Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
Since the founding of the National Football League in 1920, the league and its players have answered America's call during times of national crisis and military conflicts. There are many values shared between the military and the game of football.
And no one embodied those values more than Chris Hanburger.
Born at Fort Bragg, N.C., Hanburger’s father was a colonel in the U.S. Army. Before embarking on his 14-year, 187-game career in the NFL with Washington, Chris followed in his father’s footsteps and served two years in the Army. It was during this time he solidified his work ethic and character.
Hanburger then enrolled in college at the University of North Carolina. As a two-way player for the Tar Heels, he excelled at both center and middle linebacker.
The Washington Football Team selected Hanburger in the 18th round of the 1965 NFL Draft. By the end of his rookie season, he began to form a reputation as a player who made big plays in big moments.
His five defensive scores still rank him tied for second in Washington’s record books. He is positioned behind fellow Hall of Famer Darrell Green, who registered eight defensive touchdowns.
Three such plays came on fumble returns for touchdowns, which was an NFL record at the time of his retirement. Each of those scores came against a division rival.
The first occurred Dec. 21, 1969, when his 19-yard fumble return for a score was Washington’s only touchdown in a 20-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Two years later, Sept. 19, 1971, he recovered a fumble midway through the third quarter and returned it 16 yards to give Washington a 14-10 lead over the St. Louis Cardinals. Washington won the game at Busch Stadium by a score of 24-17.
Hanburger’s recovery of a Roman Gabriel fumble in the end zone early in the third quarter on Nov. 10, 1974 helped fuel Washington’s come-from-behind 27-20 road win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
His two other defensive scores came via two of his 19 career interceptions.
The first interception he returned for a touchdown came late in a blowout loss to the Cowboys in Washington on Nov. 17, 1968. He picked off Craig Morton late in the game and ran it back 30 yards.
The last pick-six of his career came Nov. 5, 1972 against the New York Jets at Shea Stadium. He stepped in front of pass thrown just after the two-minute warning by future Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath intended for running back Emerson Boozer. Hanburger raced 41 yards to the end zone. His TD put his team out in front 21-10 after the extra point. On the very next series, he again picked off Namath and sealed the victory. The Redskins downed the Jets that day 35-17.
Extremely intelligent, Chris was the “quarterback” for Hall of Fame coach George Allen’s complicated defense. He was in charge of calling audibles at the line of scrimmage to get his team in the best possible position to stop the offense. He was an integral part of some dominant Washington defenses and gained a reputation that earned him nine Pro Bowl selections, a number that remains the most Washington Football Team history.
“Today’s media applauds Peyton Manning and Tom Brady for being able to run the offense and audible and check. Well, Chris Hanburger did that in the ’70s. He not only called [audibles] on his own, he had over 100 audibles each game that he had to manage,” said former Washington General Manager Bruce Allen, son of the Hall of Fame coach. “One of the reasons we were so successful was our defense, because Chris managed it no different than quarterbacks do today. That type of field general should be recognized for his contribution.”
Chris was recognized for his outstanding play, determination and leadership when he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011. His legacy will be preserved forever in Canton for future generations to appreciate.