ACC Legend: Chris Hanburger of North Carolina
Nov. 10, 2011
By Rob Daniels, Special to theACC.com
On a spring day in 1965, Chris Hanburger returned to the campus of the University of North Carolina after a weekend break, and he learned something interesting. At least it was interesting to his teammates.
"Did you know you had been drafted by the Redskins?" one asked.
No clue, the linebacker said. And it wasn't just because he was a lightly regarded prospect. The very existence of the NFL draft was news to him.
"I had never kept up with pro football," the Tar Heels' ACC Legend for 2011 said recently. "I guess it was a couple of days later that the Redskins called and made arrangements for my wife and I go to go D.C. to see about signing and all that."
Over time, "all that" wound up encompassing more than the vast majority of players achieved. In 14 years with the Redskins, he made nine Pro Bowls and helped the team achieve its first stretch of excellence. And he did it all while barely paying attention to the acclaim.
Hanburger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame over this past summer and is therefore the third Legend enshrined in Canton in the ACC Championship Game's seven years. He joins Randy White of Maryland (2006 Legend, 1994 Hall) and Miami's Jim Kelly (2007 Legend, 2002 Hall).
"It's been a little hectic," Hanburger said.
That's one understated way to put it.
The truth is that Hanburger's story has always been different. Like some other prep seniors, he wasn't sure what his first post-graduate move would be. The nuance is that he recognized his shortcomings before leaving Hampton (Va.) High School.
"I knew I wasn't ready to go to college," he said. "That's for sure. I barely got out of high school. I'm one of those whose elevator has trouble getting all the way to the top, so to speak."
So he enlisted in the Army and did a two-year stateside stint that prepared him for what would follow. Recruiters didn't forget about him. A year into his hitch, coaches began calling and encouraging him to enroll then and finish the military thing later. He declined.
After arriving in Chapel Hill, he spent summers at a base in South Carolina and served in the reserves. As a result, Hanburger was never out of shape and always ready for the next challenge.
Those challenges included play on both sides of the ball. Hanburger was a center and linebacker for the Tar Heels, who went 9-2 with a share of the ACC championship in 1963. That success brought a postseason bid with it, and that, too, was something of a surprise. Weeks earlier, Hanburger had gotten engaged, presuming he and Evelyn, now his wife of 48 years, would spend some time together over the holiday break.
"We played in the Gator Bowl against Air Force after that season," Hanburger said, "and that was our honeymoon."
Hanburger was an All-ACC center in 1963 and 1964, but NFL teams - at least the one that was most interested - saw him as an outside linebacker. And even the Redskins took their sweet time in displaying their curiosity.
His name wasn't called until the 18th round - not that he heard it, mind you - and that may be even more remote than it sounds. Hanburger was the 245th player selected out of 280 that year. Today, the NFL only bothers to draft 256 players, and the league has more than twice the number of teams it had back then. By strictly numerical standards, his chances of making it were less than half as good as those of a modern seventh-round choice.
Ignorance was bliss.
"I figured it was a great opportunity and I'd try to make the best of it," Hanburger said. "And so I went to D.C. and signed the day before a game. They gave me a couple of tickets to the game. I walked out the front door and gave the tickets to some guy on the street."
Hanburger was not casual about fulfilling his actual responsibilities on the field, however. He was a four-time All-Pro who was named the NFL's defensive MVP in 1972 as the Redskins advanced to the Super Bowl against the Miami Dolphins, who would go on to become the first - and so far only - undefeated team in modern NFL history.
Hanburger retired and proceeded into a quiet retirement that he maintains to this day - first in Maryland and for the past five years in Darlington, S.C. He says he seldom if ever watches an entire football game because he needs to be active. To that end, he spends considerable time on or near the golf course at the Darlington Country Club, but he seldom plays the game. His diversion is cutting down and clearing dead trees from the neighborhood. He estimates he has gotten rid of 350 of them.
"Chainsaws. And wedges. And if necessary, chains and ropes," he said, enumerating the implements of his craft. "It gives me something to do and it's good exercise."
Sort of like football. Only without all the attention.