COOL HAND DAN

Dan Hampton has been the soul of the Bears' defense for more than a decade because, whether on the field in Chicago or on the farm in Arkansas, he plays with all his heart
October 08, 1989

Frantically steering his three-wheel all-terrain vehicle, Dan Hampton races into the woods on his Cabot, Ark., farm. He is searching for a missing week-old calf. Although it's common for a cow to hide its newborn, Hampton is plainly worried: He hasn't seen this calf in five days, which is too long. He had called his herd of 10 Simmental cows, six calves and one bull to the barn earlier this summer morning, and the calf still hadn't appeared. Now, at the creek on the northwest corner of his 151-acre spread, Hampton finds the helpless calf lying in tall grass.

"This is all my fault," says Hampton, hanging his head. "Why was I so lax about checking my calves?"

Hampton rushes home and telephones his veterinarian, Craig Boyd. Then he climbs into his silver pickup truck and speeds out the driveway and onto Highway 89. He parks alongside the road, which cuts through part of his land, vaults a barbed-wire fence and dashes through the pasture to the calf.

"Oh my God!" he bellows, scooping the 115-pound animal into his arms. "Oh my God! The flies have eaten through its hide."

He hugs the calf tightly and wails, "Oh no. Oh my, no. Oh no." He lumbers to the pickup and lays the alert but motionless animal in the cargo bed. After a 10-mile roller-coaster ride over country roads, running stop signs and red lights, Hampton pulls up behind Boyd's office.

"Do you think we ought to put him down?" Hampton asks breathlessly as the vet works on the calf in a pen outside. Boyd says no. The calf had suffered an infection near its navel, Boyd explains, and while it lay in wet grass to recuperate, flies laid eggs in the wound. Boyd sprays the calf's back and belly with water from a garden hose. Hundreds of maggots fall to the pavement. He rubs shampoo into the hide, covers the infected area with an antiseptic and injects antibiotics and painkillers into the calf's shoulder. "Baby," says Hampton, tenderly stroking the calf's nose, "if you pull through, I'll never sell you."

Boyd instructs Hampton to nourish the animal with its mother's milk. Back at the farm Hampton, with the help of a neighbor, Jimmie Lee Beene, places the calf under its mother's udder. Two more times that afternoon Hampton feeds the calf with its mother's milk, which he has squeezed into soda bottles. He says he can feel the calf coming to life.

But early that evening the calf takes a turn for the worse and dies. "This isn't fair," Hampton moans. He's too distraught to bury the animal, so his brother, Matt, hauls the calf into the hills with a small tractor and buries it himself.

"Dan loves animals and finds tranquillity in them," says his wife, Terry. "He enjoys the responsibility—that they have to have him to survive. He felt he had let this innocent little baby down. He was so frustrated, he was in tears."

Hampton couldn't face himself in the mirror for several days after the calf died. "It's easier to handle my own pain than to see it in others," he says. "When I was a kid, I dumped a pan of boiling grease on my hand, burning off a chunk of skin. I could feel what the calf was feeling. Rips, gouges in my flesh—that I can cope with. When anyone else is suffering, I go out of my mind."

Hampton, who in his 32 years has broken 15 bones and received some 300 stitches, knows pain. In 11 seasons as a defensive tackle with the Chicago Bears, he has undergone eight arthroscopic operations, four on each knee. The right knee has been weakened by degenerative arthritis and is even more swollen and knobby than the left. When Hampton bends his right knee, he says, it feels as if miniature ball bearings were grinding against one another. To minimize the chronic burning under the kneecap, he maneuvers down stairs sideways, always stepping with the left foot first. "I can feel cold fronts moving in," he says with a smile. "Willard Scott takes a backseat to me."

Eight of his fingers are misshapen from fractures, dislocations and torn tendons. He can't fully extend either hand. Though that doesn't prevent him from playing his favorite instruments, the bass guitar and alto sax, Hampton now struggles on the acoustic guitar, piano, organ and fiddle, none of which used to be a problem. His handshake is soft because his fingers are tender. Bears wide receiver Dennis Gentry has invented the Hampton High Five—the bent fingertips of one hand tapping against the bent fingertips of the other. "It's more like a Claw Five," Hampton says.

His right ring finger is particularly gruesome, the result of a 1983 training-camp scrimmage in which the ligament was ripped from the bone near the middle knuckle. Hampton ordered Chicago trainer Fred Caito to place the finger in a splint so he could continue playing. Afterward, Hampton refused to have surgery when he was told he might miss the entire season. Infection set in, and the bones in the joint eventually fused. Today the first knuckle is a pink lump; the second is purplish and three times normal size.

"That finger hurt so bad for a year and a half, I thought about having it cut off," says Hampton. "I'm banking on medical technology, hoping that a Teflon joint will be the answer."

Despite the injuries and operations, Hampton has missed only 10 games in his career. He once suggested the NFL rename the headings in its weekly injury report, which lists players as probable, questionable and doubtful. "They would be closer to the truth," he said, "if the league made the categories Sissy, Pussing Out and Squirreling Out." Though he says he has never taken a painkilling injection to play, he admits having scarfed plenty of pain pills.

"When I die, I envision Rod Serling coming down and saying, 'You have come through the Twilight Zone of geriatric hell,' " says Hampton. "The guys kid me that I don't have to fill out a donor card because nobody will want to take any part of my body, it's so beaten up. They'll say, 'This guy's shot, throw him on the junk heap.' "

Hampton insists that his willingness to play with pain and while injured has nothing to do with trying to prove how tough he is. Instead, he says, it has everything to do with commitment to himself and to his teammates. "There are a lot of guys in the NFL who go out and want to look pretty," he says. "They play the game when it's easy. But it's nice to know when you come into the locker room that you've played your guts out. You may have gotten hurt and you may not feel real good, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you gave your all."

Pride and a love for the game have helped make Hampton the league's most consistently excellent defensive player of the 1980s and one of the best ever to have played tackle. "Dan is a definite Hall of Famer," says Bears coach Mike Ditka, who already is enshrined in Canton. "He rates up there with the very best. Dan reminds me a lot of Bob Lilly, although he'll never get the recognition Bob got."

Buddy Ryan, the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and the former defensive coordinator of the Bears, says, "I don't want to get into comparing him, but nobody has played tackle better than Hampton. And surely no one has played it with more heart. Dan's my hero."

A 6'5", 275-pound bull of a pass rusher, Hampton is the one Chicago player on whom opposing offensive coordinators focus their game plans. No offensive lineman can block him alone. He has tremendous reflexes and quickness and the unusual ability to move with equal effectiveness to the right or left. Most pass rushers have a favorite move to get to the quarterback, but Hampton's package of tricks includes almost every technique—among them the Rip, the Swim and the Slap.

Hampton makes more big plays than anyone else on the Bears defense. He almost single-handedly won this year's season opener, a 17-14 defeat of the Cincinnati Bengals, by shutting them down four times in Chicago territory: He blocked a 45-yard field goal attempt; he stopped running back Ickey Woods on fourth-and-one at the Bears 18; he sacked quarterback Boomer Esiason on third-and-12 in the fourth quarter; and he ended Cincinnati's next series by breaking up one Esiason pass and forcing him to hurry another, which fell incomplete.

"In game films you can actually see the offensive linemen squirm, like they're thinking, Shoot, I've got Hampton," says one NFL scout. "He even looks big on film. His sleeves are cut off and rolled up. He has bare arms in 10-below weather. He's very imposing."

Hampton has anchored Chicago's defense for years, but he has never received much national attention. It has been easy for him to get lost amid the galaxy of media darlings who have been with the Bears during his career, folks like Ditka, Ryan, Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, Mike Singletary, Richard Dent and Refrigerator Perry. One reason for this is that Hampton does little to promote himself. Yes, he has weekly television and radio shows in Chicago but little else, not even a shoe contract. His only solo endorsements have been for mufflers and for Sears big-and-tall men's clothes, neither of which he has anymore. He appears as one of the Three Bears in a new Diet Coke commercial (Esiason plays Goldilocks), but Hampton, unlike his two teammates in the ad, Neal Anderson and Keith Van Horne, isn't identifiable. Hampton is nowhere to be found in the Bears' 1985 Super Bowl Shuffle rap video, because, he says, "I thought it was pretentious." And he declined to speak to the press the season after Chicago's victory in Super Bowl XX. That was his way of protesting his teammates' selfish behavior. "Everybody on the team was too busy with their own selves, who they were, how much airtime they got, rather than worrying about the team," says Hampton. "They were driven by money and star power, what they could become. It's not important for me to show up at all the restaurant openings or have a different BMW or Mercedes in my driveway for every day of the week.

"I felt that was the team of the decade. If you had told me we weren't going to repeat, I'd have laughed at you. I was naive. Nineteen eighty-six was a tumultuous year [the Bears went 14-2 and were defeated in the divisional playoffs by the Washington Redskins], and it still bothers the hell out of me. When I retire, I'll be happy with what I accomplished, but there'll always be a part of me that says, I wish our team could've played up to its potential."

Although Hampton has been to four Pro Bowls—after the 1980, '82, '84 and '85 seasons—shunning the limelight hurt him last year. It was an ideal time for him to trumpet his skills. Linebacker Wilber Marshall had been traded to the Washington Redskins in the off-season. Injuries would sideline linebackers Otis Wilson and Jim Morrissey, as well as Dent, Perry and free safety Shaun Gayle. Still, Chicago's decimated defense yielded the fewest points in the NFL and finished first against the run. Relentless pressure and penetration from Hampton and left tackle Steve McMichael freed Singletary, the middle linebacker, to roam the field and make tackles. He ended up with a team-high 170. As a result, sportswriters voted Singletary the NFL's defensive player of the year.

Did the award go to the wrong man? "Let's be realistic," says Ditka. "If our tackles play good football, the middle linebacker will be good. If they don't, Mike will be blocked by too many people. Our defense protects the middle linebacker." Indeed, according to the Bears' grading system, Hampton had the best year of any defensive player on the team.

Hampton sums up his role on the Bears defense with a favorite story. "Two years ago, after a Green Bay game, we're watching films," he says. "There's a pitch, the ball is tossed wide, and the tackle and guard double-team me. They hit me low, right in the thigh. I spin around. I'm staggering. I'm clawing to get to the ballcarrier. Singletary goes shuffle, shuffle, shuffle and makes the play.

"[Defensive coordinator] Vince Tobin says, 'Great play, Mike Singletary. That's the way a middle linebacker should play.' And from the back of the room, [defensive line coach] John Levra yells, 'Look at yourself, Hampton, you're upside-down again!' "

Hampton leans back in a chair and laughs loudly. His ability to laugh at himself is one of his most appealing qualities. Sometimes, however, he uses his wit to keep outsiders from probing deeper. If you're busy laughing, you might forget to ask about the pain and disappointment. Hampton certainly doesn't talk about them. So, you ask around.

The Bears' trainers reveal that he ices his aging knees at least three times a day during the season. After games he props himself up on a table in the trainers' room, lights a cigar and shouts, "Gimme a double with cheese." That means an ice bag and an Ace bandage wrap for each knee.

Because of his aching back, says Terry, Dan watches television from the living room floor, flat on his back with his legs elevated on a chair. She often catches him squishing his knees for signs of fluid. On his worst mornings she has to dress him. "He'll sit on the side of the bed, and I'll know he can't do it," says Terry. "He won't have to ask. I can sense it. I put his underwear on him, pull up his pants to where he can grab them and slip his socks and shoes on him. I'll ask him if he wants me to drive him to practice because I can't imagine him crunched up in a car, and he'll say, 'Oh no, no. I have a license.' "

Moments like these cause Terry to explode. "We bump heads," says Terry, who has been married to Dan for 10 years. "I am very supportive. I want it because he wants it. But not if he won't be able to walk when he's 35 or 40—then it absolutely will not have been worth it."

Lanny Johnson, Hampton's orthopedist, had the same concern last January before performing arthroscopic surgery on Hampton for the fourth time. The night before he removed hundreds of cartilage fragments from Hampton's left knee, Johnson initiated a heart-to-heart talk with his patient. "T told Dan he had better start thinking about what he's going to do after football," says Johnson. "I don't like to see people come up to the end without having thought about it. A lot of his personal identity is tied up in the game."

Hampton has thought about the end. He is in the final season of a contract that pays him $850,000 this year, the highest salary among the Bears. He hopes to return for the 1990 season, which would make him the only Bear ever to have played in three decades. "To a point, I'm ready to go on to the next phase," he says. "I'm tired of this one. To be the best, you have to play with your soul and every fiber. I'm a kaleidoscope of emotions on the field. That's what I like about football. Most people have to go months to get the spectrum of emotions I feel in three minutes. But it burns you out.

"After 11 years the level of pain and b.s. is too much. My skills aren't going to improve, and I know I will have to hurt a whole lot more before I don't have any more hurts. It's like waiting for the electric chair. Each season I ask myself, How am I going to play? Will I be able to contribute? This team is an emotional roller coaster. There are 10 highs and eight big lows. Give me a room with a padded cell."

Hampton was born in Oklahoma City, but when he was five, his parents, Robert and Joan, moved the family to a 40-acre farm in Cabot (pop. 6,168), 22 miles northeast of Little Rock. The tiny three-bedroom house sat at the end of a dirt road. Robert, an IBM customer engineer, wanted his three children, of whom Dan was the youngest, to grow up with a respect for the earth and to experience the benefits of living a simple life. "Robert was the kind of guy who went to work in a shirt and tie, and when he came home he put on a straw hat and cutoffs," says Joan.

The Hamptons owned two dairy cows, Holly Bell and April Fool, and a large roan horse named Prince. They raised hay and corn for the animals and planted a large vegetable garden for themselves. After chores, fun for Dan consisted of launching himself from the hayloft into a pile of straw 15 feet below, barrel-jumping with Prince and calf skiing. Calf skiing? "We'd grab the tail of a calf and let it pull us through the pasture in our bare feet," says Matt. "That was commonplace until Dan got pulled through a barbed-wire fence."

Dan was an accident waiting to happen. Whenever the local kids played cowboys and Indians—Dan, whose maternal great-grandfather was part Cherokee, always was an Indian—he would run barefoot through the yard, regularly stepping on rusty nails or discarded fish bones. "We thought we were indestructible," says Matt. Adds Joan, "I always figured the good Lord would watch out for him."

That may explain Dan's luck one July morning in 1969, when he was 12. He was climbing a large elm tree in the front yard. When he grabbed a rotten branch, it broke, and he fell 30 feet to the ground. He smashed his left heel and broke his right ankle and left wrist. "I landed standing up," he says. "The doctors said that a fall from that distance should have shattered the femurs and driven them up into my body. But my bones were extremely strong, they said, from drinking fresh cow milk. Even though I was pretty wrecked, there was no internal damage."

Sixty percent of Hampton's heel was removed, and the rest had to be pieced together with pins. The doctors said that the breaks might distort his growth—he now has scoliosis of the lower spine—and that he would probably have a hard time walking. For five depressing months Hampton was confined to a wheelchair.

"We used to wheel him out onto the front porch, so he could watch the men pave the road in front of the house," says Joan. "Robert would take him for a wheelbarrow ride around the yard every now and then."

Robert was particularly sensitive to Dan's plight. Though all but two of Dan's left fingers were in a cast, Robert encouraged him to play the guitar, and he helped Dan learn to play songs from the television show Hee Haw and the radio. Sometimes Robert would grab his Les Paul electric guitar and accompany Dan in country-and-western duets. He even made Dan a metronome out of a voltmeter.

After the casts were removed, Dan hobbled on crutches for another two months. "I was crippled," he says. "My legs really hurt, and my feet were swollen. I could barely find shoes to fit. It hurt to walk a block with the crutches."

When he discarded the crutches, he limped for several more weeks. By late August of the year after his fall, Dan felt good enough to try out for the eighth-grade football team. Before the accident, he had been a star tailback in the local Pop Warner League, but now one practice was too much. "Running up hills was a new experience in pain," he says. The coach offered him the position of water boy, but Dan chose to play in the band instead.

Dan's life was just coming back together when, a few days before Christmas, 1970, he learned that his father had kidney cancer. "I always felt deep in my heart he wasn't going to die," says Dan. "But by February you could tell he wasn't doing good. He couldn't get out of bed. So we watched TV together and talked. It was hard for me to be around him. I loved him so much."

Robert died in April, at the age of 38. He left the family about $30,000 in savings and insurance, which Joan invested in raising peacocks and Saint Bernards, because she had always been fond of both. Neither venture panned out, and within two years the Hamptons were almost penniless. Joan went to work as a waitress and cook at a truck stop six days a week. She bought the children jeans for a quarter at garage sales and secondhand shoes that were sometimes two sizes too small.

Dan felt lost. Shy and gawky, he had thick, black-rimmed glasses, which he was too embarrassed to put on in class. He grew his hair long, started a rock band named Sanctuary and skipped a lot of school, missing 30 days in his sophomore year at Jacksonville High. He terrorized neighbors with pranks. Once he planted a fake time bomb outside Lon's pool hall in Cabot; another time he put burning dummies in the middle of Highway 89. Joan had little control over him. "How do you spank somebody who's 6'3", 200 pounds?" Hampton says.

Ron Mayton, a math teacher and assistant football coach at Jacksonville High, took an interest in Dan. Mayton, too, had grown up poor. He urged Dan to quit the marching band and to try out for the football team, which had won only five games in four years. For months Dan resisted Mayton's pleas. "Dan said, 'Nobody likes athletes, and the team isn't any good,' " recalls Mayton. So he made Dan a promise: "If you come out, I'll help you get a college scholarship."

Dan joined the team his junior year and played defensive end. He floundered and was benched, in part because he refused to wear his glasses. "I pulled Dan out of a game and said, 'Can you see what's going on? Can you see the football?' " says Mayton. "He said no. So I said, 'How do you decide who to tackle?' He said, 'I grab them all, and the one who keeps struggling is the guy with the ball. I bring him down.' "

Still declining to wear glasses, Dan was moved to right offensive tackle and played well. "By the end of the year he had begun to gain confidence," says Mayton. "He would block three people at once—tackle, noseguard and linebacker—by just running straight ahead and spreading his arms." As a senior Dan started at defensive and offensive tackle and earned a football scholarship to Arkansas. In his freshman year at Fayetteville, he finally started wearing contact lenses.

The Razorbacks had been Robert's favorite team. "Dad won our first color TV in an office pool," says Dan. "He picked Arkansas in the '69 Sugar Bowl."

In some ways Mayton, who left teaching to open a lumberyard during Dan's senior year at Jacksonville, became a father figure to Hampton. He hired him during the summers. He scolded Dan for drag racing the lumberyard's 16-foot, two-ton delivery truck and then fired him for being repeatedly late to work. Still, they remained close. Before Dan's junior year at Arkansas, Mayton gave him some blunt advice: Build your stats and kick some butt, and you'll play in the NFL someday.

A year and a half later—after stepping on a scale for NFL scouts with a 10-pound weight hidden in his jockstrap to bring up to 254—Hampton became the Bears' first choice, and the fourth overall, in the 1979 draft. "The biggest problem anybody had with Dan was convincing him he was somebody special," Mayton says.

In the spring of '83, Dan and Terry, who had been living year-round in Chicago, moved back to Cabot. They bought a dilapidated dairy farm three miles from the house where Dan grew up. At first they settled into a shack near the barns. It had no electricity, the toilet had to be primed to flush, and a wood-burning stove was the only source of heat. "I'd live in a tepee to be in Arkansas," says Hampton.

That summer, with Mayton as the contractor, the Hamptons built a sprawling, white stucco, four-bedroom house, complete with a pool and a horseshoes pit in the backyard. The house sits behind an iron gate and has four giant columns across the front porch. Hampton lovingly calls the place Disgraceland. "The look Dan gets on his face tells me he's happy to be back in Arkansas," says Terry. "It's almost as if his face goes from a chiseled football look to a peaceful calm. The muscles loosen up when we get to the farm. [During the football season they live in a small condominium in suburban Chicago.] It feels good to Dan to know he has his own place, his own land, his own sanctuary. He feels protected there."

Says Dan, "I can hit golf balls in my underwear and no one will see me. There's something nice about walking down to my creek and watching the beavers build a dam or listening to the owls call back and forth to each other. I love this soil. I love this place. I've lived here all my life."

He spends most days in the off-season tending his cows, calves and a 2,100-pound bull named Sig. When Sig was smaller, he and Hampton used to wrestle. Now they just push each other around in a pen. Hampton cuts hay in his air-conditioned tractor with his Dalmatian, Nick the Weasel, beside him.

At the northern edge of the Hamptons' property is the Mt. Chapel church and cemetery. Someday, Hampton says, he will move his father's body there and eventually will be buried at his side. For now he visits Robert's grave in Sumner Cemetery, a couple of miles away. Terry knows how much her husband misses his father. "After a big game, early in his career, I woke up to the whole bed shaking," she says. "Dan was crying. I said, 'What's wrong?' And he said, 'It's just not fair that Daddy isn't here to see this.' If I could have killed myself and brought him back for 15 minutes, I would have."

At least once every off-season, after a Sunday dinner at his mother's place, Dan will pull out his dad's 1957 Les Paul guitar and hold a private jam session. Dan has always feared that he too will die young, so he has been preparing for that day.

"I believe in good," he says. "I believe in God. I believe my father was a terrific man. I've met hundreds of people who tell me what a good person he was. He had a loving wife, three healthy children. And he dies. Why? Where's the justice in that? If this guy was so terrific and he gets cancer, what chance do any of us have? Who's to say I'll last until I'm 33? Nothing will guarantee you a healthy, happy rest of your life."

That's why, when he leaves Cabot to play football, Hampton squeezes every ounce of life out of the game. He screams encouragement at his teammates from the moment he steps onto the field. In his exuberance, he has been known to criticize Ditka's play-calling. "Run the clock out!" he'll growl from the sideline. "Sit on the ball!" That drives Ditka nuts. "Once he threw his clipboard at me," says Hampton. "He said, 'Here, you call the plays.' "

Being held by an opponent makes Hampton boil with rage. "You gutless s.o.b.," he'll shout to an official. "I feel like I'm taking dance lessons with these guys." Once, when San Francisco 49er center Fred Quillan didn't get the message to stop grabbing him. Hampton stomped on Quillan's hand.

Hampton will also poke fun at opponents. In the Cincinnati game this season he gave Esiason an earful while the Bengals were in the huddle. "Goldilocks," Hampton called in a singsong voice. "Oh, Goldilocks. Somebody is drinking all your Diet Coke." Exasperated, Esiason repeatedly flapped his arms to try to get Hampton to shut up.

His teammates are targets too. If the offense takes too long to break the huddle during practice, he'll yell in his best Rodney Dangerfield voice, "Hey, while we're young!" He takes delight in handing out nicknames. McMichael is Ming the Merciless. Perry is Biscuit, and cornerback Lemuel Stinson is Horsefly. Guard Mark (Bortzilla) Bortz has dubbed Hampton the King.

After the game against Cincinnati at Soldier Field, Hampton's face was ashen, and his eyes were dulled by exhaustion. Still, he looked every bit like the Bears' royal highness as he held court from a training table, ordered a double with cheese and puffed on an oversized stogie. "The only thing certain in life is death and taxes," he said. "And I've already paid a lot of taxes. You only live once, but if you do it right the first time, you won't wish for a second chance. When I go, I'll be smiling. I've already cut a big swath through a whole bunch of life."

PHOTOLANE STEWART PHOTOLANE STEWARTAnguish is writ large on Hampton's face as he carries the injured calf to his truck. TWO PHOTOSLANE STEWART"I love this place," says Hampton of his farm, where he works the land with a bulldozer and helps his cows chow down. PHOTOLANE STEWARTThese days Joan has time for her flowers. PHOTOLANE STEWARTDan and Terry prize peace at Disgraceland, but Nick still gets in his licks. PHOTOLANE STEWARTOff the farm Hampton can't golf in his skivvies. PHOTOJOHN IACONOGoldilocks got roughed up by the baddest of the Three Bears in the season opener. PHOTOBILL SMITHStogies and ice are de rigueur for Hampton (left) and McMichael after games.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)