SI Vault
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
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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

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Because of his aching back, says Terry, Dan watches television from the living room floor, flat on his back with his legs elevated on a chair. She often catches him squishing his knees for signs of fluid. On his worst mornings she has to dress him. "He'll sit on the side of the bed, and I'll know he can't do it," says Terry. "He won't have to ask. I can sense it. I put his underwear on him, pull up his pants to where he can grab them and slip his socks and shoes on him. I'll ask him if he wants me to drive him to practice because I can't imagine him crunched up in a car, and he'll say, 'Oh no, no. I have a license.' "

Moments like these cause Terry to explode. "We bump heads," says Terry, who has been married to Dan for 10 years. "I am very supportive. I want it because he wants it. But not if he won't be able to walk when he's 35 or 40—then it absolutely will not have been worth it."

Lanny Johnson, Hampton's orthopedist, had the same concern last January before performing arthroscopic surgery on Hampton for the fourth time. The night before he removed hundreds of cartilage fragments from Hampton's left knee, Johnson initiated a heart-to-heart talk with his patient. "T told Dan he had better start thinking about what he's going to do after football," says Johnson. "I don't like to see people come up to the end without having thought about it. A lot of his personal identity is tied up in the game."

Hampton has thought about the end. He is in the final season of a contract that pays him $850,000 this year, the highest salary among the Bears. He hopes to return for the 1990 season, which would make him the only Bear ever to have played in three decades. "To a point, I'm ready to go on to the next phase," he says. "I'm tired of this one. To be the best, you have to play with your soul and every fiber. I'm a kaleidoscope of emotions on the field. That's what I like about football. Most people have to go months to get the spectrum of emotions I feel in three minutes. But it burns you out.

"After 11 years the level of pain and b.s. is too much. My skills aren't going to improve, and I know I will have to hurt a whole lot more before I don't have any more hurts. It's like waiting for the electric chair. Each season I ask myself, How am I going to play? Will I be able to contribute? This team is an emotional roller coaster. There are 10 highs and eight big lows. Give me a room with a padded cell."

Hampton was born in Oklahoma City, but when he was five, his parents, Robert and Joan, moved the family to a 40-acre farm in Cabot (pop. 6,168), 22 miles northeast of Little Rock. The tiny three-bedroom house sat at the end of a dirt road. Robert, an IBM customer engineer, wanted his three children, of whom Dan was the youngest, to grow up with a respect for the earth and to experience the benefits of living a simple life. "Robert was the kind of guy who went to work in a shirt and tie, and when he came home he put on a straw hat and cutoffs," says Joan.

The Hamptons owned two dairy cows, Holly Bell and April Fool, and a large roan horse named Prince. They raised hay and corn for the animals and planted a large vegetable garden for themselves. After chores, fun for Dan consisted of launching himself from the hayloft into a pile of straw 15 feet below, barrel-jumping with Prince and calf skiing. Calf skiing? "We'd grab the tail of a calf and let it pull us through the pasture in our bare feet," says Matt. "That was commonplace until Dan got pulled through a barbed-wire fence."

Dan was an accident waiting to happen. Whenever the local kids played cowboys and Indians—Dan, whose maternal great-grandfather was part Cherokee, always was an Indian—he would run barefoot through the yard, regularly stepping on rusty nails or discarded fish bones. "We thought we were indestructible," says Matt. Adds Joan, "I always figured the good Lord would watch out for him."

That may explain Dan's luck one July morning in 1969, when he was 12. He was climbing a large elm tree in the front yard. When he grabbed a rotten branch, it broke, and he fell 30 feet to the ground. He smashed his left heel and broke his right ankle and left wrist. "I landed standing up," he says. "The doctors said that a fall from that distance should have shattered the femurs and driven them up into my body. But my bones were extremely strong, they said, from drinking fresh cow milk. Even though I was pretty wrecked, there was no internal damage."

Sixty percent of Hampton's heel was removed, and the rest had to be pieced together with pins. The doctors said that the breaks might distort his growth—he now has scoliosis of the lower spine—and that he would probably have a hard time walking. For five depressing months Hampton was confined to a wheelchair.

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