More photos here.
Several dozen John Hannah fans were in attendance tonight at the Hall at Patriot place to hear the inaugural installment of a speaker series the Patriots will feature there this year.
My dad is one of those Hannah fans. To say only that seems like an understatement, actually. My dad has a Hannah Speech I can practically recite by heart - "The GREATEST offensive lineman EVER to play the game," is how it starts. It usually ends with something about how "these guys today couldn't even carry his jock."
It's funny, because Hannah was asked at what weight or position he would expect to play in today's game, and he said he would probably be a blocking fullback. In person, he was much shorter than I expected, though so broad and stocky, with such monstrous paws for hands, that had I met him on the street I'd still have figured him for a former athlete.
In his playing days, Hannah, drafted by the Patriots in 1973, was a compact fireplug of a guard with legs like tree trunks and a near-insane passion on the field. My father admired his toughness and loved the way Hannah would drop a defensive player to the turf and then look around for more victims. "Not like these guys today who fall down in front of a guy and then, they're done."
He told me this over dinner at the CBS Scene restaurant. It was our inaugural visit there, too--you can't get near the place on game day. At 4 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon it was much more accessible, but felt like a stage set waiting for its actors without a soul at the bar.
As we were eating, another guy walked up, big and stocky himself. He had spied my father's bright red No 73 jersey and came over to ask us directions to the event. This touched off an exchange of Hannah Speeches between him and my dad. "I used to live about three miles away from the college where the Pats used to practice..." began this other man's speech. He said he'd watch Hannah remove his shoulder pads after his teammates had gone to the locker room, and then continue hitting the one-man sled for at least another half hour. "With just his face," the guy concluded.
Later on in the evening this same man would tell Hannah himself this story. And when he did, it was a near word-for-word replica of how he'd told it to my dad.
Maybe Hannah fans are a type. Maybe they all have a Speech.
The event was held inside a small theater at the center of the glossy, brand-new Hall. The ticketing had been limited to 150, and not every seat was filled. But it was clear from the moment Hannah entered in his bright red Hall jacket that what they lacked in relative numbers, the fans made up for in enthusiasm with an instantaneous standing ovation. Once both Hannah and audience had settled in toward the end, their interaction became a comfortable and intimate conversation.
Hannah grew up in Alabama, and carries a strong southern twang to this day. He also attended the University of Alabama and played football for the legendary Bear Bryant. My father's question for Hannah was whether playing for Bryant or in the NFL had been a tougher experience. Hannah hesitated for only a few moments before answering that it had been more difficult to play for Bear.
Put it this way--if you got in trouble, you wound up in 5 o'clock gym class. "And that didn't mean 5 o'clock p.m.," Hannah said. "You'd go to the gymnasium and they'd work you and work you...there were three trash cans in there, and they weren't for paper."
Being worked to the point of illness was standard fare at Alabama, according to Hannah. He also told a story about his introduction to 'bama football, on a 100-degree day in August when 10 of his teammates would be hospitalized for heat stroke and dehydration. Hannah told tonight's audience that Bear had explained the punishing ritual as proof to his players of their bodies' toughness. "The human body is an amazing machine--you're out there pukin' and sweatin' and thinkin' you're gonna die, but it'll pass out long before that!" The audience laughed, half in amusement and half in amazement.
Bear Bryant probably wouldn't make it as a coach in today's society, Hannah said. He confirmed for my dad the legend of Bear's pit where two offensive linemen would enter and the one who made it out was the starter. He told the story of a girlfriend who showed up late to drive him to a team meeting, then told him she needed to stop and use the bathroom. Hannah, fearing his coach and 5 o'clock gym, told her, "you should've thought of that before you were late!"
But Bryant also had higher philosophical purposes to his draconian lessons, and spoke to his players about 'an invisible barrier--and eventually you're going to get mad enough, or scared enough, and you'll break through, and you'll discover that there's another whole world out there.'
"You found out who you was made of," reminisced Hannah. But he also recalled a time the coach made a fuss over him when he was seriously ill. "He was concerned about me. He loved me."
Coming to the hangdog Patriots of the 1970's was actually a step down for Hannah. "Somebody asked me how I was gonna feel, you know, playing on national TV in front of fifty five thousand people..." He'd been playing on national TV in front of 80,000 for the Crimson Tide, whom he noted also had nicer locker room facilities than his NFL team. "I said, 'Well, I'll try not to be too disappointed'."
The conversation was wide-ranging, covering everything from old playoff controversies--"It was the most crooked game in the world," he said of the notorious 1976 first-round playoff against the Oakland Raiders--to the economy and steroids to former teammates' nicknames. "Booger" Bob McKay was so called because of his habit of "pickin' a big greasyun" after his bus left from Texas headed for New England, and then "seein' how far I could get rollin' it on my jeans." (The record was Philadelphia).
In case you were wondering, Hannah also made no bones about his preference for Steve Grogan over Tony Eason. "There was a lack of faith in Tony," he said. He jokingly told a fan that if Grogan had started the '85 Super Bowl, "we'd have lost by only 14 points."
Of his opponents, he gave Clay Matthews the most credit, saying he was both quick and powerful--so if Hannah tried to stay light on his feet to overcome his quickness, Matthews would come strong and run him over. If Hannah set his feet to overcome his power, Matthews would blow by him with his speed. It was Buck Buchanan, though, who gave him his first rude awakening in the big leagues, and Hannah did a funny imitation of Buchanan's low, scary laugh as the defensive tackle picked up the young Hannah and hurled him into his own quarterback.
Generally, Hannah was affable, and funny in a slapstick, sight-gag kind of way (in other words, you kind of had to be there for most of the jokes). At times his "nastiness" (a compliment in the world of offensive linemen) still shined through, like when he acted out a clotheslining move that was legal when he came into the league on a hapless imaginary safety, and then mimicked pointing and laughing when his invisible victim hit the ground. He also spoke with a gleeful light in his eyes of the way Bob Brown would reinforce his thumbs with tongue depressors and tape before games, the better to jab them into the sides of defensive linemen.
With the glossy Hall bustling outside the theater, and beyond that the palatial stadium and lavish Patriot Place twinkling in the night, Hannah was asked how he felt about today's Patriots, a far cry from the Patsies of the 1970's. "Mr. Kraft has done remarkable things," he said. "It's professional football--it's all about making money. Some people make money by cutting costs, and some by making a high-quality product. I think what we have here is a quality product."
I couldn't resist asking him what he thought of today's offensive line. He identified Matt Light and Logan Mankins as his favorites, which as far as my dad and I were concerned was the correct answer. However, he added that he thinks Light is out of position. "I'd make him a guard," he said. "And then with both those boys on either side, I'd kill people in the running game."
As for this year's Super Bowl, though, he couldn't have cared less. "I didn't even watch it. My wife and I went to the movies," he said. "The Patriots weren't in it."