Hampton's exit, like his legs, isn't storybook perfect

MIKE LITTWIN

January 14, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Dan Hampton made a lot of people, and not just offensive linemen, happy yesterday. The man who stood for 12 years in the middle of the feared Bears defense hobbled off into the sunset -- on his own, both legs in relative working order.

Yes, he's a medical marvel, but enough is enough, right?

He is a legend already. Hampton has had his knees cut more often than some people cut their hair -- take a little off the patella and trim the cartilage. The medical boys have gone into the left knee four times, the right knee five. Once, they cut into a finger.

He has scars everywhere. Hampton resembles nothing so much as a giant tic-tac-toe board.

And now it's over.

But Hampton, who didn't want it to end at all, certainly didn't want it to end this way.

"It was the fairy tale," he said, "that ended in a train wreck."

No wonder he has resisted retirement so ferociously, if retirement means a 31-3 devastation in a playoff game, and at hated Giants Stadium, too. "A nuclear wasteland that they built a stadium on," Hampton would say. He always did have a way with words.

But, worst of all, on the last down of the last game of his career, Hampton's beloved Bears defense gave up a touchdown, the fourth of the day when Giants had their way with them. This is the way you retire?

The various networks were working on a slightly different scenario, wherein Hampton, who, after 12 years and 10 operations, was playing on love and desire and very little remaining cartilage, would end his career in the Super Bowl.

That would have been fine with him. The only regret he could think of, besides the last touchdown, was that every season didn't end in the Super Bowl. This one ended with him hobbling to the sideline. Hampton didn't flash to all the good times; he was too hung up on the last time.

"All I could think of was that I didn't want them to score, not on the last down I ever played," Hampton said. "But if that's the worst thing that ever happens to me, I'll be all right."

Actually, it isn't the worst thing that ever happened to Hampton. The worst thing that ever happened to Hampton has happened over and over and over again. He has had the 10 operations and needs two more, one on each knee. "That's perfect," he says. "Twelve years and 12 operations." He's had seven broken fingers. He had a fractured spinous process. He's had broken ribs. Once he broke his nose while celebrating an overtime victory in the end zone.

Hampton is 33, and when he falls down, he can barely get up. He walks like an old man. When he tried to block a pass yesterday, he jumped like an actor in a Toyota commercial. He played this year when he should never have played, because he couldn't imagine not playing one more time. And here it is: his one last time.

"It's not that big a deal," he said. "I just wish I could have stuck around a few more games. But I had this year. A lot of guys don't ever take the chances to smell the roses. This year, I did."

A lot of people thought he shouldn't have come back after two operations before the season. Bill Walsh, the coach-turned-commentator, said so on the air and criticized Bears coach Mike Ditka for allowing it to happen. Hampton fired back something about Walsh's minding his own business.

Don't you want to be able to jog when you're 50? somebody asked Hampton.

"I don't want to jog now," he said.

But watch Ditka walk sometime. He needs a new hip. Dick Butkus can barely get around. That's the life Hampton must be facing.

"Medically speaking, he shouldn't have been out there," said teammate Trace Armstrong. "You can't imagine the type of pain he has played with all year. You just can't imagine.

"One day before practice, he asked me to feel his knee. I put my hand on it, and it was just like a ratchet wrench."

You could feel it?

"Feel it?" he said. "I could hear it."

His teammates will miss him because he was a fine lineman and because he was the guy who would call the Vikings spineless or, the week before the playing the Giants, break out into "New York, New York," Sinatra style. But they'll miss him mostly because they couldn't believe that he kept showing up.

"I'll miss his dedication, his commitment," Mike Singletary said. "Most of all, I'll miss his heart. You don't find guys like him in this league with that kind of heart."

He'll take his heart and what cartilage he can find into a broadcast booth next season. Already, Hampton has heard from each of the networks. And somebody talked to him about a pilot for a sitcom, probably a medical show. And he shouldn't feel too bad about yesterday, because the Giants will get theirs next week when they go to San Francisco. No matter what happened, the Bears weren't getting to the Super Bowl without a ticket.

On his last day, he stood in the locker room and talked about all the good years. He didn't get emotional. There were no tears.

"The guys who cry are the ones who feel like they didn't get it all done," Hampton said. "I played it out. The bottle is empty. All in all, it was a great run."

And a pretty good hobble.

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