CANTON, Ohio — Chris Hanburger could avoid the spotlight no longer, and with a nation of football fans tuned in, he made the most of it.
The former Redskins linebacker left football more than three decades ago, eventually retiring to a quiet life in Darlington, S.C. He didn’t talk about football and didn’t watch it much. But football kept thinking about him, and Saturday night at Fawcett Stadium, the nine-time Pro Bowler was inducted into the prestigious Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“This is something that I never gave a thought to,” Hanburger said in his induction speech, “and I’m most appreciative of it.”
He spoke for nearly nine minutes before a crowd of 13,300, thanking his family and acknowledging former teammates in attendance, such as Billy Kilmer and Larry Brown. He certainly hadn’t lobbied for induction and in the preceding months tried to steer clear of anyone making a fuss over him.
“They keep wanting me to smile more,” Hanburger said of his family. “They keep wanting me to change. All I can tell you, it isn’t going to happen. I am what I am, and nothing’s changing.”
His induction marked the fourth straight year a former Redskin was enshrined in Canton, which has made team owner Daniel Snyder a regular here every August.
“He is what every great linebacker wants to be,” said Snyder, who flew here Saturday afternoon to take in the festivities.
While the 69-year-old Hanburger’s credentials could hardly be questioned, he was not the typical hall of famer. He retired in 1978. Fellow enshrinees Deion Sanders, Shannon Sharpe and Marshall Faulk weren’t even born when Hanburger began his career in 1965. Twenty-seven years after he was first eligible, Hanburger was nominated by the hall’s seniors committee last August and finally elected by the selection committee in February.
“I don’t understand the process to get in here at all,” Hanburger said. “I don’t know who’s involved in the voting, the nominations, et cetera. But I can tell you one thing, I thank those folks very much. This is one of the greatest moments of my life and I mean that from my heart.”
The crowd at Fawcett Stadium was a quilt of NFL jerseys — Chicago fans celebrating Richard Dent, Dallas fans cheering for Sanders, St. Louis fans honoring Faulk. Hanburger, too, was represented.
Vann Knighting, 53, wore a burgundy No. 55 jersey. Written across the back was “Hangman,” one of Hanburger’s nicknames. When the old linebacker was elected to the hall six months ago, Knighting announced to his family that they’d be headed to Canton. So they made the seven-hour drive this weekend from Staunton, Va.
“He was such a low-profile player and nobody ever really talked about him, but he was always my favorite,” Knighting said. “I just don’t like the players that are 24-7 infomercials for themselves. Do your job and go home. That’s the way Chris Hanburger always approached it.”
Hanburger was presented by his son, Chris. While many inductees have long scripts with an endless list of names and life stories, Hanburger hadn’t written anything. He joked on the eve of his enshrinement that he might deliver a single line of gratitude before disappearing back into anonymity.
Instead, he had the crowd laughing within seconds of stepping to the microphone. Hanburger noted that other inductees might want to talk longer than him, and he entertained the idea about selling them some of his allotted time.
“I figured Shannon Sharpe would be the easiest guy to start with,” Hanburger said. “I closed him real quick, put a wad of cash into my pocket. I went to the last guy — Prime Time — he told me I had to go talk to his agent. And I told him, ‘I don't talk to agents.’ Next thing I know, he’s doing all this stuff” — Hanburger offered the crowd a brief hip-shimmy — “and trying to get a discount.”
While Hanburger’s speech was the shortest of the night’s inductees, it was memorable. Sanders, in his speech at the end of the night’s festivities, called Hanburger his new friend.
“I love you, man,” Sanders said. “You’re a good dude.”
The Redskins now have 19 players, coaches or owners in the Hall of Fame who spent the majority of their careers in Washington and seven others who spent at least part of their careers in D.C., including Sanders, a Redskin in 2000.
Of the group, none was selected to more Pro Bowls than Hanburger.
“He was a consummate professional,” said Snyder, who grew up cheering for Hanburger and George Allen’s successful teams. “He was London Fletcher-like to me. London reminds me so much of Chris Hanburger. What Chris was all about was making sure they played 60 minutes of football — hard, Redskins football. It was awesome.”
Hanburger readily admits he didn’t grow up a football fan, and he never had his eyes set on a pro career. The Redskins selected him in the 18th round of the 1965 draft out of North Carolina.
“I think they were just running out of folks to grab when I got drafted,” Hanburger told the crowd. “It was like throwing darts at a board and somebody hit my name. The Redskins got stuck with me.”
He quickly became the team’s stoic defensive captain, calling plays and audibles on the field, the way a quarterback might on offense. They called him “The General” because he spent two years between high school and college enrolled in the Army, but he was also known as “The Hangman,” because of his propensity for vicious clothesline tackles.
In all, Hanburger played 187 games in 14 seasons, all wearing burgundy and gold. He was elected to nine Pro Bowls and was a four-time all-pro. At a time when the game was particularly rough, Hanburger started 135 consecutive games, among the most dependable players on Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang.” Together, that group of veterans took the Redskins to the playoffs five times from 1971 to ’77, reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history in 1973.
“It’s not so much what I did, by any means,” Hanburger said in his speech. “I look at it as what the people around me did on the field that let me be somewhat of a loose cannon out there — just run around like a chicken with his head cut off, not knowin’ exactly what I was doing.”
Hanburger is the seventh Redskin from the period to be enshrined in Canton, joining Allen, Ken Houston, Deacon Jones, Sonny Jurgensen, John Riggins and Charley Taylor.