Although they are usually overlooked, offensive linemen are integral to the game of football.
In fact, without a solid O-line, the talent of a quarterback or skill player only goes so far.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the New England Patriots had one of the best linemen in the game.
John Hannah arrived in New England in 1973 after playing for Bear Bryant at Alabama.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) July 27, 2022
Less than a decade later, coaches, players, and media called Hannah the best offensive lineman of all time.
Despite Hannah’s talent, in 13 years as a pro, the Patriots only made the playoffs four times.
After his retirement, Hannah became the first Pats player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This is the story of the “Hog,” John Hannah.
Hannah Displays His Power Early
John Allen Hannah was born on April 4, 1951, in Canton, Georgia.
— Bauston Sports 🏈 ⚾🏀🏒⚽ (@BaustonSports) April 4, 2019
It’s fair to say that Hannah was destined to play football and become an offensive lineman.
His father, Herb, became an NFL rookie as a 30-year-old and started at right tackle for the Giants during the 1951 season.
He then retired from football after that year.
Bill Hannah, John’s uncle, played on the offensive line for the University of Alabama.
After John, there were two more brothers, Charles and David, who would both become linemen.
John Hannah was big from the start, weighing 11 pounds at birth.
By the time he was in fifth grade, he was 150 pounds.
Because of his large frame, Hannah was teased a lot by his peers.
“I was big and determined, but I was fat, too,” said Hannah in 2013. “There’s no lie about that. I’m fat today, but not like I was then. When people played basketball, I was the basketball.”
However, the teasing decreased when Bill Hannah found a way for his son to play for the local junior high team when John was still in elementary school.
“We laugh when we look at the videos now,” Bill Hannah said in 1981. “John came waddling out on the field and looked like a penguin.”
As Hannah got older and matured, he began working in the family business, which was farming and tending to a farm supply business.
Lifting countless hay bales and moving heavy equipment soon turned Hannah into an athlete of immense strength and power.
That would soon show on the gridiron.
For the first three years of high school, Hannah attended the Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
While at Baylor, he played football, wrestled, and did field events during the track season.
His coach during this period was Major Luke Worsham, who became a huge influence in Hannah’s life.
Worsham, a World War II vet, taught Hannah the mechanics of being an offensive lineman.
Those lessons laid the foundations of what would be Hannah’s future career.
“… he helped me develop agility and reactions by putting me on defense in a four-on-one drill,” recalled Hannah. “You’d work against a whole side of an offensive line. It was the most terrible thing in the world.”
However, that “terrible” work paid off when Hannah took the field and began laying waste to opponents.
“I saw John doing some miraculous things,” said Herb Hannah. “One time he was running in front of the ball carrier, and a defensive guy came up and knocked his legs down. John just stuck out an arm and pushed up off the ground and he was back running in full stride. It’s something to see the way he went after a linebacker. At every stage in which he played, I thought he was the best I’d ever seen.”
When Hannah wasn’t on the field helping lead the Red Raiders to a mid-South championship, he was holding his own as a wrestler.
On the mat, Hannah became a national prep champion, and he set conference records in the shot and discus during track season.
https://t.co/Arn8PTtm5A . John Hannah- Prep National Wrestling Champion at Baylor School
— Green (@GoGreenWrestle) February 4, 2019
Before his senior year, Hannah stayed home and attended Albertville High School where he continued to impress college coaches.
Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was one of several coaches to offer him a scholarship, and Hannah accepted.
Playing for the “Bear”
It didn’t take long for Hannah to realize that Bear Bryant was no Major Luke Worsham.
“Coach Bryant treated football as a job,” said Hannah. “He figured that your college tuition was a salary, so he demanded a lot from you in return for getting your education paid for. It was a lot more intense and a lot more disciplined.”
The NCAA didn’t allow freshmen to play sports at the time, so Hannah spent his first year at the school practicing with the Tide.
He also wrestled and was an unbeaten SEC champion in his weight class and set SEC records in the shot put and discus during track season.
Before his sophomore year, Hannah quit wrestling so he could devote more time to football.
During preseason drills, it was obvious to the players and coaches that Hannah was the largest lineman on the team by far.
— Vintage LSU Football (@vintagelsuftb) April 4, 2016
In fact, he was believed to be the heaviest lineman in Tide history.
Hannah’s teammates took note of his huge legs and powerful frame and began calling him “Ham Hocks.”
Despite his size, Hannah was quick and his technique was nearly flawless.
Alabama would soon use the Wishbone offense, and Hannah was the perfect athlete for that system as he blasted out of a four-point stance and tore opponents apart.
Hannah and the Tide are Challenged
As the 1970s dawned, Bryant began to change his philosophy regarding personnel.
At that point in time, Alabama did not seek black players, and Bryant believed this limited him in recruiting.
To prove his point, the Bear scheduled a home game with USC for the first week of the 1970 season.
The Trojans had Sam “Bam” Cunningham at running back, and Bryant knew he would be trouble.
— FnA USC Trojans (@FnA_USCTrojans) September 1, 2016
In the weeks leading up to the game, the coach put his team through the wringer, hoping to weed out the weak players who had been part of ’Bama’s 6-5 season the previous year.
According to Hannah, the practices were brutal and Bryant “sent 10 guys to the hospital with heatstroke and dehydration. Out of 40 guys that signed scholarships, only 14 of us made it. Guys were packing their bags and everything. And I’d have quit. Luckily, I fell asleep before I could pack my car.”
Hannah and his teammates soon found out why Bryant pushed them so hard.
During the Tide’s contest against USC, Cunningham ran over and through ’Bama, scoring two touchdowns as the Trojans won 42-21.
— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) September 2, 2016
Although he appeared upset, the outcome was exactly what Bryant needed, and he started to recruit black players for the first time in school history.
Alabama continued to struggle in 1970, ending the season with another 6-5 record and tied 20th ranked Oklahoma in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
In 1971, the Tide switched to the Wishbone, and Hannah was in his element.
Alabama got off to a great start and defeated USC by seven in the first week of the season.
John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson, the first black players to play for Alabama were on the field that day.
Hannah helped lead the Crimson Tide offense to ten more victories that year, though he found his relationship with Bryant distant at best.
“We had an arm’s length relationship because I was so scared of the man,” said Hannah in 2020. “I didn’t talk to him much except when I needed his permission to do something. My relationship with him was mostly just looking up in the tower and knowing he was there.”
Despite the frosty nature of their coexistence, Hannah learned an important lesson from his college coach.
“… it’s not always the guy with the talent that wins,” Hannah recalled. “It’s the guy with the most guts. He’ll stick it out and play hard all the way through the game. And that was a huge lesson, and that’s what really kind of got me over the hump.”
Hannah had been All-SEC as a sophomore and received the accolade again as a junior, along with being named an All-American.
— Seasons Gala (@SeasonsGala) June 17, 2022
Then, on the cusp of a national championship, the Tide was soundly defeated, 38-6, by Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, their only loss of the year.
The 1972 season began with promise.
On the field, Hannah was drawing rave reviews from college and pro coaches for his power and technique.
Even the tight-lipped Bryant gave his lineman praise.
“John is the finest offensive lineman I have ever been around,” exclaimed Bryant. “He has all the physical tools of greatness plus a burning desire to excel.”
Years later, Hannah disputes that story.
“I don’t know where these people got that story from because that’s not what I heard,” Hannah laughed. “I heard just the opposite.”
Alabama won the first ten games of the 1972 season before losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl and then Texas in the Cotton Bowl to end the season.
FLASHBACK: #Alabama QB Terry Davis rolls out as #Auburn DE Eddie Welch (99) gives chase during 1972 #IronBowl. Looking on is #Bama all-America G John Hannah (73) & on sideline is Soph. TE Sylvester Croom (94). Tigers won 17-16 in "Punt Bama Punt" game. #SEC pic.twitter.com/WhtYzj8Mub
— Recruiting Eagle (@RecruitingEagle) September 30, 2018
Hannah was recognized with the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy and was also named All-SEC, and a consensus All-American.
Furthermore, Hannah received Lineman of the Year Awards from numerous media outlets.
Interest from the NFL
In the spring of Hannah’s junior year, Bryant allowed pro scouts to attend one of Alabama’s spring practices.
While there, the scouts timed Hannah in the 40-yard dash.
He ran the sprint and stumbled across the finish line while falling to the ground.
He noticed the quizzical looks on the faces of the scouts and apologized.
“I apologized to the scout for being fat and out of shape,” he said. “The guy said, ‘Don’t apologize. You just ran a 4.85.'”
The praise for Hannah’s ability continued during and after his senior year.
— bryantmuseum (@bryantmuseum) April 29, 2016
After Hannah participated in workouts during Hula Bowl week, Raiders coach John Madden couldn’t believe what he saw.
“You know, the best player I’ve seen out here is John Hannah,” said Madden.
This shocked Hannah when he approached Bryant before graduating to get advice about representation for an agent.
Although his previous remark about Hannah’s ability had been heard far and wide, the Bear’s reaction to Hannah was startling.
“I looked down and I said ‘Uh, Coach, I don’t want to talk about this now, but when we get back from the bowl game, do you think I could sit down and talk to you about who I might could hire as a representative to help me negotiate a contract because it looks like I may get drafted pretty good?’ He looked at me and he said ‘S— John, you ain’t good enough to need no damn lawyer.’”
New England Drafts Hannah
Bryant’s assessment of Hannah’s talent was not shared by NFL personnel.
The New England Patriots general manager at the time, Bucko Kilroy, had been grading talent for several decades and gave Hannah a perfect score on his evaluation.
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) April 7, 2020
Dick Steinberg, the player personnel director for the Pats, gave Hannah an impromptu intelligence quiz and was encouraged by the results.
“His IQ was very high,” said Steinberg. “If you look at the great offensive linemen in history you’ll find that they were all smart people.”
New England was completely sold on Hannah and took him with the fourth overall selection in the first round of the 1973 NFL Draft and immediately put him at left guard.
“I get a call from (Chuck) Fairbanks,” Hannah said of the draft, “and he says, ‘John, you know I’m coaching with the Patriots now, and I just wanted to let you know you’ve been picked No. 4 in the draft by the New England Patriots, and we’d like to get you up here just as soon as possible.’ And I said, ‘Well, coach, I appreciate it, and I look forward to talking to again’ and hung up. Hung up the phone and looked over and said, ‘Where’s the New England Patriots?’”
Playing for Fairbanks
During his first few weeks as an NFL player, Hannah was relieved to find out that his new coach was nothing like Bear Bryant.
“I responded to coach Fairbanks a lot better than I responded to coach Bryant’s methodology,” Hannah said. “To me, Fairbanks was the best head coach I ever played under. He had a great eye for talent—both player talent and coaching talent.”
Although he was easily one of the most talented linemen on New England’s roster, Hannah had a lot to learn as a rookie.
“When I got into pro ball I had to learn the game from anew, so to speak,” said Hannah in 2020. “There are a whole lot of different techniques, which was basically what I had to learn. I even had to learn to get in a three-point stance.”
He had to learn quickly, especially playing against some of the best athletes in the game.
“My rookie year, I played against Buck (Buchanan), and he ate my lunch. I mean ate my lunch. It was a total shipwreck. He embarrassed me so bad.”
The Patriots didn’t have a great squad in 1973, but they did have some pieces to work with.
Along with Hannah, the team drafted Cunningham from USC, receiver Darryl Stingley from Purdue, and tackle Leon Gray from Jackson State.
Super B-Day to Patriots great Sam Cunningham. A 1,000-yard rusher in '77, they didn't call him "Bam" for nothing. pic.twitter.com/vMYc935e7t
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) August 15, 2015
In time, Hannah and Gray would become a powerful tandem on the left side of the Pats’ line.
In the meantime, New England won five games during Fairbanks’s first year, a two-game improvement from the previous season.
New England Struggles While Hannah Thrives
In 1974, the Patriots won seven games, then took a huge step back and collected only three victories in 1975.
Hannah (now nicknamed “Hog”) didn’t disappoint and was developing into one of the best guards in football.
“For all his size and explosiveness and straight-ahead speed,” Kilroy said, “John has something none of the others ever had, and that’s phenomenal—repeat, phenomenal—lateral agility and balance, the same as defensive backs. You’ll watch his man stunt around the opposite end, and John will just stay with him. And that’s a 270-pound man doing that, a guy capable of positively annihilating an opponent playing him straight up.”
Hannah may have only been 6’2”, but his tree-trunk legs and otherworldly agility helped him play like someone twice his size.
“I had big, strong legs,” recalled Hannah. “The kind of game we played then was much more aggressive for offensive lineman. We were much more aggressive in the way we played the ball, and I had leverage.”
In the 1975 NFL Draft, the Patriots selected Oregon tight end Russ Francis and placed him next to Gray.
Wishing Russ Francis a happy birthday! The former Patriots tight end played seven of his ten years in the NFL in New England. He finished his career with 393 receptions and 40 touchdowns. pic.twitter.com/EvtHpu0lRp
— Patriots Alumni (@NEPAC) April 3, 2020
The trio of Hannah, Gray, and Francis soon became the talk of the NFL, but the increased attention put pressure on Hannah.
“… the whole time I played, I was so stressed,” said Hannah. “Every day, I felt like I had to prove myself. I had to be the best, and if I wasn’t the best, then nobody would care about me or nobody would accept me as a person. So it was a very stressful existence at that time.”
The Patriots Reach the Playoffs
Before the 1976 season, the Patriots traded former first-round pick Jim Plunkett to San Francisco, and Fairbanks started second-year quarterback Steve Grogan.
New England lost the first game of the season, then re-focused and began winning games.
The offense went from 14th overall in the NFL in 1975 to second in ’76.
Part of the reason was the left side of the offensive line as Hannah pulled, pushed, and pounded his way to his first Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections.
— Old School Boston (@OldSchoolBoston) December 18, 2021
Both Gray and Francis joined Hannah at the Pro Bowl. Francis was also named to the All-Pro team.
“Having Leon Gray next to me all those years helped so much,” commented Hannah in 1981. “We got to know what each of us could do. We ate together, studied films together. I knew the air he breathed.”
The Patriots became darlings of the league and were called a Cinderella team that went from three wins to a franchise-best 11 wins in 1976.
After the season, New England appeared in just their second playoffs in team history when they met the Oakland Raiders.
Although the Pats led 21-10 after three quarters, Oakland scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to end New England’s year, 24-21.
Hannah was enjoying the festivities at the Pro Bowl after the 1976 season when he found out how much his fellow linemen received in salary.
To his dismay, Hannah found out he was making much less than his peers.
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) July 22, 2020
Shortly after drafting him, Patriots management promised to increase Hannah’s pay if he became one of the top linemen in the league.
The Pro Bowl should have signaled to the team that Hannah had reached that mark.
However, the organization balked.
To make matters worse, Hannah’s younger brother, Charley, was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third round of the 1977 draft and was given a contract better than his brother’s.
“I was,” Hannah says, “a dumb, immature, red necked idiot, and they stuck it to me.”
Hannah’s teammate, Gray, was in the same situation, and the two decided to hold out until management reconsidered.
The holdout led to disdain from fans and the media who thought Gray and Hannah were just being greedy.
Eventually, the two sides settled with Hannah getting a small raise.
"Literally at the point of attack on every play."
— NFL (@NFL) December 14, 2019
New England then went 9-5 in 1977 and missed the playoffs.
In 1978, the Pats tied their previous high in all-time wins with 11 and met the Houston Oilers in the Divisional round where they were crushed, 31-14.
The Pats Reach the Top of the Mountain
For the next few years, the Patriots went through peaks and valleys while Hannah remained steady.
Fairbanks left the team after the 1978 season and was replaced by Ron Erhardt for three seasons then Ron Meyer for two and a half.
Hannah no longer had Gray or Francis by his side as both had been traded after the 1978 and 1980 seasons, respectively.
Their loss didn’t seem to hurt Hannah.
For its pre-season football issue before the 1981 season, Sports Illustrated put Hannah on the cover with the title, “The Best Offensive Lineman of All Time.”
Strong John Hannah take from Sports Illustrated. pic.twitter.com/0MUvnhwcYV
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) July 21, 2017
It was hard to deny the title as Hannah had rarely missed a game and was consistently voted to the Pro Bowl and named an All-Pro.
Meanwhile, the 1982 Patriots made the playoffs after the strike-shortened season but lost to Miami in the First Round.
Thankfully, by the 1985 season, there was enough talent on both sides of the ball that the Patriots became serious contenders.
Tony Eason, the Pats’ first pick in 1983, was sharing starting time with Grogan in ’85 and second-year back Craig James rushed for more than 1,200 yards.
New England also had Irving Fryar and Stanley Morgan at receiver, and the duo had just under 80 receptions between them.
After a 2-3 start, New England got into a rhythm and won nine of their remaining 11 games to finish 11-5.
73 days until 2023 #NFL Draft in Kansas City, MO. And # of @ProFootballHOF G John Hannah, 9-time Pro Bowler, 7-time All-Pro in 13 seasons w/#Patriots@JulesForTheBlue @PfgVibe #NFL pic.twitter.com/f9CS9Pezgd
— Russell S. Baxter (@BaxFootballGuru) February 13, 2023
In the Wild Card round, the Pats won their second-ever postseason game with a triumph over the Jets and defeated the Raiders and Dolphins in the next two contests.
For the first time in franchise history, New England would play in the Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears.
Super Bowl XX
During Week 2 of the 1985 season, the Bears traveled to New England where they defeated the Pats, 20-7.
Hannah missed the game with a calf injury but was healthy for Super Bowl XX.
In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Hannah was interviewed and asked about his title as one of the NFL’s all-time greats.
“One man on the offensive line is no better than the guy next to him because they work in such close tandem,” Hannah said.
Shortly after the game began, the Pats recovered a Walter Payton fumble and kicked a field goal a few plays later to take a 3-0 lead.
That turned out to be the high point of the day for New England.
For the remainder of the afternoon, the Bears high powered offense and “46” defense crushed New England.
The Super Bowl XX champion 1985 Chicago Bears were invited to the White House by Ronald Reagan 🇺🇸 but the space shuttle Challenger exploded just 2 days after the game so the visit was pre-empted and never rescheduled until 2011, when Barack Obama 🇺🇸 invited them#POTUS#SuperBowl pic.twitter.com/57owOzPcg4
— Presidential Wisdom (@PrezWisdom) February 12, 2023
Eason started the contest and was harassed so badly that head coach Ray Berry benched him in favor of Grogan.
Grogan didn’t fare much better, although he connected on an eight-yard touchdown to Fryar near the end of the fourth quarter.
When the smoke cleared, the scoreboard read 46-10 in favor of Chicago.
Not long after the Super Bowl, Hannah retired after 13 seasons.
He was still miffed at the poor outcome of the title game and took his frustrations out on Eason months later.
“Tony should wear a skirt instead of a uniform,” said Hannah. “When he was hurt before we played the Bears in the Super Bowl, we were hoping he’d stay hurt so Steve could play.”
During his career, Hannah was a 10-time All-Pro and nine-time Pro Bowler.
John Hannah, New England Patriots Guard, 1973-85. 7× First-team All-Pro (1976, 1978–1981, 1983, 1985) 3× Second-team All-Pro (1977, 1982, 1984) 9× Pro Bowl (1976, 1978–1985) pic.twitter.com/20tKjAnoIv
— Old Row Sports (@OldRowSports) August 10, 2022
He was named to the NFL’s 1970s and 1980s All-Decade Teams as well as the league’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams.
Since his retirement, Hannah has also become a member of the Patriots’ All-1970s and All-1980s Teams, 35th and 50th Anniversary Teams, and the team’s Hall of Fame.
Hannah’s number 73 has been retired by the organization.
Less than a decade after he retired, Hannah became the first Patriots player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991.
— The Hall presented by Raytheon Technologies (@TheHall) April 4, 2019
He was then inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
In the early 2000s, Hannah coached high school football and then tended to his cattle farm outside of Blountsville, Alabama.
Hannah and his wife, Page, have two children, and they currently reside in Alabama.