See now, it's starting. Ah, what a parade. Simply magnificent. All the great linemen in NFL history, the offensive linemen, those quiet, dignified toilers in anonymity. Here they come now. Look who's leading the way. Jim Parker. So big, so graceful. God was certainly generous when He created him. And see that little one snorting and pawing the ground, the one with the blood on his jersey? That's Abe Gibron. And there's the Boomer, Bob Brown. Look at those forearms. He once shattered a goalpost with one of them. And that giant blotting out the sun, that's Bob St. Clair, all 6'9" of him. And there's Mike McCormack, tall, humble, brainy. Yes indeed, this is a parade.
What's that you say? You want to know who's the best of them? The very best? Now how can someone pick something like that? The mere act of it would be an insult to so many players who were so great in their eras. You say I must? O.K., fasten your seat belt. The greatest offensive lineman in history is playing right now and probably hasn't even reached his peak. He is John Hannah, the left guard for the New England Patriots, out of Alabama. He stands 6'2½" and his weight fluctuates between 260 and 270 (no lineman can honestly claim only one weight). He is 30 years old and is in his ninth year and is coming off the best season he ever had. He is a pure guard; he's never been anything but a left guard since he started playing in the NFL. He hasn't bounced around between guard and tackle as Parker did, or Forrest Gregg or Bob Kuechenberg; never had to go the offense-defense route like McCormack and Gibron and Chuck Bednarik.
Is it sacrilege to pick a current performer as the greatest who ever lived, in anything? Greatest actor, chef, rodeo rider? Should we wait until he's retired and enshrined and halfway forgotten? Weeb Ewbank, the former coach of the Baltimore Colts and New York Jets, thinks so. "Back off a little, give it some historical perspective," he says. "Let John make the Hall of Fame first."
Weeb's man is Parker, whom he coached for six years in Baltimore. Parker is also the choice of most of the coaches and personnel men who have been around the NFL for a few decades. McCormack generates surprising support, particularly from the Cleveland Browns' faction. Gibron is a dark horse. Don Shula, who coached Parker for five years and has coached against Hannah for eight, gives Parker a slight edge, but then he whispers, "Don't forget about our own guy, Bob Kuechenberg." Hannah's line coach, Jim Ringo, favors a troika of Hannah, Parker and his old Green Bay teammate, Jerry Kramer, but some people feel that although Kramer and Right Tackle Forrest Gregg were legitimate superstars, they fell under the category of a perfect mesh in a perfect offensive line. The big-name centers of the past—Mel Hein, Frank Gatski, Bulldog Turner, Bednarik, Ringo—receive little support. The opinion is that guards and tackles work in a less protected environment. Only George Halas might remember Cal Hubbard, the legendary giant of the 1920s, and Halas isn't returning phone calls.
But Hannah has his following. Former Denver coach Red Miller says he's the man. So does John Madden, who coached against Hannah when he was with the Raiders. Parker says, "Hannah's the only offensive lineman I enjoy watching these days." New England General Manager Bucko Kilroy, one of the pioneers of modern scouting, who has been rating and evaluating players ever since he lined up against Bronko Nagurski in 1943, says Hannah and McCormack are the only offensive linemen to whom he'd award a perfect "9."
It starts with the firepower, with Hannah's legs, incredibly massive chunks of concrete. "Once we measured John's thighs, and they were 33 inches," says Hannah's wife, Page, a slim ash blonde. "I said, 'I can't bear it. They're bigger than my bust.' "
The ability to explode into an opponent and drive him five yards back was what first attracted the college recruiters to Albertville, Ala., where Hannah grew up and played his final year of high school ball. It's the first thing you look for, if you're building a running game. Hannah says he always had that ability, but it was his first coach at Baylor School for Boys in Chattanooga, a tough, wiry, prematurely gray World War II veteran named Major Luke Worsham, who taught him how to zero in on a target, to aim for the numbers with his helmet, to keep his eyes open and his tail low. Next came the quick feet. Forget about pass blocking if you can't dance. Worsham helped there, too.
"Oddly enough," Hannah says, "he helped me develop agility and reactions by putting me on defense in a four-on-one drill. You'd work against a whole side of an offensive line. It was the most terrible thing in the world. If the guard blocked down you knew you'd better close the gap and lower your shoulder. If the end came down and the guard came out, buddy, you grabbed dirt because you knew a trap was coming."
"For all his size and explosiveness and straight-ahead speed," Kilroy says, "John has something none of the others ever had, and that's phenomenal, repeat, phenomenal lateral agility and balance, the same as defensive backs. You'll watch his man stunt around the opposite end, and John will just stay with him. He'll slide along like a toe dancer, a tippy-toe. And that's a 270-pound man doing that, a guy capable of positively annihilating an opponent playing him straight up."
Hannah's credentials include five consecutive years on the combined AFC-NFC All-Pro team. He missed in his first three years, when the Patriots were a weak team and he was struggling to get out of the Alabama four-point Wishbone stance and master the intricacies of pass blocking. By contrast, Parker made All-Pro his second season and for seven straight years thereafter, dropping off in his last two, when his legs started going. The NFL players have voted Hannah Most Valuable Offensive Lineman in each of the four years the award has been in existence, including the 1977 season, when the coaches failed to select him for the Pro Bowl squad. That was the season he and Leon Gray, who played alongside him at left tackle, staged their celebrated contract holdout and missed the first three games of the season, an event that seemed to bother the coaches a lot more than the players. "Bad little boys in the NFL don't get picked to the Pro Bowl," Hannah said.