If you ever went down Ocean City’s Battersea Road in the early 1980s, you might have seen a man with broad shoulders and enormous hands sitting in a boat under a mimosa tree in his yard, smoking a cigar and reading the newspaper.
The man, George Savitsky, was an oral surgeon and proud father of five. And he was one of the greatest college football players of all time.
Football was never the No. 1 priority for Savitsky, a longtime Ocean City resident who passed away Sept. 4 at 88 from pneumonia. But he was an All-American in each of his four years at Penn, an NFL champion in both his seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, and a bitter but respected practice rival of legendary Eagle Chuck Bednarik.
“He was very humble about his football career,” his daughter Laurie Long said in an interview last week with his widow, Doris, and four of his five children in Somers Point.
Savitsky starred at Camden High School before spending two years in the Marines near the end of World War II. At Penn, where he played tackle from 1944-47, he helped the Quakers to an undefeated record in his senior season and is believed to be the only player since 1901 to be a four-time All-American.
The 6-foot-3 Savitsky was drafted by his hometown Eagles and helped them win the NFL championship in both 1948 and 1949. The latter year, he was joined by his former Penn teammate, Bednarik.
“When I first saw George Savitsky at the University of Pennsylvania, I remember thinking, ‘This guy is about the biggest person I’ve ever seen,’ ” Bednarik said in an email. “George played at about 250 pounds, which was huge for those days, and he was a great player at Penn in the days when we were a power in college football.
“He was a good athlete for his size, and we banged heads more than a few times at both Penn and with the Eagles. George never backed down and we had some scuffles in practice. We grew friendly in later years but went at it pretty good in practice.”
Famed White House correspondent Lester Kinsolving, another former Penn teammate, wrote in 2002 that going up against Savitsky in practice taught him “what it is like to be run over by the Pennsylvania Railroad.”
But football was just a means to an end for Savitsky. On the train home from the 1949 NFL championship game in Los Angeles, he told Hall of Fame coach Greasy Neale that he planned to quit football and go to dental school.
“Greasy Neale said, ‘Yeah, we’ll see,’ ” said Savitsky’s son Joseph, 53, a retired Coca-Cola Bottling Company employee who lives in Ocean City. “ ‘We’ll see. You’re not done. You’ve got a long career ahead of you, George.’ And he said, ‘No, Greasy, this is it.’ ”
Savitsky used the money he made in the NFL to put himself through dental school at Penn, and he worked until 1986 as a dentist, doctor of dental surgery and then an oral surgeon. He and Doris — he died two days before their 60th wedding anniversary — raised five children: Linda (Bonato), George Jr., Laurie (Long), Joseph and Lisa (Duffy).
Savitsky didn’t forget about football entirely, though. He still attended practices and remained close with some ex-teammates. His son George Jr. remembered hanging out on the sidelines and in the locker room at Franklin Field for Eagles games.
“I was 5 or 6 years old. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t see my classmates there,” George Jr., 58, a retired teacher in Refton, Pa., said in a recent phone interview. “Because I figured everybody’s father did this.”
All five of Savitsky’s children said he never pushed sports on them. But when George Jr. played football for Ocean City High School and eventually Millersville University, his father taught him his best blocking techniques — including judo. George Jr. now coaches high school football in Pennsylvania.
“I’d come home from a football game and he’d say, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ ” said Savitsky Jr., who looks so much like his father that Eagles legend Al Wistert once mistook him for George Sr. “And he’d show me. … And then he’d start telling me about how dirty people he played against were. He’d show me his tongue. His tongue was unbelievable. Just cut up and sliced up. I couldn’t believe it how bad the surface of his tongue was, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, well, you know, you get punched all the time.’ ”
Savitsky first bought a home in Ocean City in 1966, and he moved to the island fulltime in 1982, spending the last four years of his medical career commuting from there to Woodbury before retiring in 1986.
“He’d always bring me flowers on Fridays,” said Doris, a retired nurse. “Gladiolas.”
In retirement, he had a number of hobbies. He played golf at Greate Bay Country Club in Somers Point and, according to his son Joseph, had a single-digit handicap. He was a member of the Archie Harris Booster Club, which supported the Ocean City High School football team. He was part of a men’s group that met on the Boardwalk near the Music Pier and discussed sports and the TV show “Judge Judy.”
“They were all addicted to ‘Judge Judy,’ these men,” Doris said. “And they would discuss the case. ‘How do you think she handled the case?’ I would laugh at that.”
He loved cigars. A poster-sized photo of him playing for Penn is now tinted yellow, and his family blames the cigar smoke that constantly filled the garage. Most of his shirts had burn holes. When his doctors made him quit smoking in the later years, he still tried to light up frequently.
“He’d go, ‘Who says!’ (when told he couldn’t smoke),” said his daughter Lisa, 51, a retired U.S. Postal Service employee who lives in Somers Point.
And then there was the boat — Savitsky yelled so much when he took it out on the water that everyone eventually refused to go anymore. So the boat found a permanent home on a trailer in their yard, and Savitsky would sit in it each morning, reading the newspaper and smoking a cigar. His family called it “Chub’s Tub.”
“It got to the point where we didn’t even have to ask where he was,” said his daughter Linda, 59, a retired dental hygienist who lives in Upper Township.
Savitsky always made himself available to help his children with anything. He drove out to George Jr.’s home near Lancaster to help build a deck and put an addition on his house. His family referred to him as “Mr. Fix-It” — probably something he got from his mother, Anna, who was said to have put a new roof on her garage at age 77. Savitsky even sewed his own clothes.
While his short-term memory went later in life, Savitsky retained a sharp mind. Just a week before his passing, Doris brought in a copy of a newspaper reporting that his former teammate, Steve Van Buren, had died.
“Your quarterback died,” she said, pointing to a picture of Van Buren.
“That’s not my quarterback,” he responded. “I blocked for that guy! That’s my running back.”
He didn’t talk much about his playing career unless he was asked.
“He didn’t just sit around and talk about it,” said his daughter Laurie, 55, a retired nurse who lives in Ocean City.
But he cried when he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991. And he cherished being treated like royalty at Eagles alumni events.
Savitsky’s family unanimously agreed that he never regretted quitting football, though. Neighbors in Ocean City knew him as “Doc,” and that’s the way he liked it.
“He was very happy with the decision he made,” Joseph Savitsky said.
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