John Hannah always was the kind of ballplayer who could take off your head and do something to your neck. Nobody disputed this fact. Back during August training, he once woke up at about 3:30 in the morning, climbed out of bed and lowered himself into a three-point stance. He was doing this in the dark. He was grunting as offensive linemen are known to do, working to make sure the weight of his body felt comfortable and properly distributed on the balls of his feet.

"What are you doing, John?" his roommate, tackle Steve Moore, said, choosing not to call Hannah by his nickname, which is Hog.

Hog said, "I'm checking my sets."

John Hannah is a graduate of the University of Alabama and a stockbroker; he works for an international investment firm in Boston when not playing offensive guard for the New England Patriots. When Hannah stood before about 1,500 sports reporters the other day in a ballroom at the InterContinental Hotel, he was rolling right along before, all of a sudden, he ran out of words. Nobody had the courage to ask him what happened. Perhaps his mouth went dry. Perhaps he wanted out of his shirt, which ran at least two sizes too small.

It was a sickly shade of violet, that shirt, overwashed and with a polo logo on the chest. His wife, Page, bought it for him thinking she was doing a good thing. She buys all his clothes and he wears them, no questions asked. It is not his job to worry about fashion. His job is to take the heads off people and do something to their necks. Perhaps John Hannah was thinking about his wife, Page, and why she would spend good money on a too-tight shirt when he up and quit on the English language.

When somebody asked him to evaluate this, his 13th season in the National Football League, his ninth as an all-pro and his first on a Super Bowl contender, Hannah said, "Room for improvement."

When somebody else wanted to know just what it was his coach, Raymond Berry, had brought to the club to make it so competitive, Hannah looked around the big room and saw the preponderance of minicams. He saw all the reporters scribbling, perhaps scribbling unkind descriptions of his shirt. "Quiet confidence," was all he had to say about the coach.

Then somebody wanted to know what he thought about Otis Wilson, the Bears linebacker who said the Patriots would be shut out in Sunday's Super Bowl XX. Hannah said, "That's his opinion."

A little later, center Guy Morriss was giving his opinion of John Hannah, whom he first met at a college all-star game in 1973.

"He's got the hardest, most bull-headed head of anybody I know," Morriss was saying. "It all goes back to what's in him -- all this intensity. He's not your normal kind of fellow. He gets frustrated a lot because he can't stand the people around him not seeing the world the same way he does. It's hard for him to understand that not everybody demands so much from life as Mr. John Hannah. He thinks everybody should walk around gritting their teeth and snorting fire like he does."

Come Sunday afternoon, Hannah will line head-up against William Perry, the Bears' rookie sensation who threatens to become fatter than ever this week, what with all the good Creole and Cajun cooking in town. Next to Hannah will be another great offensive lineman and all-pro selection, tackle Brian Holloway.

Some people say Hannah and Holloway will have their hands full with Perry and Richard Dent, the Bears' defensive tackle, one of the best in the league. They say the Patriots will not be able to run the ball, even with Craig James, a 1,000-yard rusher. They remember the last time, the Patriots' 20-7 loss to the Bears in the second game of the season, but forget that John Hannah, whom some say is the best offensive guard ever to play in the NFL, was forced to sit out the game with a torn calf muscle.

Said Chicago Coach Mike Ditka, "I can assure you that with John Hannah they will be a much stronger football team. What happened back in September will have absolutely no bearing on what will happen Sunday."

Perry, who maintains his weight at exactly 304 pounds, 40 more than Hannah, said he doesn't know much about what will or will not happen. All he knows is that Hannah possesses enormous strength and a reputation for general, unpardonable meanness.

"I don't think about the man a lot," Perry said. "I just go out and do what the coach tells me to do. On the film, I saw how he's a power blocker. He doesn't show much finesse. He just comes out and tries to knock you on your butt."

Said Buddy Ryan, the Bears' defensive coordinator: "I can't wait to see how Fatso stands up against the old pro. I think he'll do right by himself. If not, I'll sure be disappointed."

Most of the Patriots say Hannah did not emerge as a truly spirited team leader until this season. His past with the Patriots was one of contract disputes, requests to be traded and holdouts. Asked to provide a picture of their celebrated teammate, the New England players present a picture of a fellow with all the grace and cunning of an angel who in no time can turn as foul and sour as something shot half-dead in the woods.

"An hour before the game, nobody goes around him, not even to say hello," right guard Ron Wooten said. "He's off in his own little world, visualizing what will happen in the game. Everybody else likes to get relaxed, but John has his mind made up that that's not how you do it."

Said Morriss: "John is John; it's hard to say. I like John. Personally, I like him. But he's so durn . . . Hell, he can be like a mule you want to kick."

Hannah was a two-time all-America under Bear Bryant at Alabama. His father, Herb, played for the New York Giants in the 1950s. After all these years in the league, Hannah still refuses to compromise what most of his teammates see as an almost unrealistic work ethic. He learned about effort from his father, about winning from the old coach. He was never one to celebrate much, even in triumph. But after the Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins to claim the AFC title, he walked to the back of the team's chartered plane and joined in the party.

"I couldn't believe he was having that kind of good time," Wooten said. "That wasn't the John Hannah we all know. He was so happy. He was like a kid in a toy store."

John Hannah has always said you could take every trophy and plaque he ever won and stuff it in a big cardboard box and hide it away someplace. It meant nothing to him as long as he was denied the chance to play for a Super Bowl team. When he saw his brother, Charlie Hannah, one day at a family get-together, Charlie showed him the ring he had won as a member of the world-champion Los Angeles Raiders. John said, "Charlie, I'd trade everything I ever earned to wear that ring."

This day, he was saying, "Being here is only a partial fulfillment of a dream I've had for a real long time. To be totally fulfilled, we're going to have to win this game. The Super Bowl. The Super Bowl. That's the key to anybody's happiness when they're playing this game. That's why you play it. Personal rewards are the outpouring of what you do as a team."