Induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is an accolade Chris Hanburger can’t deflect.
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Jack Morton
PHOTOS: Yackety Yack/Getty
hris Hanburger is and always will be a reluctant star. As a Tar Heel, the versatile Hanburger was twice named First-Team All-Conference as a center, while also playing linebacker on defense. During 14 seasons as middle linebacker for the Washington Redskins, Hanburger played in the Pro Bowl nine times, earned First-Team All-Pro honors four times, and Second-Team All-Pro accolades twice. He was relentless in his pursuit of the football, known affectionately as "The Hangman" for his penchant for clothesline tackling. The Fort Bragg native was recently elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and as a member of the Class of 2011, with an August induction.
"I really wasn't into sports as a kid—I played a little bit of baseball, but didn't go out for football until my junior year of high school," said the former Hampton (Va.) High Crabber. "I was an Army brat. We spent time in Panama, Kansas, South Dakota, and my father had two different stints at the Pentagon, and I played my two years of high school football at Hampton while my dad was at Fort Monroe. I had played some sandlot tackle football but I just wasn't into playing on a regular team; I had accepted the fact that we were going to move every year or two, and I had to adapt to change a lot as a child."
Hanburger, who clearly recalls "how sore" he was during his first few times in pads and a helmet, received some interest from colleges and several scholarship offers as a senior at Hampton. Hanburger, who described himself at the time as "not the greatest student and not terribly mature," opted for Army prep school after graduating from Hampton High in 1959. A physical training accident prevented Hanburger from proceeding to West Point, and academics fell by the wayside. As he rehabilitated he also scored "high enough on the board tests to get into some colleges," and decided to give college a try rather than re-enlist.
"One of the UNC assistant coaches was related to someone in the Hampton area and they had stayed in touch and actually wanted me to get out of the military before the two-year commitment," said Hanburger. "In high school I had played a lot of tight end, and we ran from the double wing formation 99 percent of the time. When I got to Chapel Hill in 1961 for that first year of freshman ball, I had a tough time catching the ball.
"Bob Lacey was leading the world in receiving at the time, so ultimately I was moved to center on offense and linebacker of defense, and played both those positions my sophomore through senior years."
Having devoted his first two years out of Hampton to the military, Hanburger arrived at UNC at the ripe old age of 20, certainly older than the other members of the freshman class.
"One guy asked me if I had fought in Korea," deadpanned Hanburger. "When I committed to go to Carolina, I still wasn't fully recovered from my training accident; I had a severe facial fracture and spent 90 days at Walter Reed Hospital. I had very poor circulation in my face at the time, and still have very little feeling on the right side of my face. But I learned to live with it and move along."
Hanburger, who would ultimately be named First-Team All-Conference in both 1963 and 1964 at center, very quickly deflects accolades and individual recognition. The Tar Heels would accumulate an overall record of 18-14 during his three seasons on the varsity; their finest season under coach Jim Hickey during that stretch was 1963, capping the 9-2 year with an emphatic 35-0 win over Air Force in the Gator Bowl. Hanburger was named team co-captain during his senior season in 1964.
"I tried to do the best I could; I don't remember any special recognitions," said Hanburger, audibly shifty during talk of individual awards. "Football was something that I did that I enjoyed. I went to class, I went to practice. I never had any aspirations to play professionally; I just wanted to get out of college with a degree, but had no idea what I wanted to do. I majored in history."
The Washington Redskins helped Hanburger determine what came next. Taken in the 18th round of the 1965 NFL Draft, Hanburger would return to the Virginia area to play under coach Bill McPeak for one season. Mired in a series of average and below-average seasons, the franchise was building for the future with the drafting of Hanburger and other future stars like Sonny Jurgensen and Bobby Mitchell.
"My thought process at that point was hey, I'll go give it a try," said Hanburger. "I knew who Sam Huff was, but I didn't follow pro football. I went in as a rookie as a linebacker and played a lot of special teams that season, felt like I had to excel on special teams to make the team.
"Luck plays a big role in making it in the pros," he continued. "There were two linebackers in front of me; one of them got hurt and the other didn't like his playing time, and half-way through my rookie season I moved into the starting role. I was fortunate to be quick, so the speed of the professional game wasn't much of a problem. Learning all the plays was the key. Pro ball was much more complicated than college, and Coach Allen was a more defensive-minded coach. The learning process was tough; we had close to 200 audibles, and it's the linebacker's job to control the game on the field, defensively. We didn't do any signaling from the sideline, so it was a scenario of total control for the linebacker."
During his 14 seasons in Washington, Hanburger would play for a variety of coaches, from Bill McPeak to Otto Graham, Vince Lombardi, and Bill Austin prior to George Allen's arrival in 1971.
"The coaching staffs were always tremendous and fun to work with," Hanburger said from his back porch in Darlington, South Carolina. "No one tried to change your way of doing things, and I was very comfortable—if you took care of your responsibility, they were happy.
"I enjoyed the other players, and you have all these different personalities," he continued. "You get along with some, not so much with others, but all that gets put aside when you're playing. Everyone has a job to do on the field, and I was always happy for the next guy's success. I loved playing at home (DC Stadium) and had a tremendous amount of respect for the fans—they were very devoted to our team, and we owed it to them to do our best."
Hanburger would start 135 consecutive games for the Redskins between 1968 and 1977. When his football career ended after the 1978 season, No. 55 had accumulated 46 career sacks, 19 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles, and five touchdowns scored. He played in the Pro Bowl nine times, was named First-Team All-Conference eight times, and was voted the 1972 NFL 101 NFC Defensive Player of the Year. Hanburger was voted First-Team All-Pro in 1972, 1973, 1975, and 1976, and Second-Team All-Conference in 1969 and 1974. In 2002 he was named one of the 70 Greatest Redskins in team history, and in August 2011 will join Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders, Shannon Sharpe, Les Richter, Richard Dent, and NFL Films' Ed Sabol as Hall of Fame inductees in Canton, Ohio.
"The game wore on me mentally more than physically," he explained. "I realized it was time to pack it in. I had a philosophy that I couldn't get injured without getting hit or hitting someone, but contact is the essence of football.
"I had been working during the off-seasons at an auto dealership, learning the business, and eventually had my own Ford dealership in College Park for a number of years," Hanburger continued. "The transition into life after football was smooth, and we stayed in the D.C. area until four years ago when I decided to retire from working completely—I'll be 70 this summer."
Hanburger admits that his golf game isn't what it once was, but has thoroughly enjoyed the life of a retiree in South Carolina.
"I haven't done much hunting down here—we've really scaled down since moving," he said. "We lived on 12 acres in Maryland and had three kids, and I just got tired of taking care of the place, the big old house and property. I just enjoy myself, helping a lot of neighbors and the country club with a lot of things. I cut a lot of trees for the club, neighbors too—I've probably cut close to 400 trees since we've been here."
The former gridiron great doesn't watch much football anymore, and his contact with both his alma mater and former employer has been limited.
"I probably watch more college games than pro, but I don't watch them for more than a quarter or a half—I've just got better things to do," he deadpanned. "It's me. I did football, I enjoyed it, but it's not something I'm really involved with anymore.
"Since the Hall of Fame nomination I've had more contact with the Redskins, but I'm somewhat of a recluse," continued Hanburger. "The fewer people that know where I am or that I played football, the better."
When asked about his Hall of Fame election, Hanburger's tone was consistent.
"It's not me, of course, but it's a great honor," he said. "When you think about how many men have played that never get nominated—I'm most appreciative of being elected. I actually found out about it on television the night before the last Super Bowl, and then got a phone call almost immediately. Very odd to see 'Hall of Fame' on the caller ID.
"I'm not a very good alumnus," he continued. "I haven't been to Chapel Hill in years. UNC has reached out to me since the Hall of Fame nomination and invited me up there to see a game this coming fall. I'm just not a social person. Everyone asks me if I've started working on my speech—I'm just planning to speak off the cuff. They say we're limited to 6-8 minutes, but I can't imagine anyone having much more to say than that. Mine might be the shortest speech ever given."
Saturday, August 6th should be one of those 'DVR Days' for not only UNC and Redskin fans, but also those intrigued by character study and personality extremes. As certain as Deion Sanders is to make a production of his induction, Chris Hanburger is likely to fidget and squirm during his time at the microphone. Hanburger allowed his reckless abandon on the field speak to for itself, resulting in a laundry list of personal accolades that he'd rather not discuss. This summer in South Carolina, Chris Hanburger is cutting down trees, helping others, and doing all he can to avoid preparing a Hall of Fame induction speech.