He played in the NFL for 13 years, made the Pro Bowl seven times and earned first-team All-Pro. But Chris Hinton’s legacy is something else. To football fans, he’s known as The Rookie Lineman Denver Dealt To Baltimore For Quarterback John Elway.
“That’s how I’m introduced,” Hinton, 56, said of the 1983 trade that made him a Colt when Elway balked at playing here. “It kind of overshadows my accomplishments.”
Pity, that, because Hinton’s career was a solid one. The Broncos’ first-round draft pick and the fourth player chosen overall (Elway was No. 1), Hinton, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound guard-tackle, was a pillar up front. He helped the Colts, winless in 1982, to go 7-9 the following year while becoming the first rookie offensive lineman to start in the Pro Bowl.
Then he was gone, with the rest of the franchise, whisked off to Indianapolis under cover of night.
Though here just one year, Hinton has fond memories of Baltimore, given the tumult of the times. An All-American at Northwestern, he was no sooner drafted by Denver than sent to the Colts — along with quarterback Mark Herrmann and the Broncos’ first-round pick in 1984 — for Elway, the Stanford phenom who’d refused to play for Baltimore.
“He [Elway] didn’t want to work for us, so why hire him?” Colts owner Robert Irsay said then. “He’ll never be any good.”
Hinton was stunned by the trade.
“After the draft, I’d flown to Denver and gotten this crazy reception, with all these people, at the airport,” he said. “Six days later, I got traded and flew to Baltimore, where an intern from the Colts was there to greet me. But after the initial shock, I got to like the city, the fans and antiquated Memorial Stadium, with all its history.”
Hinton bought a home in Timonium, embraced the community and became spokesman for Baltimore’s Adopt-A-Family program begun by Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Hinton championed a single mother with three children, took them grocery shopping at Thanksgiving and bought them gifts at Christmas.
“At 22, it felt so cool to help,” he said. “I remember that mom being so thankful.”
He visited the Maryland Penitentiary and kibitzed with members of its Colts Corral — prisoners, all.
“They, and the blue-collar fans who still came to our games, were so passionate about the team,” Hinton said. “They were the ones I felt sorry for when we moved.”
First, though, the fans gave Elway the business. In their 1983 home opener, the Colts played Denver. Hinton’s ears are still ringing.
“Everyone was chanting, ‘Elway sucks! Elway sucks!’ ” he said. “That was the loudest the stadium was that year, by far.”
The Broncos rallied to win, 17-10. To the crowd’s delight, Elway was sacked three times. (He’d go on to win the Super Bowl twice and make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)
At season’s end, Hinton played in the Pro Bowl. Players wore their team helmets, but Hinton’s blue-and-white headgear lacked the signature horseshoe. The story was that it had been swiped by other players as a rookie initiation for the Colts star. Not so.
“Truth is, Bob Irsay had verbally promised me a bonus if I made the Pro Bowl, and he kind of went back on his word,” Hinton said. “So I chose not to be a Colt for a day and took the horseshoe off.”
That helmet, with the horseshoe, now holds a special place in his home in Johns Creek, Ga.
He played six years in Indianapolis, four with the Atlanta Falcons and two with the Minnesota Vikings in a stellar career that has earned Hinton a 2018 nomination to the Hall of Fame (semifinalists will be named in November).
On retirement, he bought two wine stores near Atlanta, both of which he sold last year to spend more time with his three sons. The eldest, Christopher, is a 6-4, 275-pound lineman who has committed to Michigan as a high school junior. Then comes Myles who, at 15, stands 6-6 and weighs 315.
“The difference between us is that, as a kid growing up in south Chicago, I ate dinner until I was done; they eat until they are full,” Hinton said. “Plenty of nights, back then, I would like to have had another chicken leg.”
Still at his playing weight, he walks 10 miles a day, four times a week, along the nearby Chattahoochee River, travels with his wife of 19 years and catches up on emails.
“Last month, I heard from a college friend who’d just returned from Canada,” Hinton said. “The border guard asked if he’d known any good football players at Northwestern and he mentioned my name. The guard said, ‘Oh, yeah, the guy in the Elway trade,’ and waved my friend on through. Hilarious.”
A few years ago, he said, The Denver Post saluted him “for being the trade bait to obtain Elway and change Broncos’ history.”
“I was like, great, thanks — but that doesn’t help my Hall of Fame chances.”