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Road to Canton: Special bond between Hampton, McMichael remains strong

In Part 1 of ChicagoBears.com's 5-part series on Steve McMichael ahead of his Hall of Fame induction in August, senior writer Larry Mayer chronicles McMichael's decades-long friendship with longtime teammate Dan Hampton.



They played for rival colleges in the 1970s in the powerful Southwest Conference, the preeminent football conference in the nation at the time. But defensive tackles Dan Hampton and Steve "Mongo" McMichael formed a close bond almost immediately after becoming Bears teammates.

The fourth overall pick in the 1979 draft out of Arkansas, Hampton was entering his third NFL season in 1981 when defensive line coach Dale Haupt sent him to O'Hare Airport to pick up McMichael, a Texas product who had just been signed by the Bears after spending his rookie year with the Patriots.

"It was a little awkward at first," Hampton told ChicagoBears.com, recalling their first car ride together. "But it didn't take long. Once he put on some pads and a helmet and he went out and started stomping on folks, we were like, 'Hey, he's one of us,' and we became fast friends."

“We were just big, gregarious, southern, hell-raising defensive linemen. It was just a fait accompli that we’d become running buddies.” Dan Hampton

Their friendship grew in large part because they shared so much in common. The two played the same position with identical passion and ferocity, hailed from the same part of the country and had both suffered heartbreaking losses; Hampton's father passed away due to pancreatic cancer when the former Bears star was 13, while McMichael lost his stepfather when the lineman was a freshman at Texas.

"In the '80s, it was the era of 'Urban Cowboy,'" Hampton said. "Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson] and all those country music guys were like the rave, and it's kind of a southern thing that good ole' boys would hang out. Well, Mongo and I kind of formed a partnership that started when [the Bears] picked him up.

"We were just big, gregarious, southern, hell-raising defensive linemen. It was just a fait accompli that we'd become running buddies."

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As Bears teammates for 10 seasons from 1981-90, the running buddies wreaked havoc on and off the field. They were key contributors on a 1985 Super Bowl XX championship defense that's widely considered the best in NFL history. And they celebrated their accomplishments at local establishments with just as much flair in an era that fortunately didn't have cell phones capturing every indiscretion.

Hampton and McMichael vacationed together—at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii and an annual charity golf outing in Austin, Texas. Hampton recalled they'd also "go to Arkansas and hang out with my cowboy buddies."

"We were thick as thieves in so many different ways for so long," Hampton said.

There's no doubt that the close friendship between the two Bears defensive tackles fueled their success on the field.

"I played on the left side of him for 10 years," Hampton said. "Nobody knew him better. Nobody understood how we needed to play as a tandem better."

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Their cohesiveness helped the defense successfully operate a system installed by coordinator Buddy Ryan that featured AFCs, which stood for "automatic fronts and coverage." During the week in practice, defenders were taught where and how to line up based on the formation the offense was in. Those assignments changed when the offense would shift or put players in motion before the snap.

"Dan and Steve kind of had a symbiotic relationship, and it just makes it so much easier," said Gary Fencik, a Bears safety from 1976-87. "They're playing right next to one another, so it's really important that they are coordinated on their stunts and what they're trying to do. You don't have a good defense without pressure put up front, and Steve and Dan certainly would see to that."

Buddy Ryan, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael
Buddy Ryan, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael

Hampton's most memorable on-field moment with McMichael occurred in a 26-10 win over the 49ers Oct. 13, 1985, in San Francisco. The victory came after the Bears had dropped the 1984 NFC Championship Game to the 49ers 23-0 at the same site.

"We wanted to win that game for so many different reasons," Hampton said. "The 49ers were like Dracula; you had to put a stake in their heart. They could come back, they were explosive.

"Steve made a wonderful play on a draw play, where he spun off [center] Randy Cross and hit [running back] Roger Craig in the backfield. You could tell that was the play that put a stake in the heart of the 49ers. Steve had this wicked blanking grin. He knew. It was late in the third quarter and after that they just rolled over."

Hampton loved playing with McMichael because they shared the same values. Both were often required to occupy blockers to free up linebackers Mike Singletary and Wilber Marshall to make tackles.

"Steve was a total consummate team-first guy," Hampton said. "When you're doing it, by God you appreciate somebody else that's doing it, and he was fantastic at it."

Hampton laughs when recalling some of his off-the-field antics with McMichael. The two once attended a Bears-sponsored event at a north suburban pizzeria. They were on their best behavior because Hampton's mom had accompanied them.

At least that was the case until a teammate chided McMichael, saying: "Oh look, Mongo being good tonight."

"There was a pitcher of beer on the table, and Mongo picked it up and started drinking from it," Hampton said. "It was coming out of both sides of his mouth and going down his shirt. My mom was like, 'oh no.' Everybody was laughing. He was a madman, he really was."

Steve McMichael, Dan Hampton and William 'The Refrigerator' Perry during filming of a McDonald's commercial in Skokie on Nov. 19, 1985 (Photo via Charlie Knoblock/AP)
Steve McMichael, Dan Hampton and William 'The Refrigerator' Perry during filming of a McDonald's commercial in Skokie on Nov. 19, 1985 (Photo via Charlie Knoblock/AP)

Fencik recalled attending a birthday party for Bears defensive end Mike Hartenstine with Hampton and McMichael during Mike Ditka's first season as coach in 1982. Fencik was the only non-defensive lineman at the gathering.

"That was a long night," Fencik said. "We missed curfew. During stretching the next morning, Ditka had the whole defensive line do up-downs until they were going to puke. But they didn't squeal on me. They didn't say, 'Well, Fencik was with us, too.' So I guess I had an IOU on that one for quite a while."

Hampton and McMichael remained close after retiring from the NFL. They played in the Chicago 6 band together along with former Bears linebacker Otis Wilson. There were times, on special nights, that the group performed a song so harmoniously that they recaptured the magic they had created on the football field.

"When the song was over, he'd look at me and I'd look at him and it was almost like 30 years prior when we would make a big play," Hampton said.

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Fast forward to April 2021 when McMichael revealed the devastating news that he was suffering from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), a neurodegenerative neuromuscular disease that results in the progressive loss of motor neurons that control voluntary muscles. Sadly, McMichael is now confined to his bed, unable to eat, speak or move.

Hampton had never been around someone suffering from ALS and was distraught when McMichael started losing the use of his arms.

"I was at his house putting up a wheelchair ramp and he couldn't hit the garage door opener button," Hampton said. "He couldn't pick up his arms. I drove home and I just sat there in a chair for an hour thinking. It's incredibly devastating."

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Hampton has been inspired by how McMichael has dealt with the disease and was thrilled last month when his close friend was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2024. McMichael was surrounded by those closest to him in his bedroom when the announcement was made on the NFL Honors TV show. About 50 people gathered at McMichael's suburban Chicago home for a watch party to celebrate the occasion.

Hampton, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002, is excited that his longtime friend is joining him in Canton, Ohio.

"[Cowboys Hall of Famer] Randy White said this best," Hampton said. "He said in an abstract way, we're all insecure as a football player, as an athlete because you know what is expected and you know what you're capable of. But closing the deal every day in practice, every day in a game, it takes a lot of willpower, a lot of focus, all those different things. And Steve was able to focus and summon his willpower more than anyone I ever played with."

In honor of Steve McMichael being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2024, take a look at photos of the former Bears defensive tackle over the years.

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