Rodney had broken his leg attempting to recover a Jeff Hostetler fumble in what was an otherwise glorious victory over the Chicago Bears in the Divisional Playoff round his rookie year, and therefore did not play in the two epic, historic games that followed. But despite Ottis Anderson's heroics in the Super Bowl that year, and the tens of thousands of #56 and #11 jerseys I saw each and every week (and still see) at the stadium, I picked Rodney. I loved L.T. and Phil Simms, too, (and still do) but I fancied myself a teenage iconoclast of sorts in those halcyon days, and had little interest in donning what I considered to be a uniform uniform.
The Giants selected Rodney with the 24th overall pick of the 1990 Draft, making him the fifth of six running backs taken in the first round that year. His selection came as a surprise to some, as the Giants still had four capable running backs on their roster: the battle tested fan favorite, Joe Morris (albeit recovering from a broken foot); the aforementioned veteran who ten months later would be named Super Bowl MVP, Ottis Anderson; the inconsistent, underachieving Lewis Tillman, and the electrifying offensive and special teams weapon, Dave Meggett.
Also raising eyebrows were the names of the four running backs chosen before Rodney and the one chosen immediately after, as fans, pundits and so-called experts feverishly debated the relative merits of the six players.
In what was perhaps the worst selection in a humiliating series of atrocious draft blunders, the New York Jets chose Blair Thomas second overall, only to watch the disappointing Penn State product score all of five touchdowns in four miserable years in New York before his release after the 1993 season. Darrell Thompson (the 19th pick) and Steve Broussard (the 20th pick) were equally underwhelming pros.
Emmitt Smith, we now know, was the steal of the draft at #17, though I'm sure
When it came time for the Giants to make their pick at #24, the top two running backs left on the board were Rodney Hampton from
Rodney Hampton would go on to post five consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, seventeen 100-yard games, 51 touchdowns, and earn two trips to the Pro Bowl while setting the Giants franchise records for rushing yards with 6,897 (a mark since bested by Tiki Barber) and most seasons scoring ten or more rushing touchdowns (3). Carter, on the other hand--fatefully selected with the very next pick by San Francisco--spent the majority of his NFL career returning kicks to little fanfare and less success. Though he would earn a Super Bowl ring after the Niners' win in Super Bowl XXIX, Carter found the end zone only nine times in seven NFL seasons.
It didn't take long for me (or
After the Giants won the Super Bowl later that year, Head Coach Bill Parcells "retired," citing health concerns. But instead of hiring Bill Belichick, the architect of their two championship defenses, to be the next Head Coach, the Maras made the unfortunate decision to promote meek running backs coach Ray Handley (a name I still shudder at the mere mention of), to the coveted position. While Belichick, humiliated, was quickly snatched up by the Cleveland Browns, never to return, Handley made his first order of business the installation of Jeff Hostetler at quarterback over Phil Simms, who had led the team to eleven victories the previous season before getting injured in week 15 in the rain against
It is often said that teams reflect the personality of their Head Coach. Under Handley, the Giants went from being the dynamic, fiery unit it was under Parcells to a plodding, uninspired mess. The mild mannered Handley was, to the surprise of no one, ill-fitted to be a Head Coach in
In Handley's second season (Hampton's third), an abysmal 6-10 campaign in which the Giants lost six of their last seven games, Rodney rushed for 1,141 yards and scored 14 rushing touchdowns, good for second in the league. His excellent sophomore campaign, in which he posted his first thousand yard, ten touchdown season, had already established him as one of the league's best young runners. But his sensational 167-yard performance against the Cardinals (including a phenomenal 63-yard touchdown run) in week five of 1992 made him a bonafide superstar. And for his efforts, at the end of the year he was the only Giants player honored with an invitation to
Dan Reeves' arrival in 1993 brought the rightful return of the starting quarterback job to Phil Simms who, playing his last NFL season valiantly led the Giants to eleven wins and an unlikely Wild Card berth while earning his second trip to the Pro Bowl. It was a strange year of comings and goings for the Giants--Michael Strahan's and Jessie Armstead's first, Lawrence Taylor's and Mark Collins' (in addition to Simms') last. It was also a time of transition for me, as 1993 marked the year of my graduation from High School and departure to the
And on January 9, 1994, in the Wild Card game against the Vikings at cold and windy Giants Stadium, Rodney enjoyed what was perhaps the finest game of his pro career. With Simms struggling with the wind (he finished with only 94 passings yards) and the Giants trailing 10-3 at the half, Rodney put the team on his back by carrying 33 times for 161 yards and two touchdowns in a thrilling, come from behind 17-10 victory. Rodney's first touchdown, scored on the Giants' first possession of the second half, was a 51-yard dash in which he delivered a vicious stiff-arm to linebacker Carlos Jenkins, rousing the capacity crowd en route to the momentum-turning score. Late in the fourth quarter, on the drive he'd punctuate with what would end up being the winning touchdown,
Little did Rodney know at the time that it would be the last playoff victory of his career, or the last the Giants would celebrate, with and without him, for seven more seasons. Watching Hampton stride triumphantly off the field that afternoon to the deafening roar of the Giants faithful, one would have surmised (and reasonably so) that a performance like that--a true signature performance--would embue a player like Hampton with a confidence in feeling that there would be many more Sunday afternoons like this to come, many more equally punishing stiff-arms to dish out on the way to the opponent's end zone. But it wasn't to be.
The very next week out in
The sting of that embarrassing loss still fresh in his mind, Rodney returned to the Pro Bowl that February with teammates Phil Simms, Bart Oates, and Jumbo Elliott. And in the final seconds of what was an unusually competitive exhibition, Rodney caught a 23-yard Steve Young pass for the tying touchdown, forcing the first overtime in Pro Bowl history. Though Nick Lowery's field goal 4:52 into overtime prevented Rodney from claiming a cut of the winner's share, Giants fans watching the game were sent into the offseason feeling good about their star running back.
Despite his popularity and productivity, the Giants rewarded Hampton for his workmanlike 327-carry, 1,075-yard 1994 campaign by selecting his apparent successor, Michigan running back Tyrone Wheatley, with the 17th overall pick of the 1995 Draft and also signing fellow Georgia Bulldog and 1982 Heisman Trophy Winner Herschel Walker, as a free agent.
Amazingly, the Giants chose to match the offer, perhaps recognizing that Rodney was the only truly marketable star in their employ. Strahan and Armstead had yet to blossom into the outstanding players they would each soon become, but Rodney, beloved by the fans, was still a star attraction. The deal included a $3.6 million signing bonus, though his base salary would only be $750,000 in 1996 before escalating to $1 million in 1997.
Unfortunately for Rodney (and the Giants), his production dropped off drastically as he shared carries with Wheatley in 1996, and he posted career lows (his rookie season notwithstanding) in carries, yards, and touchdowns for lame duck Dan Reeves. And as luck would have it, in the season's second to last game--an embarrassing home loss to the hapless New Orleans Saints--
Then, in August of 1997, Rodney felt that right knee lock up on him before the third exhibition game, and the very next day he underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove the loose cartilage the Giants' doctors believed was causing the problem. On the day of the surgery, Thomas George reported in The New York Times that Hampton was expected to be out "two to three weeks." Two to three weeks became nearly four months, however, as Rodney didn't return to the field until the Giants hosted
The Giants were a surprising success that year without
The Giants needed a victory over
Sadly for Rodney, his past accomplishments and the fans' adoration did not translate to loyalty on the Giants' behalf. Rodney didn't really fit into Coach Fassel's pass-heavy offensive scheme, and in April of 1998 new GM Ernie Accorsi agreed to terms with the free-agent running back Gary Brown. Just two years after signing his $16.5 million deal, Rodney was released. At one year and $400,000, Brown was a bargain stopgap compared to
"Words come up short when you try to explain what Rodney has meant to the entire organization,'' Accorsi told the assembled press after announcing Hampton's release. ''He has conducted himself with great pride and dignity.''
The Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys both reportedly inquired with Rodney's agent, Ralph Cindrich, about his services as a possible backup, but no offers materialized. When training camps opened and closed without so much as an invitation, Rodney called it quits. Just like that, his career was over.
As a fan, I soldiered on. As a Michigan guy I liked Wheatley, but he was never able to perform at the pro level the way he had seemingly done so effortlessly back in Ann Arbor. He appeared in only five games for the Giants in 1998, carried only fourteen times, and in February was traded to the Dolphins for a 7th round pick in that April's draft. Barber, who would one day break nearly all of Rodney's franchise records, was still a few years away from being a full-time contributor to the offense. And while Gary Brown proved to be a serviceable player (he posted 1,063 yards and a respectable 4.3 yards per carry in 1998), he just wasn't a difference maker of Hampton's caliber. Rodney's loss, both as a player and as a leader, was palpable.
Quarterback Kent Graham, subbing for an injured Kanell, rallied the Giants to four wins in their final five contests, including a thrilling, last-minute victory over the 13-0 and eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, but it wasn't enough. At 8-8, the Giants missed the playoffs.
The next season, as the Giants trotted out a comical merry-go-round of ne'er-do-well would-be replacements, from Wheatley and Brown to LeShon Johnson, Joe Montgomery, and Sean Bennett, Rodney kind of just faded into obscurity. Unlike his former teammates Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms, the Giants chose not to honor him in a halftime ceremony or to offer him a job within the organization, as they later did with Charles Way after his injury. And when the Giants selected Ron Dayne, the Heisman Trophy Winner, with the 11th pick of the 2000 draft, they didn't hesitate to assign him Rodney's number.
Why the Giants decided to treat one of their all-time great players like a sack of rotten tomatoes I'll never fully understand. I know that football is a harsh business, and that players get discarded all the time. I learned that the hard way when the Giants unceremoniously cut Mark Bavaro, a guy who had given his heart, soul, and body, to the organization, after his own knee injury. But while Bavaro's release opened my eyes to the realities of life as an NFL (read: Not For Long) player, the Giants' cold treatment of Hampton drove home the truth of the league's prevailing "what have you done for me lately?" mentality.
When asked where he'd rank Hampton among his all-time Giant favorites after Rodney, in his moving return to the field, helped run out the clock in the division clincher in 1997, venerable Giants owner Wellington Mara remarked, ''right now he's at the top.'' The operative phrase in that sentence was "right now," as just four months later Mara and Accorsi determined that Hampton had outlived his usefulness to the Giants organization. And while I am able to view the move intellectually as a business decision driven more by money than any other factor, the Giants handled Hampton's release in a way that, to me, seemed to be in opposition to their long-standing reputation as a "class organization."
Today, ten years after Hampton's release, he is largely forgotten. Plenty of #27 jerseys can still be seen around Giants Stadium these days, but they have a different name on their back now. In the era of free agency and the salary cap, fans have learned to root for the jersey, whoever it is that may be occupying it from year to year. Our loyalties to players wax and wane with each performance and we have become, by and large, an unforgiving lot. Literally.
But with the 2008 draft coming up in two days I'd like to take this opportunity to offer a heartfelt salute to one of the last true Giants--a player whose sterling example, both on and off the football field, deserves far more recognition than it has ever received. On Saturday, as you settle into your couch for the 3 p.m. start of the draft and crack that first beer, please do me a favor and toss one back for old Rodney. And remember, even though you're not fifteen or unapologetically mulleted it's never too late to buy a jersey. I promise you won't be disappointed.