The remarkable saga of Dave Hampton

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One of my favorite things to do is research old sports stories. This is because I'm crazy. In any case, Sunday before the farce that was the Chiefs-Falcons football game, I was sitting next to Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson and I asked him if he had ever played in Atlanta. He said: "Sure, I was there for the Dave Hampton game." I had only vaguely heard the story about the Dave Hampton game, so I went back to look it up. Turns out, the story was more amazing than Lenny made it sound ... more amazing, really, than I could have imagined.

Dave Hampton grew up in Akron, and he went to college in Wyoming. That life combination can lead to some crazy karma. You might not know that writer extraordinaire Chuck Klosterman, author of the hilarious Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, grew up in Wyoming and ended in Akron.* It's clear that weird stuff happens when you mix Akron with those Plains states.

*The reason you might not know this is that Klosterman actually grew up in North Dakota, not Wyoming. But, for our purposes, it's really the same thing.

Hampton was drafted by Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers in the ninth round in 1969. About 20 minutes later Lombardi quit the Packers. About three years later, Hampton was traded to Atlanta. And that leads us to our story.

On December 17, 1972, Atlanta was playing the Kansas City Chiefs, last game of the regular season, and there really wasn't anything on the line for either team. Except this: Dave Hampton had 930 yards coming into the game. That meant, of course, that he was 70 yards away from gaining 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. And it meant even more because Hampton had a chance to become the first 1,000-yard rusher in Atlanta Falcons history. This was in those days when NFL teams only played 14 regular season games, so 1,000 yard rushers were still rare birds. Most of the 53,850 who showed up were undoubtedly there, at least in part, to catch a little Dave Hampton history.

And all went pretty well early on. Hampton rushed for 42 yards in the first half, and the Falcons led going into the halftime. It looked like a lock. Hampton got the ball three straight times to start the second half, and ripped off another 22 yards. So he was six yards away.

The Chiefs, though, scored a touchdown to take the lead, and the Falcons kind of went away from Hampton for the rest of the quarter Then on the first play of the fourth quarter, they gave it to Hampton, and he rushed for five yards. One yard away. The next play, they gave him the ball up the middle, and he picked up the precious one yard, he was at exactly 1,000. Cheers! Celebration! They actually stopped the game right there so the crowd could cheer Dave Hampton. They gave him the game ball. I love when they stop games for really obscure achievements, like becoming the first player in Atlanta Falcons history to gain 1,000 yards. Then, you have to understand that in 1972, there had not been that many great sports moments in Atlanta. The day belonged to Dave Hampton.

But, of course, that would not be much of a story. You know what's coming. A little later in the quarter, Atlanta quarterback Bob Berry dropped back to hand off to Hampton and slipped on some ice. He only barely managed to get the ball into Hampton's hands before four Chiefs defenders came crashing in. You bet. It was a loss of 6 yards. And suddenly that game ball didn't feel so great. And because the Chiefs scored late, the Falcons had to throw the ball to try and come back. Hampton got only one more carry, for 1 yard. He finished with 995 yards.

"Right now," he told reporters, "it's the most disappointing thing that has ever happened to me."

OK, that's a real down. And that's a story many people have heard -- maybe you didn't know the name Dave Hampton, but you have probably heard the story of the guy who gained 1,000 yards and was then thrown for a loss. Great story, right? Well, as it turns out, the story HAS NOT EVEN STARTED yet.

In 1973, the Falcons -- led, poetically enough, by a quarterback named RobertLee -- won seven games in a row in the middle of the season. They were in playoff contention, at last for a little while. Then, remembering they were the Atlanta Falcons, they got blitzed by Buffalo and slaughtered by St. Louis. The Falcons finished off the year playing a dreadful New Orleans team they beat 62-7 in Week 1. And they still had slim playoff hopes then, but really slim -- they needed Washington to lose to an abominable Philadelphia team, and there was really no way that was going to happen (it didn't).

So, in reality, there wasn't much on the line. Except this: Dave Hampton was, again, the team's go-to running back, and he was again close to 1,000 yards. And coach Norm Van Brocklin decided that, no matter what else, the Falcons were going to get Hampton his 1,000 yard season.

Hampton came into the game needing 87 yards. Now, nobody was really paying much attention to Dave Hampton because that was the same day that O.J. Simpson was trying to break Jim Brown's rushing record. Plus it was freaking cold in Atlanta. People don't know this about Atlanta, because it is in the South, but when it gets cold there it feels like Minneapolis at Christmas. When it's 37-degrees in Atlanta, like it was that day, your bones rattle. Fewer than 40,000 people showed up for the game.

The Falcons gave the ball to Hampton. And gave the ball to him. And gave the ball to him some more. The game was close -- Atlanta had a 14-10 lead, and the Falcons were in field goal range ... but Van Brocklin said no, and they went for it on fourth down so they could give the ball to Hampton. They didn't make it. A little later, they were in range again -- still up only four points -- and they went for it again to give the ball to Hampton. They didn't make it. All in all, Hampton carried the ball 27 times on that day, a bunch in the fourth quarter.

And when everything settled, Dave Hampton had ... 997 yards rushing.

"I appreciate the heck out of my offensive line," he said after the game. "I'm very proud of them. But to be honest, I'm not really sure what my feelings are now."

OK, so there. Now you are sure the story is over. Twice this guy got within five yards of 1,000 yards. That's got to be it. Only it isn't. This story is better than Seabiscuit. In 1974, Hampton had all sorts of injuries. It looked like he was more or less finished. But he worked hard hard to come back, as hard as Billy Dee Williams in Brian's Song, and he was ready when the 1975 season began. And even though the team was terrible, Hampton was once again the Falcons' workhorse. He plowed and fought for every yard, just like he always had. Then Atlanta went to Green Bay for the last game of the season, freezing cold, meaningless game, and would you believe it? Dave Hampton came in with a shot at 1,000 yards.

Only the game did not set up well. The game was close for a long time, and the Packers kept a slight lead, and so Hampton was not a big part of the offense. Then with two minutes and 53 seconds left and the Packers up by nine, Falcons coach Marion Campbell made the critical call: He decided the Falcons weren't going to win the game anyway. He sent Falcons backup quarterback Pat Sullivan out with a mission. Sullivan came into the huddle and said: "We got one more chance." Everyone looked up and nodded. Hampton was such a popular guy on the team, and he had gotten so close, and dammit, they wanted to get him his 1,000.

Hampton was still 28 yards short, and this was the last drive, so it would take something pretty special. He carried the ball up the middle for four -- he was 24 yards short. Then, he took a handoff to the right and his dear friend LarronJackson pulled out in front and crushed the Green Bay linebacker. Hampton was free. He broke through, ran, cut, ran, cut, and finally was dragged down. He had picked up 22 yards. He was only two yards short of 1,000.

The Green Bay crowd was into it ... heck, they had to be into something, both teams stunk. They cheered. The Falcons players on the sideline cheered. Fate cheered. The next play, Hampton carried it over the right side for four yards. He had done it. He had become both the first Atlanta Falcons runner to gain 1,000 yards AND the first Atlanta Falcons runner to finish the season with 1,000 yards. And make no mistake, his season was done. The Green Bay crowd gave him a standing ovation as he came off the field -- no way they were leaving Dave Hampton out there for even one more play. Knowing him, the quarterback would have fumbled, and Hampton would have fallen on it, the loss credited to him.

He had done it -- 1,002 yards rushing. Hampton was named the NFL's comeback player of the year in 1975, ostensibly for coming back from injuries, but no doubt it was more. He had come back from being one of the great victims in NFL history. Imagine Bill Buckner hitting the game-winning homer for the Red Sox. Imagine Jackie Smith catching the touchdown that gave the Cowboys a Super Bowl. Imagine blocking Michael Jordan's shot the next time around. Those would probably be more impressive. Still, this was a great story too. Dave Hampton did it. The next year, the Falcons let him go, then he played for the Eagles in Dick Vermeil's first year. Then, he quit football. Why not? He was two yards on the right side of greatness.