By David Teel, firstname.lastname@example.org | 247-4636
2:53 PM EST, February 12, 2011
Chris Hanburger had never played organized football before enrolling at Hampton High in the summer of 1957. After four days of practice with the Crabbers, he wanted to quit.
"I was done," he says. "I was so sore I could hardly move."
Teammates and fellow Army brats John and Geoff Ellerson thought otherwise. Suck it up, they told Hanburger, prodding him into the car for the drive from Fort Monroe to school.
That intervention launched a career that last week earned Hanburger election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I told them, 'Look, I've had it. I ain't going,' " Hanburger says from his South Carolina home. "Well, they talked me into going. I think it was that day, if it was your first year with the Hampton football team, they shaved your head and left a big H on the top.
"After they did it, I thought, 'Well goddangit, I can't quit now. I can't walk around here with that sucker and not be on the team.' So I stuck it out."
Stuck it out through a gruesome facial fracture that derailed his dream of attending the United States Military Academy.
Stuck it out through an All-ACC career at North Carolina, where he honeymooned on the school's dime.
Stuck it out through 14 seasons (1965-78) as a Washington Redskins linebacker, missing a game only after an emergency appendectomy.
"There are a lot of life's lessons in all this, just the twists and turns we take," says former Hampton mayor Jimmy Eason, Hanburger's high school and college teammate.
Hanburger, 69, is weary of the twists and turns. He's comfortably and happily retired after selling the Ford dealership in Maryland that carried his name.
He and his wife live modestly in the country, and about the only football games that capture his attention are those played by his 8-year-old grandson.
Indeed, when the Hall of Fame called with the good news Feb. 5, Hanburger cringed at the notion of flying the next day to the Super Bowl to be recognized on national television and in front of more than 100,000 spectators.
"I'm just a simple guy, really," he says. "I'm just not into all that other stuff. To me (football) was a job I had, and I wanted to do the best I could all the time, and I didn't really like to have a lot of distractions. It's just me. Not everybody is going to be like me.
"Yeah, I'm a loner. Always have been. You could give me a shack 20 miles off a paved road, send me supplies two or three times a year, and I'm a happy guy."
During a transient childhood that took his family to military bases in North Carolina, South Dakota, Alabama, Panama and Pennsylvania, Hanburger had little choice but to fend for himself. He was an average-sized but natural athlete who played sandlot ball with his buddies.
Then the Army sent his father to Fort Monroe, introducing Hanburger to Hampton's storied football program, coached then by Suey Eason, Jimmy's father.
"Coach Eason was very demanding, and I always wondered how Jimmy held up playing for his dad," Hanburger says. "I don't remember what I did or didn't do in high school. … The only thing that concerned me was going out and doing it, and doing it to the best of my ability. Just praying that I didn't make a big mistake."
John Ellerson was a year ahead of Hanburger and recalls him making few mistakes.
"We were all Army brats," he says from his Florida home, "and anytime you came into a new community or football team, you had to work your way into the organization and win acceptance. It wasn't like he was welcomed with open arms.
"He was a junior, and the older guys on the team had established their positions. … But he was such a natural. He was so far above the rest of us. As much as you didn't want him to be good, he was."
And about that intervention? Preventing Hanburger from quitting the team?
Ellerson chuckles and insists he doesn't recall.
"I'm sure the reason we went after him is Coach Eason told us to bring him back or not come back ourselves," he says.
Hanburger was an offensive and defensive end at Hampton, and the position was stacked. Ellerson played collegiately at Army, Jimmy Stout for Georgia, Craig Zimmerman at Yale.
But Hanburger's talents demanded playing time.
"He was a little introverted," Eason says, "but obviously commanded a great amount of respect. He was very intense. You look at his size — he was very small even back then for a linebacker. I don't think he ever got above 200 pounds at North Carolina.
"He was very smart, too. He was a very good student in school and a very good student on the football field."
Hoping to join the Ellerson brothers at West Point, Hanburger entered the academy's prep school at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia. But during a conditioning drill he likens to flag football, Hanburger sustained — he recites the phrase like a seasoned surgeon — "a tripod fracture of the zygomatic arch."
In layman's terms: The bones around his right eye were shattered, and following surgery he spent a lengthy rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
After missing extended class time at prep school, Hanburger gave up his West Point quest. So Suey Eason called one of his former players, North Carolina assistant coach Joe Mark.
Soon thereafter, Hanburger joined Jimmy Eason at Chapel Hill. Hanburger was a two-time all-conference center, and as a junior in 1963 he helped the Tar Heels win their first ACC championship.
Carolina's subsequent trip to the Gator Bowl served as Hanburger's honeymoon.
"I thought, 'Heck I'll get married and won't have to spend any money on a honeymoon because I don't have any money,' " Hanburger says.
A year later, the Redskins selected him in the 18th round of the NFL draft. Hanburger didn't even realize it until a friend phoned him.
"Heavens no," he says of NFL aspirations. "I didn't know anything about pro ball when I was in college. … (But) I figured it's worth a shot, let's try it and see what happens. …
"I was determined to do the best that I could. I wasn't going to just show up. I wanted to prove myself. It just worked out real well."
Hanburger earned nine Pro Bowl appearances, most in franchise history. He started 135 consecutive games, nearly 10 full seasons, before the appendicitis struck in 1977.
Like Eason, Hanburger's NFL teammates consider him a fierce but cerebral competitor. Defensive back Pat Fischer, for example, calls him "a master" at studying opponents and calling defenses.
Hanburger was part of Washington's first Super Bowl team in 1972, the same season in which he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He played with Hall of Famers such as Sam Huff, Ken Houston and Sonny Jurgensen, and for icons Vince Lombardi and George Allen.
But as with his time at Hampton and North Carolina, Hanburger professes to no indelible memories of the NFL. He's not big on reunions or staying in touch with teammates — Eason says he hasn't spoken to Hanburger in years, and Ellerson lost track of him after high school.
Moreover, Hanburger spent no time wondering if, 33 years after his final game, the Hall of Fame would honor him.
"That's based on the way I think it's all done," Hanburger says. "There's a lot of guys before my time, guys I played with and against, and guys playing now. There's some great players that have never been nominated, let alone elected. … I'm just so fortunate. I just never expected it to happen."
Hanburger is the second former Crabber — Dwight Stephenson is the other — elected to the hall. Lawrence Taylor from Lafayette High and Henry Jordan from Warwick High also are enshrined — this year's induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio is Aug. 6.
Selection is determined by a 44-man committee that meets during Super Bowl week, and prior to this year's voting, a friend in the media offered to lobby for Hanburger.
"I said no," Hanburger says. "All they can do is look at the records of the folks that are nominated. They have to make their own decision. I don't want, nor have I ever wanted, anybody to try and influence anything on my behalf."
But thank goodness the Ellerson brothers wielded their influence 54 years ago. Otherwise, professional football would have been denied its Accidental Hall of Famer.
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