SI Vault
 
COOL HAND DAN
Jill Lieber
October 09, 1989
Dan Hampton has been the soul of the Bears' defense for more than a decade because, whether on the field in Chicago or on the farm in Arkansas, he plays with all his heart
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 09, 1989

Cool Hand Dan

Dan Hampton has been the soul of the Bears' defense for more than a decade because, whether on the field in Chicago or on the farm in Arkansas, he plays with all his heart

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Hampton, who in his 32 years has broken 15 bones and received some 300 stitches, knows pain. In 11 seasons as a defensive tackle with the Chicago Bears, he has undergone eight arthroscopic operations, four on each knee. The right knee has been weakened by degenerative arthritis and is even more swollen and knobby than the left. When Hampton bends his right knee, he says, it feels as if miniature ball bearings were grinding against one another. To minimize the chronic burning under the kneecap, he maneuvers down stairs sideways, always stepping with the left foot first. "I can feel cold fronts moving in," he says with a smile. "Willard Scott takes a backseat to me."

Eight of his fingers are misshapen from fractures, dislocations and torn tendons. He can't fully extend either hand. Though that doesn't prevent him from playing his favorite instruments, the bass guitar and alto sax, Hampton now struggles on the acoustic guitar, piano, organ and fiddle, none of which used to be a problem. His handshake is soft because his fingers are tender. Bears wide receiver Dennis Gentry has invented the Hampton High Five—the bent fingertips of one hand tapping against the bent fingertips of the other. "It's more like a Claw Five," Hampton says.

His right ring finger is particularly gruesome, the result of a 1983 training-camp scrimmage in which the ligament was ripped from the bone near the middle knuckle. Hampton ordered Chicago trainer Fred Caito to place the finger in a splint so he could continue playing. Afterward, Hampton refused to have surgery when he was told he might miss the entire season. Infection set in, and the bones in the joint eventually fused. Today the first knuckle is a pink lump; the second is purplish and three times normal size.

"That finger hurt so bad for a year and a half, I thought about having it cut off," says Hampton. "I'm banking on medical technology, hoping that a Teflon joint will be the answer."

Despite the injuries and operations, Hampton has missed only 10 games in his career. He once suggested the NFL rename the headings in its weekly injury report, which lists players as probable, questionable and doubtful. "They would be closer to the truth," he said, "if the league made the categories Sissy, Pussing Out and Squirreling Out." Though he says he has never taken a painkilling injection to play, he admits having scarfed plenty of pain pills.

"When I die, I envision Rod Serling coming down and saying, 'You have come through the Twilight Zone of geriatric hell,' " says Hampton. "The guys kid me that I don't have to fill out a donor card because nobody will want to take any part of my body, it's so beaten up. They'll say, 'This guy's shot, throw him on the junk heap.' "

Hampton insists that his willingness to play with pain and while injured has nothing to do with trying to prove how tough he is. Instead, he says, it has everything to do with commitment to himself and to his teammates. "There are a lot of guys in the NFL who go out and want to look pretty," he says. "They play the game when it's easy. But it's nice to know when you come into the locker room that you've played your guts out. You may have gotten hurt and you may not feel real good, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you gave your all."

Pride and a love for the game have helped make Hampton the league's most consistently excellent defensive player of the 1980s and one of the best ever to have played tackle. "Dan is a definite Hall of Famer," says Bears coach Mike Ditka, who already is enshrined in Canton. "He rates up there with the very best. Dan reminds me a lot of Bob Lilly, although he'll never get the recognition Bob got."

Buddy Ryan, the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and the former defensive coordinator of the Bears, says, "I don't want to get into comparing him, but nobody has played tackle better than Hampton. And surely no one has played it with more heart. Dan's my hero."

A 6'5", 275-pound bull of a pass rusher, Hampton is the one Chicago player on whom opposing offensive coordinators focus their game plans. No offensive lineman can block him alone. He has tremendous reflexes and quickness and the unusual ability to move with equal effectiveness to the right or left. Most pass rushers have a favorite move to get to the quarterback, but Hampton's package of tricks includes almost every technique—among them the Rip, the Swim and the Slap.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7