Gold Jacket Spotlight: Foes paid price when John Hannah found his rhythm

It was the summer of 1978, and John Hannah was uncomfortable.

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

“Training camp used to frustrate the heck out of John,” said Pete Brock, another offensive lineman on the 1978 Patriots and John’s longtime teammate and roommate. “Being an offensive lineman is an unnatural act. You can get big and strong in the offseason, you can get aerobic conditioning in, you can work on your sprint work, but you can’t practice your art. It’s illegal in most states to get in a three-point stance and knock somebody down.”

In order to knock the rust off his technique, Brock said John would come out of the locker room fully suited up long before practice started and silently make his way to the seven-man sled. Brock and his teammates watched as John got in his stance facing seven foam and leather foes all by himself, practicing his first step over and over again until he finally felt comfortable enough to add a second step and a punch. 

John, featured this week in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Gold Jacket Spotlight, didn’t stay by himself for long.

“All of us would watch John out there a half-hour before every practice until finally someone said, ‘Hey, if it’s good enough for John Hannah, it’s good enough for the rest of us,’” Brock said. “The next time he went out there, he had the entire offensive line out there behind him. He looked like The Pied Piper of Hamelin.”

Soon New England's running backs and quarterback Steve Grogan also started following John to the sled to get in extra reps on cadences and footwork. All without John saying a word.

“Pretty soon we’re conducting this seven-man sled workout before practice with half the offense, all because John was uncomfortable in his stance and wanted to correct it,” Brock said. “He didn’t yell at us. He didn't say, ‘Why don’t you come out here and do this?’ He just went out.”

When the games started counting, it was opposing defenses who were uncomfortable.

John and the Patriots’ offensive line paved the way for one of the most dominant rushing offenses seen in professional football. New England’s 3,165 rushing yards that season stood as an NFL record for 41 years. John’s individual performance in 1978 earned him his third of 10 selections to the All-Pro team and his first of four career NFLPA Lineman of the Year awards.

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

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

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

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

“If I was a coach doing a game plan, he would be a guy I would label as a game-wrecker,” Hamilton said. ”If you stayed in one spot too long, he would pancake you. He was a tenacious guy, and linebackers had to make sure they knew where he was at all times on runs.”

Right Tackle Shelby Jordan said he benefitted considerably from John’s influence. As a rookie in New England, Jordan transitioned from playing linebacker at the Division III level to NFL offensive lineman. He said observing the way John approached the game helped him thrive in his new position.

“I would say that John was probably an unofficial coach,” Jordan said. “John would point out the nuances, and I began to understand that this game’s very cerebral.”

A soft-spoken leader to his teammates, John’s play on Sundays couldn’t have been much louder.

“We’d run a lot of sweeps,” Jordan said. “You could hear John screaming from the moment the ball was snapped as he’d be running toward the corner. The first time I heard that I was like, ‘What in the heck is that? He’s screaming the whole time he’s running.’ Then I thought to myself, ‘John don’t tell them you’re coming; they’ll find out soon enough!’” 

After retiring, John traded a career of moving defensive lineman where he wanted for a career doing the same thing with cattle. At age 71, he still runs his own ranch. 

For a man who didn’t talk much during his career, there’s no shortage of former Patriots eager to speak up about what John means to them.

“John’s a highly principled guy with a strong work ethic and belief in who he is,” Brock said. “I cherish his friendship.”