Chris Hanburger, a former star linebacker for the Redskins, is a low-key Hall of Fame nominee

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:18 AM

DALLAS - There was a time when being called over the hill was a point of pride for Chris Hanburger. George Allen's famed Over-the-Hill Gang was, after all, the first Redskins team to reach the Super Bowl.

"I think we all got captivated by it," said Hanburger, the former linebacker who played his entire career in Washington.

When they call Hanburger over the hill nowadays, there's no celebration, but certainly no protest. "I really am over the hill now," said the 69-year-old Hanburger. "No question about it."

Though Hanburger has been far away from organized football since he retired more than three decades ago, he could find himself in the spotlight during this weekend's Super Bowl festivities. Hanburger is one of 17 former stars whose merits will be debated by the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 44-person selection committee. The new class of inductees will be announced Saturday evening.

If history is any guide, Hanburger's chances are pretty good. He is one of two senior candidates the committee will consider. He and Les Richter, a linebacker for the Rams in the 1950s and 1960s, will bypass the early voting rounds and will be judged in the final round. They need at least 80 percent of the vote to gain enshrinement.

There have been 45 senior candidates in the past four decades, 34 of whom were elected to the hall, including 18 of the past 20.

Hanburger's credentials are certainly impressive. A fearless linebacker, he posted nine Pro Bowl seasons over the course of a 14-year playing career in Washington and was named all-pro four times.

Hanburger said he won't exactly be chewing through his fingernails Saturday when the selection committee members cast their votes. He'll be sitting in his home in Darlington, S.C., still trying to make sense of how this came to be.

Hanburger and Richter were selected by the Hall of Fame's Seniors Committee in August. Jack Ham, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Hall of Famer, couldn't believe that one of the most dominant linebackers of his era wasn't enshrined and made a push for Hanburger.

The Seniors Committee reviews the qualifications of players whose careers were more than 25 years ago. Hanburger retired in 1978 but was never even among the 15 finalists considered by the selection committee in the 1980s.

For Hanburger, any faint hopes of visiting Canton, Ohio, disappeared a long time ago.

"I was just flabbergasted when I happened to be sitting here one morning watching some news on TV. All of a sudden the phone rang," he said. The Hall of Fame called last August to tell him he'd been named a finalist.

When it comes to football, it's not uncharacteristic of Hanburger to be far out of the loop. A native of Hampton, Va., he admits he's never been a big fan of the sport and only occasionally watches bits of games now. In fact, Hanburger, who played on both sides of the ball at the University of North Carolina, was among the last to know when the Redskins selected him in the 18th round of the 1965 NFL draft.

"I had been away the weekend of the draft. I came back to school and some of the guys said, 'Did you know you got drafted by the Redskins?' I said, 'What are you talking about?' " Hanburger said.

The draft was held in November, so Hanburger made the drive to Washington and met with Coach Bill McPeak the night before the Redskins played a home game. He recalls receiving a couple of thousand dollars for signing a contract. McPeak offered him tickets to the next day's game, but instead, Hanburger hopped in his car and returned to North Carolina.

He was a stable force on the Redskins' defense for the next 14 seasons. "I guess the best way to describe that period, no one cared about individual success or honors," Hanburger said. "You were always happy for the other guys' success out there."

Many Redskins from those teams have already made it to Canton, including Allen, Sonny Jurgensen, Sam Huff, Ken Houston, Bobby Mitchell, and Charley Taylor. While those men were delivering their induction speeches, Hanburger moved far away from the game. Retired now in Darlington, he says some people know about his previous life as a football star, but he doesn't re-visit those days too often.

"I'm pretty low-key about everything," he said. "I try not to let people know that I played who don't already know. The limelight is not my deal. I just never wanted it any other way."

The Redskins have contacted him in recent years to return to Washington and participate in alumni events, Hanburger said, but while he is appreciative, he has yet to make a trip.

If he's elected Saturday, Hanburger said he will grab an early-morning flight out of Florence, S.C., and arrive in Dallas in time to participate in Super Bowl pre-game festivities.

"I guess you could say I'm deeply honored," Hanburger said. "The idea of the Hall of Fame, it's not something I'd given up on because I really hadn't ever given it any thought. I'm very sincere when I tell you that I feel very fortunate to be nominated."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company