|Dan Hampton at his NFL Hall of Fame induction in 2002. The most decorated athlete in JHS history will finally have his JHS number retired after 39 years.|
By RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor
NFL Hall of Famer Dan Hampton will be back in his hometown of Jacksonville on Friday for a special ceremony to retire his No. 99 jersey at Jan Crow Stadium. The ceremony will take place before the 7 p.m. kickoff.
According to most people involved in JHS athletics today, the ceremony is overdue.
Current Jacksonville football coach Barry Hickingbotham attended a Hampton-hosted football camp when he was grade-schooler at the Jacksonville Boys and Girls Club.
“I wanted to do it because I remember growing up he was the biggest thing in town,” Hickingbotham said. “It’s a shame he couldn’t be the first one, but we’re at least making it right. It’s long overdue.”
The original plan was to retire Hampton’s 99 and Clinton McDonald’s 40 on the same night. But McDonald is still an active player and could not get away on a Friday during the NFL season, so his jersey was retired in February during a home basketball game.
Despite the long wait, Hampton, who was a college All-American at Arkansas and played for the 1984 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears, is nothing but appreciative of the gesture.
“It (the wait) doesn’t bother me at all,” said Hampton. “I really appreciate the gesture. I’m a really fortunate individual. Football has been a great thing to me, but it’s not who I am. In a strange, abstract way, I’m very lucky I was talked into playing my junior year there at Jacksonville. So it’s a really nice token, a nice gesture, but it’s not necessary I guess is what I’m trying to say. I’m just real fortunate.”
Hampton lives in Chicago, where his 11-year-old son, Daniel, attends school. His daughter, Dakota, is a volleyball player at South Florida. Hampton has stayed involved with the Bears, though not officially affiliated with the team. He has a sports talk show on Comcast Cable in Chicago and does Chicago Bears’ post game on WGN radio. He also has a local NBC Sunday night NFL wrapup show.
His mother, Joan, still lives in Jacksonville. He hopes she can attend the ceremony.
“She’s 81 and she’s lived in Jacksonville for 52 years,” Hampton said. “Maybe we’ll be able to park somewhere where she can watch. I know she’d like to go and I’d like her to be there.”
Hampton liked football as a young child, but a tree-climbing accident at age 12 left him with little hopes of pursuing an athletic career. That all changed when a new JHS coach, Bill Reed, approached the 6-foot-6, 230-pound saxophone player in the marching band about joining the football team.
“Doctors had told me I’d probably never be able to run again, but I had been doing things like riding motorcycles, hauling hay and jumping out of trucks, running alongside them, so I knew I was almost completely well,” Hampton said. “I had played in fifth and sixth grade and I knew the guys that were on the team. So when I came back, it was great to be back with them.”
While Reed wanted Hampton on his team, he didn’t let him cut corners. He joined late, after other players had finished their required 100 hours of summer work. Hampton had less time, but he had to do all 100 hours.
“There was a price to be paid,” Hampton said of playing for Reed. “But I liked the commitment part of it. I wasn’t a bad kid or anything, but I wasn’t a straight-A student. My dad had died when I was in the eighth grade and my mom went to work six days a week. You could just say I didn’t have a lot of direction at that time. But once you’ve put in the work and earned your way back onto the team, you were part of the team, and I liked that. Those guys were great and I’d like to name them. You’ve got Rodney Jansen, Mike Mosley, Mike Jetta, Buddy Owen. These guys made me part of the group – Jerry Keister, Randy Fielder.”
The Red Devils didn’t make the state playoffs either of Hampton’s two seasons, but it was the group that laid the foundation for a program that soon after won two state titles.
“We believed in coach Reed,” Hampton said. “He’s a fine man. He’s one of those people a lot of people would hold up and say he changed my life. And I’m one of those people.
“The thing about football is talent is one thing, but toughness is another. Nothing is given and everything has to be earned. Now Bill Reed was not a touchy-feely guy. He was the last man you wanted to complain to. But every person – man, woman and child, wants discipline. Nobody wants chaos. And that was Bill Reed.”
Reed’s influence on Hampton and his urgings to join the football team has obviously had a tremendous impact on Hampton’s life.
In just one year playing for an average high school football team, Hampton gained nationwide attention from major college football coaches. Reed knew it before the player did.
“Coach Reed said I’ve got a chance to go to college with this,” Hampton said. “I knew I wasn’t going to go any other way. So I sold out for it and coach Reed will tell you, I worked hard at it.”
But the 17 year old still didn’t realize the level of schools that wanted him. Even legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant called the JHS coaching office about Hampton, but was told not to waste his time.
“My father was a big Razorback fan, as was everybody,” Hampton said. “So the idea of me playing for the Razorbacks? I was like, ‘yea right.’ I couldn’t believe it. I guess Bear Bryant and a bunch of other people called, but coach Reed told them, if Arkansas recruited him, you’re wasting your time because that’s where he’s going.”
After an All-American career at Arkansas, he was the fourth player taken in the 1979 NFL draft, which is still the highest any Razorback has ever been selected. Darren McFadden tied the feat in 2008.
In his 12-year career with the Bears, Hampton was voted All-Rookie in 1979 and by 1980 was an All-Pro and playing in his first Pro Bowl. He was named All-Pro six more times in his career and inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2002.
The list of accolades is even much longer, but Hampton’s drive goes back to those first days at JHS.
“The reason I played football, in the big picture, wasn’t for the glory,” Hampton said. “Yea, it was fun to hit people and get on TV and get your name in the paper, but that was all secondary. I wanted to be a part of something special. The best part is when you see all that work pay off and you go out and you play really well, and you see that look of appreciation. To see that camaraderie and that appreciation from people, teammates, coaches, whoever, just for what you do and working hard to do it well.
“And I got to be a part of something really special in 1984,” he continued. “There was a really special bond on that team. With Walter Payton, (Mike) Singletary, Steve McMichael – I’m not too big on everybody putting that finger in the air like you’re No. 1, but for one year, we could do it. We were the best on the planet. John Madden used to always say, and I ran into him 25 years later, and he still says that it was the greatest football team he’s ever seen. That tells you something.”