LAKE FOREST, ILL. -- Shake hands with Dan Hampton and it seems each of his gnarled fingers points in a different direction. His ankles have to be taped excessively so they won't buckle. He has had 15 broken bones, more than 300 stitches. And that doesn't count any of the 10 knee operations, five on each leg. There's no cartilage at all in the right one. When he walks, he describes the feeling as roughly akin to miniature ball bearings grinding against one another. Wife Terri has to help him get dressed some mornings. He doesn't ask; she just senses he can't and goes over to the sock drawer.

Mostly Hampton jokes about his knees and his fingers and his bad back. "Some guys are like a '57 Corvette with 3,000 miles and in mint condition," he said. "I'm like an '89 model with 400,000 miles. . . . Before last season I had five {operations} on one knee, three on the other. I was off-balance. The last two operations were like getting a realignment. I've got balance."

But in a moment of candor, Hampton said: "I don't think it's any secret that I feel awful all the time. I'm beat to death. I knew in the fall of last year, if I decided to do it again, I'd have to do it with my teeth gritted."

Regardless, he has come back for his 12th season, his last. He is the only Chicago Bear besides Sid Luckman to play in three decades. He came back because all indications are that the Bears aren't the Bears without him. They are 2-11 with him out of the starting lineup the last two seasons, 7-0 with him in it. The Bears were 4-0 last year when he had to leave for the season, for the ninth and 10th knee operations. Michael McCaskey, the club CEO, hinted Hampton should retire.

Why would a man whose wife has to dress him come back and play again?

"I couldn't have retired that way," he said this week before a practice session at Halas Hall. "I would have had serious problems doing that. Even though this is not my house, the house was in a mess {6-10 last year} and I wanted to help clean it."

So here is Hampton, 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, a boulder of a man, arguably the best defensive tackle of his generation. As close as he is to the Hall of Fame, he's just as close to becoming Jim Otto, the former Raider who can barely walk now because of degenerative injuries to his knees. However, they are his knees, and if he wants to risk his health beyond the age of 33 that's his decision, and his decision alone.

After his first game this season, reporters gathered around Hampton's locker. "I know where you people are coming from," he said. "You're trying to mother me. But I'd wish you just lighten up. I don't have a two-digit IQ. I'm going to go for as hard as I can as long as I can, and when it's over I'll know it. But I ain't there yet."

Bill Walsh, the 49ers coach turned television analyst, thinks Hampton is there. And he said so, over and over again, during the Bears-Seahawks telecast. When Hampton got in on one sack, Walsh said: "I hate to see Hampton get the sack because it means he'll think he can still play. He shouldn't play football; everybody knows it. Even the sportswriters aren't writing of it. People are fascinated. The guy is continuing to play rather than being concerned about his health. He doesn't belong on the field."

Hampton, so loquacious and opinionated the TV execs can't wait for him to retire, shot back at Walsh: "He has an awfully high opinion of who he is. The 49ers really missed him last year, huh?"

And when Walsh laid the blame on Coach Mike Ditka for letting Hampton come back, Hampton fired another volley: "I can remember when Joe Montana came back {54} days after back surgery and a lot of doctors said if he gets another shot in the back he would be crippled for life. Walsh didn't tell him not to go out there. I think he is a big hypocrite and he is a fool."

Strangely enough, it's almost a Bears tradition to have to negotiate a staircase like a 2-year-old before calling it quits. Ditka has one replacement hip and needs another. Dick Butkus, who played through several knee operations, drags one leg. Gayle Sayers, who came back to lead the league in rushing after a serious knee injury, still looks 35 but moves like he's 75.

So why doesn't Hampton quit now, and perhaps be able to play catch with his kids in 10 years? "The only thing I look forward to, seriously, is playing golf and swimming," he said the other day, addressing The Otto Question once more. "Throwing the football or baseball with a kid, hell, I couldn't do that at 50 if I had gotten out in 1985. The point of getting out {healthy} passed a long time ago. At this point, we're talking about four, five, maybe eight percent more damage. . . .

"I don't want to run 12 miles every morning when I'm 50. . . . I don't want to do that now."

The Bears think enough of him that he would be the highest-paid defensive player on the team if he reaches those incentives. They also protected him from Plan B, knowing that more than Neal Anderson, more than Mike Singletary, maybe as much as Ditka he is what the Bears are: tough and unyielding.

"Do I respect what he's trying to do on those knees? Absolutely," Ditka said. "Dan would never do anything to embarrass himself on this team. There's no need to. He's been too great a player. When it's time, it's time, if you know what I mean."

So now, the questions are about playing. Hampton is part of a three-man rotation with William Perry and Steve McMichael. "Sort of like WWF {World Wrestling Federation}; Ming the Merciless, the Refrigerator and Danimal," he said. "Except we don't have to tag each other when we come off the field."

He is upset that he can't practice regularly. He's on the field now for about 30 plays a game instead of 60 or more, and gives himself only a C-plus through four games. That has him "in the doldrums. I'm not playing bad, I'm not playing great. There is an attrition point in the career of any player. In '86 and '87, I was dominating. I can't do that now and it's bothering me."

Bear watchers are convinced that his ability to cave in the middle of the offensive line, even now, enabled Trace Armstrong and Richard Dent to record nine sacks in the first three games. Last Sunday, with Hampton in for very few snaps, it's no coincidence the Bears had just one sack.

"Anybody who thinks that I am going to be as effective in my 12th year as I was in my fifth or sixth year would have to be examined," he said. "But I feel like I really should improve here in the next few weeks."

Asked if he has had fluid drained from his knees since the start of the season, he smiles and says: "No comment. . . . Ten years from now they'll say, 'Do you miss football?' And I'll say, 'No.' No qualms, no complaints. The most satisfying thing is that I'm leaving on my own terms."

On his own knees.