before school began.

"Every single day when I got up at 5 in the morning, my mother was up before me and getting ready for work," Hilliard said. "That was part of my motivation. Seeing her do that drove me and kept me going. My father, too, was getting up and motivating me. He'd tell me 'I know this is tough, but one day something great is going to happen out of this.'

"There were days when Coach Bachman would be at my door at 5 in the morning and I'd be like 'Oh man, I want to fall back asleep.' But he wouldn't let me. I didn't really appreciate that then, but I do now."

Bednarik got the same prodding a coach who played a special role in his life.

In Bednarik's case it was football coach John Butler.

"If it wasn't for Liberty High and John Butler there wouldn't be a legend of 'Concrete Charlie' because he was about a week away from going to work with his father at open hearth No. 4 at Bethlehem Steel," Ken Sofranek, Bednarik's son-in-law son, said.

"It was Butler who said 'You dumb Slovak, you're not going to any steel mill. You're going to the University of Pennsylvania' and that's how it all started."

Bednarik never worked at the Bethlehem Steel, but the place's grit, grime and blue-collar mentality drove him to greatness.

The Steel was gone long before Hilliard made his best shot for Liberty, but the residue of what has made Bethlehem perhaps the area's premier athlete-producer remains in the city's fabric.

From Billy Packer to Hilliard, from Mike Hartenstine to Dan Persa and from Concrete Charlie to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, there's something unique about Bethlehem that brings out the best in people who aspire to greatness.

"I loved this town and this school," Pete Carril, another Bethlehem legend, said after Bednarik's ceremony. "All I wanted to after graduating from here was come back and coach. But it was hard to do because this was a very attractive place. So, I started my career at Easton instead."

Carril did all right form himself as so many Bethlehem natives have.

"The Bethlehem Steel company left a lot of smoke all over the town, but it made people happy because you were happy to work there," Carril said. "You felt a lot of pride."

The pride of Bethlehem and Liberty was on display last week and while plaques and statues are nice, it's even better to have living, breathing icons around to inspire.

"It's all about working hard," Hilliard said. "If you work hard, you can be better than Darrun Hilliard. You can win a state championship. It can happen."

Hilliard's Q-and-A and reunion of Villanova's 1985 national title team can be seen 8 p.m. Tuesday and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on Service Electric TV2.

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