On August 6, 2011, the long journey of Chris Hanburger's gridiron legacy finds its rightful immortality in the Pro Football Hall of Fame forever. He only had to look in his own family to find a presenter, his son Chris Hanburger.
Hanburger, who retired in 1978, had been ignored for decades by the voters even though his nine Pro Bowls were the most in Washington Redskins history. He had redefined the weak outside linebacker position by using high intelligence, amazing athleticism, and a non-stop will to do whatever it took to help his team win.
Some of my regular readers know I have a series of articles, Crazy Canton Cuts, that is dedicated to gridiron greats not yet inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When I first started my series, the first player I profiled was Washington Redskins legend Chris Hanburger. Not only was I astonished and irked by not his exclusion, but how he was ignored yearly in the vote.
I decided to try to find a way to get him his overdue respect. The year was 2008 and I quickly found several fans who agreed with me. I also found several of his peers, the people who know best, agreed with me. Most all were willing to give me a quote or write a letter in support of Hanburger's induction.
This includes several Dallas Cowboys legends like Roger Staubach, Mike Ditka, Tony Liscio, Preston Pearson, and Calvin Hill. Men who were the Redskins' hated enemy, where gallons of blood were spilt in anger. These men still live the rivalry years after retirement, but respect Hanburger enough to have helped him get inducted.
Hall of Famers like Joe Gibbs, Sonny Jurgensen, Dave Wilcox, Raymond Berry, Larry Csonka, Charlie Sanders, Joe DeLamielluere, and Jackie Smith, along with several other gridiron greats, also provided letters or quotes in hopes it helped Hanburger get into Canton. Those quotes can be found at here.
I was interviewed for an article on the Washington Times by legendary sportswriter David Elfin in 2008. Elfin was raised in the District of Columbia are and was a true Redskins fan. In fact, Elfin led the charge to get Art Monk, a great Redskins wide receiver, finally inducted just a few years ago. Having him as an ally in my mission proved to be immeasurable.
Nicknamed "The Hangman," Hanburger was the first linebacker in NFL history who could beat you by blitzing or covering a pass. Former Pro Bowl running back Hill told me how he use to marvel at the athleticism Hanburger possessed.
Hill said Hanburger frequently jumped over him with ease during a blitz, was strong, and was surely the fastest linebacker in the NFL in his era. Hanburger, who was named First Team All-Pro four times, retired with an NFL record for the most fumble recoveries were returned for touchdowns.
Saint Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith battled Hanburger twice a year for many seasons. He called Hanburger the poster boy of the modern day weak side linebacker. "Linebackers were big strong guys, not very mobile and geared more to stopping the running game" before Hanburger revolutionized the position.
He weighed about 220 lbs much of his career, but was said to near 200 by the time he retired in 1978. His lack of weight did not prevent him from being stout against the run nor unstoppable when charging in on a blitz.
But his athleticism wasn't what made him special. His intelligence put him over most every player in the league. He played in an era where the coaches weren't barking into a microphone to a headset in a helmet of a player, telling them what to do step by step.
The captain of the Redskins defense, he knew over 300 audibles and Hall of Fame head coach George Allen demanded more. Allen was a defensive guru that would spend hours in the film room with Hanburger and the defense.
As former Redskins safety Rickie Harris put it, "You had to not only know your responsibilities, you had to know the exact location and responsibilities of the other 10 guys on defense. He was the smartest player I ever played with."
Some theorize his journey into Canton took so long because he was a team player who preferred to differ to his teammates rather than accept any personal glories. He would do his job and go straight home to his wife and kids instead of hanging around talking to reporters.
All of the former Redskins players and coaches I talked to said he was a serious man of no nonsense. Reporters perhaps thought he was grouchy, but Hanburger's only mission was to help the team win then go home to his loved ones.
Talking to his son, Chris Jr., it seems his dad has been enjoying his retirement years amongst family. Now he is being pulled out of his comfort zone to give a speech in Canton, which will probably encompass how great his teammates, coaches, and opponents were, then having to be interviewed on television during the Hall of Fame Game.
His family is most likely more ecstatic to see this long overdue honor happen more than Hanburger, though his son suspects deep down his father is appreciate and happy. Redskins Nation is celebrating, because they know the importance Hanburger holds. Older fans might be especially happy, yet most have told their offspring of the greatness of Chris Hanburger.
It was nice to finally see the voters realize it as well. In my research, I had talked to a few other than Elfin. One senior voter did not even know what position Hanburger played, even though the Pro Bowl was an earned honor in those days.
Your peers, the ones who truly know who was the best of the best, voted you in as opposed to the fan vote now that seems to cheer on the loudmouths best known for antics over actual gridiron play.
The game was regional back then. The technology did not allow for the immense coverage it has today. A voter would be lucky to see a player on an opposing team, from another division, once a year.
If that player was in another conference, it would be a blessing to catch him at least once. It was as if the only voters who knew of Hanburger's greatness had to cover teams in the NFC East, where the Redskins play.
His nine Pro Bowls were tied with the great Maxie Baughan as the most by an uninducted player for many years. Now that Hanburger is in, hopefully Baughan will soon follow instead of having to hold the mantle as the most disrespected NFL legend while more seasons pass by.
The ever reserved Hangman will quietly thank everyone as he deflects attention from himself as he gives a speech. Typical actions witnessed by Redskins fans for over 14 seasons.
Yet he will also find comfort by seeing Jurgensen, Sam Huff, Charlie Taylor, Bobby Mitchell, and Ken Houston. Former teammates who probably will be joined by more ex-Redskins.
A family member told me one of the most relaxed times she saw him was at a Redskins reunion years ago. Hanburger milled around with other Redskins and talked, smiling and joking.
Yes, August 6, 2011 will be a very special day for the Redskins family. It will also be for the Hanburger family in ways we could not understand.
As his son gets closer to that day, hoping to do a great job that will make everyone proud, his dad will beam with pride. That moment very well could be the highlight of his weekend, because family has always come first.
But soon the spotlight will shine on the greatness of Chris Hanburger. The Hangman will hear the roar of the crowd again, even if he might rather be home instead.
Though I am happy my mission was successful and that the voters agreed with me and a long list of NFL legends, a part of me wants to apologize to Mr. Hanburger for pulling him out of his comfort zone. Even if it is for the greatest honor that can be bestowed onto a football player.