Chris Hanburger’s reluctant moment in the spotlight

Mike Wise
Columnist August 5, 2011

Chris Hanburger’s wife hands him the hotel room phone. Congratulations, he is told. What an honor to share with so many great players and thousands of people.

“Thanks, but I pretty much like being alone,” the old linebacker says.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

He says he has a cellphone, but Hanburger left it at home in South Carolina.

“Didn’t want to be bothered.”

Asked by one of the event planners in Canton, Ohio, how long his speech would take Saturday night, Hanburger said he didn’t know, that he planned to “wing it.” “Then the guy said, ‘Send me a little outline. We got to plan for commercial breaks.’ Can you believe it?”

The Reluctant Hall of Famer sighs through the phone, a day before he has to share a stage with Deion Sanders, who in Hanburger’s NFL some 40 years ago might have been clotheslined for dancing on the field.

Neon Deion and the Humble Hangman — perfect, no? Mr. Star Power and Mr. Wallflower — one night only.

Someone in the NFL has a sense of irony. Or humor. Or something.

“I just don’t like this,” Hanburger says. “I’m totally baffled by what the heck is going on.”

You want to remind him no player in the history of the Washington Redskins — not John Riggins, not recent franchise inductees Darrell Green, Art Monk or Russ Grimm — went to more Pro Bowls than the 210-pound linebacker, outsized for even his era, on George Allen’s only Super Bowl team.

You want to tell him not many players can say they starred for two of the game’s greatest coaches, Allen and Vince Lombardi.

You finally settle on Sonny Jurgensen’s assessment of his former teammate: “One of the smartest players ever — he just had so much intelligence with how he played the game.”

“That was a nice compliment,” Hanburger begins, “but evidently Sonny hadn’t met many players.”

He pauses and adds, “Heck, I just fooled a lot of people and tried to avoid contact.”

It’s no use. Private, beyond introverted (“Drives my wife crazy, but I don’t like to go out and eat; I don’t like to get on a bus”), much more comfortable at age 69 “cuttin’ trees, fixin’ my neighbor’s mower or helpin’ another with car repair” than the klieg lights of Canton, Hanburger can’t understand all the fuss now — because he never made one then.

“That’s basically who I am, who I always was,” he says. “I’ve never watched these enshrinement speeches. Seen some of the clips from some of them, but that’s it. Truthfully, I’ll be glad when this is all over.”

His disdain for attention definitely overshadowed his intelligence as a player. Hanburger not only memorized 125 different audibles long before coordinators talked to players through their helmets on the field — John Hannah, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman, once called him “the smartest player in the league” — he also had an uncanny knack for self-preservation.

“I remember a game where Sam [Huff] is laid out on the field after hittin’ some guy so damn hard,” Sonny recalled. “And finally Chris walks up to him and says something like, ‘That’s why I don’t stick my head in there, so I don’t end up like you on the ground.’ ”

Hanburger: “That’s a true story. That happened against Pittsburgh. Sam got his bell rung before the half. He went down and stayed down. I ran over there at first, thought he swallowed his tongue. When he looked up, I said, ‘That’s why I tackle high, Sam.’ ”

No, he’s not sore over voters putting him into Canton 33 years after he retired. “A lot of great men who deserve to be in never got in, so it is what it is,” he says.

Hanburger also doesn’t look back often except when it comes to Lombardi, who died of cancer after just one season in Washington.

“What a unique person,” he said. “He treated everyone the same. I just wondered whether we would have been a consistent contending football team if he had lived longer. I always went over that in my mind.”

In Canton, family and former teammates will make sure he takes his bows, as will his former seatmate in the back of the Redskins team plane in the mid-1970s.

“Actually knowing he does smile, that he was a quiet prankster with his teammates, was something I was fortunate to see,” says Bruce Allen, then the 15-year-old son of the coach and now the team’s general manager. “I don’t think anyone got on me more about my grades than he did.”

Hanburger actually recalls Bruce’s job as a teenager on away flights. “I had only one instruction for Bruce: ‘Look, if your dad starts coming toward the back of the plane, let me know so I can pretend I’m asleep and he won’t bother me,’ ” he said.

Being the Reluctant Hall of Famer, Hanburger didn’t want Daniel Snyder to send the team plane to South Carolina to bring him to Dallas during the announcement over Super Bowl weekend. The plane came anyway in February.

When Allen told him of the post-ceremony party in Canton customarily thrown by the owner each time one of the Redskins players is enshrined, Hanburger said he didn’t want one. He will have one thrown in his honor anyway Saturday night.

“I told him he’s not invited,” says Allen, deadpan. “It’s for his family and his teammates.”

Celebrated by everyone but himself this weekend in Canton, it’s been rough on this loner of an old linebacker — so rough it could make a bronze bust blush.

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