Hannah is the 6'3" 265-pound All-Pro guard of the New England Patriots. He is the heart, the soul and, at 34, the collective memory of his team. If the Pats have a chance against the Chicago Bears' sack-happy, run-stuffing defense, that chance starts with Hannah and his pals on the offensive line. They must protect quarterback Tony Eason; they must open the holes for running back Craig James to slither through.
"John's our catalyst," says Brian Holloway, the All-Pro tackle who plays next to Hannah on the left side. "He's like a turbine in a nuclear power plant. He never shuts down." Indeed, Hannah's intensity is the stuff of legend. In his 13 years with New England, the Pats, for the most part, have been patsies. Yet Hannah, who detests losing, has performed like a man possessed. He has played with injuries that would stop all but the most dedicated masochist. He has ripped more blasé players for "dogging" it. He has even lit into management for making "dumb" trades, like the one that sent his onetime linemate Leon Gray to the Houston Oilers in 1979 following an acrimonious salary dispute. Why does Hannah carry on this way? "Fear of failure," he says. "I dread looking like a jerk." Several years ago Hannah was touted in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED as "the best offensive lineman of all time." And it wasn't just his Brobdingnagian strength or explosive blocking that won him the honor. "He's got that defensive player's attitude, that same aggression," says CBS football analyst and former Oakland Raider coach John Madden, explaining why he'd choose Hannah first if he were starting a new team.
The aggression is something Hannah works on as much as he does his nifty footwork. In fact, the nine-time All-Pro has turned football into a motivational game-within-a-game. "I'm a great believer in visualization," he says. That process starts the moment he receives his blocking assignments. "I close my eyes and see myself hitting and succeeding," says Hannah. "I stir up anger, resentment...I make myself want to hit people." His mental pre-play highlight film reaches a crescendo on game day, at which point he attains a state of higher consciousness he calls "nutso-frenzy." What's that like? "I don't know," shudders Holloway. "I've never talked to him on a game day." Few Patriots have. Hannah is just too tightly wrapped, so much so, that he was the only player on the team who had his own dressing cubicle for a recent playoff game in L.A. "No one," he says with a laugh, "wanted to share with me."
Football runs rampant in the Hannah family. Indeed, the game was probably a genetic imperative for John. His father, Herb, played offensive tackle one season with the New York Giants. His uncle, Bill, played guard at the Hannahs' alma mater, the University of Alabama. His 6'5" 260-pound brother Charley, 30, is a starting guard for the Los Angeles Raiders, whom the Patriots defeated on their way to the Super Bowl. (Another brother, David, 29, had his career ended by a knee injury at Alabama.) The games the hulking, high-spirited Hannah boys played growing up in Albertville, Ala. probably made the National Football League look like the American Ballet Theatre. "We loved each other beyond belief," says John. "But we murdered each other."
In the style of Cain and Abel. Take the time John was 15 and 11-year-old Charley got miffed over some imagined slight. "I floored him with a lead pipe," Charley once recalled. Charley ran away, but John—who always could play in pain—chased him down and proceeded to throttle him. "I blacked out," said Charley, "and the next thing I remember was coming to and seeing my father holding John back. The first thing I heard was John saying, 'But Dad, he deserves to die.' "
John doesn't dispute this, although he claims the lead pipe was really a two-by-four. "And Charley probably didn't tell you about the butcher knife he threw at my head," he says, getting just a trifle defensive. "Or the time he pulled a gun on me."
According to Page, John's wife of 14 years, the Hannah boys now confine their roughhousing to an occasional wrestling match. "It's sort of like a handshake," she says. "When they see each other they dive at each other's legs. The whole house vibrates." Following their last bout, Charley let John try on his Raiders' Super Bowl ring from 1984. "Suddenly John got dead serious," recalls Page. "He said, 'Charley, I'd give up every accolade I've earned to have one of these.' "
On Sunday, he gets his chance.
The Super Bowl is still days away, but John Hannah is already seeing terrible pictures in his mind. Pictures of doom, destruction and ruin. The other guys' doom, destruction and ruin. "I see myself hitting my man," he says, his eyes shut tight like a child dreaming of Christmas. "I see myself really hitting him...."