Golden Jacket Spotlight: Haters paid the price when John Hannah found his groove

It was the summer of 1978 and John Hannah was uneasy.

The 1977 season had ended with his Patriots sitting just outside the AFC playoff picture. Now, days into training camp, John, then a two-time All-Pro left guard, was still feeling short of pace.

“Training camp frustrated John tremendously,” said Pete Brock, another 1978 Patriots offensive lineman and John’s longtime teammate and roommate. “Being an offensive lineman is unnatural. You can get big and strong in the offseason, you can do aerobics, you can work on your sprint work, but you can’t practice your craft. It is illegal in most states to take a three-point position and knock someone down.

In order to remove the rust from his technique, Brock said John would come out of the locker room fully equipped well before the start of practice and silently head for the seven-man sled. Brock and his teammates watched John get into position against seven foam and leather enemies all by himself, practicing his first step over and over until he finally felt comfortable enough to add a second step. and a punch.

John, featured in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Gold Jacket Spotlight this week, wasn’t alone for long.

“We were all watching John there half an hour before every practice until finally someone said, ‘Hey, if it’s good enough for John Hannah, it’s good enough for all of us,'” Brock said. “The next time he went there, he had the whole offensive line behind him. He looked like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Soon, running backs and New England quarterback Steve Grogan also began trailing John on the sled to get some extra reps on pace and footwork. All without John saying a word.

“Soon we’re doing this luge practice at seven before practice with half attack, all because John was uncomfortable in his position and wanted to correct it,” Brock said. “He didn’t yell at us. He didn’t say, ‘Why don’t you come here and do this?’ He just went out. »

When the games started to count, it was the opposing defenses that were uncomfortable.

John and the Patriots’ offensive line paved the way for one of the most dominant rushing offenses in professional football. New England’s 3,165 rushing yards that season set an NFL record for 41 years. John’s individual performance in 1978 earned him his third of nine All-Pro Team selections and his first of four NFLPA Lineman of the Year awards.

Grogan said John sets the tone every week with intensity and attention to detail.

“He just did his job better than everyone else, and in doing so he kicked the other players up a notch,” Grogan said. “On the day of the game he was so focused on what he had to do that he kind of walked away from you.”

John possessed a rare combination of speed, quickness, poise, intelligence and brute strength that allowed him to dominate as a pass blocker and as the focal point of several run blocking schemes. A former high school national champion as a wrestler, John has also mastered the manipulation of leverage to play much bigger than his 265 pounds.

Ray Hamilton faced John in practice every week during his nine seasons as a New England nose tackle. Hamilton, who also spent 25 seasons coaching the NFL’s defensive lines, said he still considers John a unique force in football history.

“If I was a coach making a game plan, he’d be a guy I would call a game wrecker,” Hamilton said. “If you stay too long in one place, he pancakes you. He was a tough guy and linebackers had to make sure they knew where he was at all times on runs.

Right Tackle Shelby Jordan said he benefited greatly from John’s influence. As a rookie in New England, Jordan rose from a Division III-level linebacker to an NFL offensive lineman. He said watching the way John approached the game helped him thrive in his new position.

“I would say John was probably an unofficial coach,” Jordan said. “John was pointing out nuances, and I started to understand that this game was very cerebral.”

A soft-spoken leader for his teammates, John’s play on Sunday couldn’t have been much stronger.

“We were running a lot of sweeps,” Jordan said. “You could hear John screaming from the moment the ball was broken as he ran towards the corner. The first time I heard that, I was like, ‘What the hell is this? He screams all the time he runs. So I was like, ‘John, don’t tell them you’re coming; they will find out soon enough!

After retiring, John traded a career as a mobile defensive lineman wherever he wanted for a career doing the same with cattle. At 71, he still runs his own ranch.

For a man who hasn’t spoken much in his career, there’s no shortage of former Patriots eager to talk about what John means to them.

“John is a very principled guy with a strong work ethic who believes in who he is,” Brock said. “I treasure his friendship.”