His first day in camp with the Philadelphia Eagles, Hairston did what he’d always done in college. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive end stuffed his sweaty uniform in a bag, lugged it home and washed it.
“Next day, the equipment manager asked, ‘Where’s your jersey? We can’t find it,’” Hairston said. “I took it out, all clean and folded. He said, ‘You didn’t have to do that.’ But, in college, we were used to doing things ourselves.”
That mindset served Hairston well in the NFL. A self-starter and feared pass rusher, he played 15 years in the pros and unofficially registered 94 quarterback sacks — 15 in 1979, when he led the NFC. (The NFL didn’t start keeping official tackle stats until 1982, Hairston’s seventh season.)
“Hard work was my mantra,” the 64-year-old Hairston said from his home in Phoenix, Ariz. “I got a job at 13, washing dishes, to help pay the bills. At UMES, we wore hand-me-down jerseys and shoes and took care of our own equipment, right down to our jockstraps. There was no weight room. For something to do, we’d go down to Pocomoke, wait for the boats to come in and help unload the clams and crabs.
“We slept 10 to a room in the football dorm, which wasn’t air-conditioned. It was cramped, but I figured that’s just the way it was. There were railroad tracks next to campus, where trains passed every morning at 3 a.m., so we’d wait up for them. No sense trying to sleep with a train coming. Some players today, I don’t know if they could survive what we went through.”
A four-year starter from Martinsville, Va., Hairston shined on dismal UMES teams that lost 19 of 21 games over his last two seasons. His junior year, the Hawks scored 27 points in 10 games, providing little fanfare for the school’s 12-man marching band.
A one-man wrecking crew, Hairston made All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference three times, and as a senior, he totaled 147 solo tackles, 15 sacks and one interception.
“I’d make plays 20 yards downfield,” Hairston said. “I’d say, ‘C’mon guys, don’t quit’ — it wasn’t my nature to quit.
”Once, against South Carolina State, I got hurt. Coach hollered, ‘Hairston, get your [butt] back in there; the pros don’t want guys who get hurt!’ So I jumped up and started playing again. I took that mentality into the pros.”
The Eagles’ seventh-round draft pick in 1976, Hairston recalled his first talk with head coach Dick Vermeil.
“I was stretching on the field and [Vermeil] said, ‘You’re from an 0-and-20 team and you don’t have a chance in hell to make it here,’” Hairston said. “Well, I wasn’t going to just walk out. Instead, in practice, I would line up against the best offensive linemen, load up and try to knock the crap out of them. I was like a snake striking.”
Vermeil took note.
“[Hairston] has a strong pop. He just explodes into a guy,” the coach said later. “He plays like he’s mad on every snap.”
The Eagles called him “Hurricane” and kept him eight years, including in 1980 when they lost to the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV. There, he squared off against Raiders tackle Art Shell, another UMES alumnus and now a Hall of Famer.
Felled by knee surgery in 1983, Hairston was dealt in 1984 to the Cleveland Browns, for whom he starred for six seasons and earned the nickname “Big Daddy.”
“The Browns strength coach first called me that,” Hairston said. “I hated the name; it made me sound like a drug dealer. But then I thought of the other ‘Big Daddy’ [former Colts star Gene Lipscomb] and figured I was in good company.”
Hairston retired in 1991 but stayed in football. For 14 years, he served as a defensive line coach in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Rams, with whom he won Super Bowl XXXIV.
He now works as a volunteer coach at several Phoenix schools (“It gets me out of the house”) and takes yoga classes at the local YMCA.
Big Daddy likes ... yoga?
“Sure,” he said. “In Cleveland, coach Marty Schottenheimer had me and Ozzie Newsome [now the Ravens general manager] take ballet for offseason training.”
In 1985, Hairston returned to UMES, which bestowed on him an honorary degree. The school, which sent a bevy of players to the pros, had dropped football five years earlier. But it was there, Hairston said, that he shaped the leadership acumen that he hopes is his legacy.
“Football isn’t about the yippin’ and yellin’,” he said. “It’s about playing hard on every play. Line up, beat the [expletive] out of guys and wear them down. Do that, and good things happen. It’s a simple game.”