University of Arkansas lineman Dan Hampton, “was a late bloomer that only a few astute scouts knew much about,” according to a Chicago sportswriter. Luckily for the Chicago Bears, one of the “astute” was Bears scout Jim Parmer. Hampton, the scout reported, “Could play inside or outside.” He even went so far as to suggest that the Bears coaching staff could “put him about anywhere you want to.” Convinced, the Bears drafted Hampton in the first round of the 1979 NFL Draft.
Born on September 19, 1957, in Oklahoma City, Dan moved with his parents, Robert and Joan, when he was five years old, to a farm in Cabot, Arkansas. His father, an IBM customer engineer, wanted his three children, of whom Dan was the youngest, to grow up with a respect for the earth and to experience the benefits of a simple life.
The "simple life," however, didn't prevent Dan from finding his fair share of youthful mischief. He was once described as being "about as restrained as a sack full of pups…large pups."
According to Jill Lieber in her 1989 Sports Illustrated profile of the veteran NFL star, "Dan was an accident waiting to happen." Hampton related a number of "disaster" stories to Lieber including how he once fell out of a large elm tree, dropping 30 feet to the ground. The then-12-year-old smashed his left heel and broke his right ankle and left wrist. "I landed standing up," he told Lieber. "The doctors said that a fall from that distance should have shattered the femurs and driven them up into my body. But my bones were extremely strong, they said, from drinking fresh cow milk." Although there was no internal damage, the energetic pre-teen did spend the next five months in a wheelchair.
It was during his recovery period that his father encouraged him to learn to play the guitar, one of several instruments at which he eventually became proficient. When Dan finally did recover sufficiently to discard his casts and crutches, it was just in time for tryouts for the eighth grade football team. Unfortunately, the pain from his fall was still significant, and after just one practice he knew he wouldn't be able to play.
Glad that his father had encouraged his musical development, Dan decided to join the school band. Then, just as a sense of normalcy seemed to be back in his life, Dan's father died. It was a devastating loss for the entire family, but Dan was particularly affected.
The family struggled financially the next few years. Although Dan had grown to 6-3 and 200 pounds, he showed no interest in playing football and sometimes less in his schoolwork. Finally, the high school football coach convinced him to take his sometimes-misdirected energy to the football field.
"I owe it all (the start of his football career) to my high school coach, Bill Reed," he told veteran sportswriter Cooper Rollow in a 1980 interview. "He found me in the school band. I had learned how to play the bass guitar and the alto sax and four other instruments. I used to play my guitar in the stands and switch over to the sax when we marched…Reed kept looking at me like I was a piece of meat. When I was a junior, he pulled me out of the band and put me on the football team."
Quickly, his coaches realized they had a diamond in the rough. As a senior, a more seasoned Hampton, started and excelled at defensive and offensive tackle. His outstanding play earned him a football scholarship to Arkansas.
"I'd always thought it was kind of funny that Arkansas was the only school that showed any interest in me," he told Rollow. "I never heard from Texas or Oklahoma. I finally mentioned this to one of the Arkansas coaches and he said, 'You heard from them, Bill Reed never gave you the letters."
A four-year letterman and three-year starter at Arkansas, Dan played in the Senior, Fiesta, Orange, and Cotton Bowls. Nicknamed "Danimal" by his Razorback teammates, for his ferocious style of play, he capped off his collegiate career by earning All-America honors as a senior, as well as SWC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
When Hampton reported to his first Bears training camp he fully expected to be a backup defensive tackle learning his trade from veteran starters Alan Page and Jim Osborne. However, when Al Harris and Tommy Hart both went down with injuries, Hampton was thrust into the starting lineup as a defensive end. He became the first rookie to earn a starting berth on a Bears' defense since 1975.
Although initially he played too "mechanically" Hampton quickly learned to make the necessary adjustments. He went on to earn consensus All-Rookie honors after starting all 16 games at the left defensive end spot. In that first season he was credited with 70 tackles, 48 of which were solo efforts, two fumble recoveries, and three passes defensed. Although quarterback sacks were not an official statistic until 1982, unofficially he was credited with five sacks as a rookie as well as eight tackles of running backs behind the line of scrimmage.