There are 39 individuals in the Los Angeles Chargers’ Hall of Fame, but former special-teams standout Hank Bauer isn't one of them. Call it what you will: An oversight, a misunderstanding or a mistake. But it should be corrected.
Never heard of Bauer? Shame on you. He holds an NFL single-season record that has stood since he set it in 1981. We’re told that records are made to be broken, but this one never has been … and it never will.
It’s Bauer’s 52 special-teams tackles in one year.
By comparison, last year’s league leader had 21, according to Team Rankings. The 2019 leader had 16. The year before that? Seventeen. I think you get the idea. But full disclosure: After the NFL in 2011 moved kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35, there are far fewer returns than when Bauer played.
OK, no problem. Let’s rewind the videotape to, oh, say, 2010. The results aren’t that much different. The NFL leader that season had 25. In 2005 it was 28. And in 2003, the first season that Team Rankings started tracking the category, it was 25.
Now let me repeat: Bauer had twice that number in one year, including seven in one game, and 147 in six seasons.
“The thing I always get from current players,” he said, “is: ‘No frickin’ way. How did that happen?’ I don’t know. But it happened.”
It happened because Hank Bauer was the Swiss Army knife of football players. Everything he was told to do, he did … and adroitly. In high school, he was an all-Orange County (CA.) choice as a 190-pound nose guard. At Cal Lutheran he was the only running back in the school’s history to rush for four touchdowns twice in games. He also set a myriad of school records, including career carries (502), career rushing yards (2,659) and single-season TDs (17).
With the Chargers he was the special-teams star and captain, but he was more than that. In 1981, for instance, he was called on to replace an injured Kellen Winslow at tight end vs. Cleveland. He caught a 4-yard TD pass. In 1978-79 he served as one of the team’s running backs and scored 17 times, including 16 rushing. In 1978 he was the starter for four games. A year later he was the short-yardage back, carrying 18 times for 28 yards, eight touchdowns and nine first downs.
“Think about that,” he said. “Seventeen out of 18 (I succeeded), and everybody knew I was getting the ball. All I cared about -- whatever role they were going to give me – was that I just wanted to be great teammate, help the team win and play hard. And I had a ball doing it.”
After a neck injury forced his retirement in 1983, Bauer went on to coach the Chargers’ special teams from 1983-86 before turning to a career in broadcasting. He worked 16 years as a local San Diego sports anchor, 17 as the team’s analyst on radio broadcasts and continues to serve today as an analyst for Sports USA Network.
“I’m just proud that I did every role I was asked to do,” he said, “including becoming a coach and (special-teams) coordinator and broadcasting (for the team) for 17 years. I was proud to help the team win and help that team succeed. And, for me, there’s a place for people like that.”
There is. It’s called the Chargers’ Hall of Fame.
For some reason, however, Bauer isn’t part of it. There are special teamers like kicker Rolf Benirschke and punter Darren Bennett in there, but neither set an NFL record that will never be broken. And it’s not because Bauer wasn’t popular with fans or teammates. On the contrary, he was adored by fans, loved by teammates and respected by opponents.
“He played like he didn’t know if he was going to be on the team the next day,” said San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa, a former Hall-of-Fame voter. “He was something, that guy.”
Bauer was voted the team’s Most Inspirational Player of 1978 and its Special Teams MVP in 1980-81. He was an NFL Alumni Special Teams Player of the Year and TBS Special Teams Player of the Year in an era when, with rare exception, the only special-teamers recognized were returners and kickers.
But Bauer was the exception.
There was no NFL Alumni Special Teams award until he was chosen in 1982 (and awarded a year later), and there was no Pro Bowl special-team designation until the 1984 season --the same year the NFL Players Association began choosing NFC and AFC Special Teams Players of the Year.
"So," said NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal, "it could be posited that the (special teams') award was created because of Hank Bauer."
That’s why his exclusion from the Chargers' Hall is so hard to explain, especially with the Chargers inducting no one since former GM Bobby Beathard in 2018. The Buffalo Bills have special-teams ace Steve Tasker in their Ring of Honor, and Washington has return specialist Brian Mitchell in its Ring. Bauer should be an easy call for the Chargers, but so far he’s a no can-do … and don’t ask him if that’s disappointing. Because I did.
“I don’t really want to comment on that,” he said.
“I’m surprised and disappointed,” he said. “What did he have – 52 tackles in one year? That’s like Cy Young’s 511 wins. It will never be broken. There just aren’t that many opportunities.
“I told Hank in person that he’s the second greatest special-teams player in Chargers’ history behind Walt Sweeney, who was the greatest special teams’ player I ever saw. Hank Bauer was a great, great, special teams’ player.”
It’s time the Chargers remember.