Hannah, John Allen
HANNAH, John Allen
(b. 4 April 1951 in Canton, Georgia), three-sport letterman at the University of Alabama and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, considered perhaps the greatest offensive lineman in the history of the game.
Hannah was born into a football family, one of three sons of Herbert ("Herb") Hannah and Geneva ("Coupe") Watkins, a homemaker. At birth Hannah weighed ten and a half pounds, and it was jokingly said that he was fed hamburger instead of baby food. By the time he was in the eighth grade, his thighs measured thirty-three inches. After a five-year stint in the navy, his father went to college through a football scholarship. In 1947, at age twenty-six, Herb Hannah entered the University of Alabama and began a football tradition that came to include his brother and all three of his sons.
When he finished school, he signed a one-year contract with the New York Giants, becoming the oldest rookie in National Football League (NFL) history. The elder Hannah retired after one year, feeling the need to focus on his family. Herb Hannah moved the family to Georgia, where he coached high school football for four years, and then returned to Albertville to go into the agricultural business.
John Hannah attended Baylor School for Boys (which later became the co-ed Baylor School) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for four years. He decided to return to Albertville for his senior year at Albertville High School. By that time he was six feet, three inches tall and weighed 265 pounds, but speed was no problem for him. Hannah's size and ability impressed college scouts. Although both Notre Dame and the University of Southern California recruited him, Alabama was his first choice. He entered the University of Alabama in 1969, becoming the heaviest player that Coach Paul ("Bear") Bryant had ever recruited. He lettered in wrestling in his freshman year but in the spring switched to track and field. In 1970 Hannah won the Southeastern Intercollegiate wrestling championship and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) shot put (sixty-one feet, five inches) and discus (177 feet, one inch) championships.
In 1971 Hannah became part of what was known as the "Dream Team." Bear Bryant had begun scheduling the games for that season two years earlier, not knowing the strength of the opposition. It turned out to be the most challenging schedule any contender for a national championship ever had. Six of the teams were ranked in the top twenty of the Associated Press poll, and five would play in postseason bowls. Alabama beat them all. Coach Bryant was named National Coach of the Year, and Alabama was ranked number two. On 1 January 1972 Alabama met top-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl in Miami. Hannah and his teammates lost to the Nebraska Cornhuskers 38–6 and remained at number two in the rankings. In the summer of 1972, after his sophomore year, Hannah married his high school sweetheart, Page Pickens, an Alabama cheerleader. Less than two years later they separated. Hannah had always had a wild side, and the separation from his wife accentuated it. He began to frequent bars and nightclubs and to run with a crowd that frightened his father, who was fearful that he would let alcohol or drugs ruin his life. Early in 1973 he turned his life around, reuniting with his wife and becoming an active member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
At Alabama, Hannah lettered in three sports (football, wrestling, and track and field). The three-time All-SEC gridiron choice twice made All-American (1971–1972). In 1972 Hannah was selected Offensive Lineman of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Washington, D.C., among many others. He was one of four finalists for the Lombardi Award and received the Jacobs Award as the best SEC blocker. He played in the Astro Bluebonnet (1970), Orange (1972), and Cotton (1973) Bowls as well as the College All-Star game (1972) and Hula Bowl (1973). As a senior, he was eleventh in the Heisman Trophy voting, an almost unheard-of ranking for an offensive lineman.
With his impressive record, professional football scouts were interested in recruiting Hannah. Early in 1973 he was drafted in the first round by the New England Patriots. Inexperienced in contract negotiating, Hannah acquired an agent, who negotiated a contract for four years playing for very little money. At the same time the Patriot owners were boasting that they had the greatest offensive lineman in football. During his rookie season in 1973, Hannah was a consensus choice on the NFL All-Rookie team, and in 1974 he was named to the All-AFC (American Football Conference) honor squad. At the beginning of 1976 he was chosen All-Pro guard for that year and every year for the remainder of his career. His overpowering blocking during the 1978 season made it possible for the Patriots to set what was then an NFL record of 3,165 yards rushing. Over a period of two seasons (1982 and 1983), the Patriots' total rushing record of 3,952 yards was the best in the entire NFL.
Hannah had not been happy with the Patriots' management and considered retirement in 1983, but he played two more years. In 1985 the Patriots won the AFC championship, becoming the only wild-card playoff team ever to win a trip to the Super Bowl, in this case Super Bowl XX in New Orleans. In the playoffs Hannah and his brother Charley, who played with the Los Angeles Raiders, met on the gridiron, both wearing number 73 and both playing guard. The Patriots won a 26–17 victory. A Patriots victory over the Chicago Bears would have provided a perfect ending for Hannah's career, but they lost 46–10. Hannah played in Super Bowl XX with two torn rotator cuffs and a knee in which the bones were wasting away. Even in a great deal of pain, he had held his own against stellar Bears defensive lineman William ("Refrigerator") Perry. Hannah underwent surgery on both shoulders in February 1986 and knee surgery the following May. In his thirteen years with the Patriots, he missed only five games out of 191.
Hannah retired on 30 June 1986. He remained in Boston, where his son and daughter attended school, and continued to be a part of the family business until his father retired and sold it. Hannah and his wife divorced in 1993. In 1988 he was named to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Three years later he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the first year of his eligibility. He was the first Patriot and second offensive guard to receive this honor.
Experts on football have trouble agreeing who is the best quarterback or running back or receiver in the NFL, but when it comes to offensive linemen, Hannah is without peer. His success and football greatness can be attributed to the fact that he truly loved football and always gave it his very best. He earned the title of "greatest offensive line-man of all time."
Player scrapbooks from the 1892 to the present, containing clippings, video footage of the football games, books, photographs, and correspondence, are available from the research library of the Paul W. Bryant Museum, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. The Hall of Fame presentation and acceptance speech can be heard at the website of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, <http://www.profootballhof.com>. Articles about Hannah's career are Paul Zimmerman, "The Maturing of John Hannah," Football Digest (Dec. 1975) and "John Hannah Doesn't Fiddle Around," Sports Illustrated (3 Aug. 1981); and Jimmy Bryan, "John Hannah Was Born to Football Greatness," Birmingham News (23 June 1991). See also Thomas C. Ford, Alabama's Family Tides (1988), and Lars Anderson, "Catching Up with John Hannah," Time (14 Feb. 2000).
Betty B. Vinson