Remembering Rodney: A Bluenatic's Lament

Thursday, April 24, 2008 |

Back when I was fifteen years old, unapologetically mulleted and flush with the robust earnings from a summer spent working three jobs, I purchased my first New York Giants football jersey. While it's true that I had owned and cherished other Giants jerseys prior to this one (a road-white Carl Banks was a personal favorite), this one was special because I bought it with my own money. The Giants then, like now, were the World Champions of professional football. It was a fine time to invest in a jersey. And to me no star on that 1990 Giants team burned with more spectacular intensity than their first round pick that year, running back Rodney Hampton, #27.

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 Denver was pleased with the value they got out of Shannon Sharpe in the seventh round at pick #193. All Emmitt did was go out and make sixteen teams look silly by carrying the ball more times for more yards and more touchdowns than any other player in the history of the National Football League. And kill the Giants repeatedly, unmercifully.

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 Georgia and the speedy yet diminutive back from Florida State, Dexter Carter. With a lackluster 4.65 forty time, Hampton didn't have the breakaway speed scouts lauded in Carter, but his bruising running style was much better suited for the Giants traditional smashmouth, ball control style of offense. And while Rodney was clearly no Emmitt Smith as a pro (even a bluenatic like me will concede that), it is unquestionably clear that George Young and the Giants chose the better of the two running backs available at #24.

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 New York) to fall in love with Rodney, either. On his very first professional carry, in a preseason game at Buffalo, he took a second quarter handoff from "camp body" Scooter Molander and raced 89-yards for a touchdown. It was just a simple draw play. Center Brian Williams and guards Bob Kratch and Eric Moore each made key blocks, helping Hampton get through the line. Once he got to the second level he juked a linebacker, broke the tackle of one Bills safety and escaped the lunge of the other. After that, Hampton was in the clear and outran the pursuing Bills to the end zone. It was beautiful. So much for his lack of breakaway speed.

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 Buffalo, their eventual Super Bowl opponent.

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 New York, and after posting just fourteen wins in two seasons at the helm he was fired, giving way to the disciplinarian, Dan Reeves. Yet while the Handley era is often thought of as one Giants fans would rather forget (and with good reason), they were also the years in which Rodney Hampton first began to flourish, capturing the hearts of the fans with his hard, tough, between-the-tackles running.

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 Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.

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 Midwest for college. But with Simms managing the offense, Rodney pounding the rock and the young defensive stars (Keith Hamilton, then in his second-year, was only 22) beginning to come into their own, the Giants, to the surprise of many (including myself) made a charge to the playoffs, winning six of their final eight games.

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, Hampton converted both a fourth and one and a third and two to keep the drive alive.

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 San Francisco, the Giants suffered a demoralizing, blowout loss at the hands of the 49ers. The final score was 44-3 and the Giants were never in it. Ricky Watters set a league record with five rushing touchdowns in the game, which was (and still is) the most lopsided postseason loss the Giants have endured in the franchise's storied history. The Niners led 23-3 at the half and took Rodney out of the game early. He finished the game with just 7 carries for 12 yards.

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.

Unfortunately, Reeves and the Giants were never able to capture the magic of 1993 again. With Simms retired and the offense placed in the incompetent, mistake-prone (to put it nicely) hands of 1992 Supplemental Draft Pick Dave Brown (perhaps George Young's worst selection in nineteen years as General Manager), the Giants failed to reach the postseason for the next three years. An encouraging 9-7 record in Brown's first season as a starter (1994) proved to be an abberation, and after back-to-back seasons of double-digit losses (1995-6), Reeves was fired. Rodney, never one to publicly gripe, pressed on, once again settling into the thankless role of being the best offensive player on a shitty, rebuilding team. But beyond that he became the face of the franchise in those days, as more and more fans began arriving at the stadium in his #27 jersey.

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. Hampton, as prideful as any Giants player in recent memory, wasn't about to hand his starting job over to anyone, though. Instead, Wheatley's and Walker's presence on the roster only served to motivate him to run harder, as he finished the 1995 campaign with 1,182 yards (his career best mark) and ten rushing touchdowns. What made those numbers all the more remarkable was that Rodney put them up in an otherwise forgettable 5-11 season that began with a torturous 35-0 loss at home to the visiting Cowboys on Monday Night Football and which ended with six defeats in the Giants final eight games.

1995 marked Hampton's fifth consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards rushing, and in March of 1996 the 49ers, who had missed out on selecting him by just one pick seven years earlier, made Rodney a blockbuster six-year, $16.45 million free agent offer. With Wheatley, a first round pick, on the roster and the Giants not expected to be a contender in 1996, few figured the Giants would match the Niners' offer. Most fans, even ardent Rodney supporters like myself, resigned themselves to accept the fact that Hampton had likely played his last game in a Giant uniform.

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--Hampton left the contest with what Mike Freeman rather matter-of-factly described in his game report for The New York Times as a "bruised right knee." Nothing much was made of the injury at the time, but perhaps sensing a precipitous decline in Rodney's performance and not quite sold on the enigmatic Wheatley, the Giants used their 2nd round pick (#36 overall) in that April's draft to select Tiki Barber, the shifty little back from the University of Virginia.

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 Washington on December 13th, with the division title on the line. By that time, fifteen games into the season, Hampton had lost his starting job to an effective rotation of significantly younger backs that included Wheatley, Barber, and Charles Way, an emerging star at the fullback position.

The Giants were a surprising success that year without Hampton, Jim Fassel's first as Head Coach, as with smoke and mirrors they won ten games and became the first NFC East team ever to go undefeated in the division. Mired at 2-3 in early October, Dave Brown injured a chest muscle in the first quarter of the Giants' week six clash with Dallas, opening up the door for the unheralded fourth round pick of the previous year, Danny Kanell. Kanell, a decent game manager if not the most gifted passer, led the Giants to an upset win that afternoon and then to seven more, as he and the Giants captured both lightning in a bottle and the division crown. Brown, who would throw just 40 touchdowns against 49 interceptions in three plus cringe-worthy seasons as the Giants starting quarterback, would never throw another pass in a Giants uniform.

The Giants needed a victory over Washington in the season's penultimate game to clinch their first division title in seven years. Late in the game and protecting a lead, Fassel inserted Rodney in an attempt to run out the clock. He was welcomed by the loudest cheers of the day at Giants Stadium, including the touchdown celebrations and, just as he had time after time for the Giants, calmly proceeded to rush for a critical first down. Years later, Rodney would tell reporters ''for all the 100-yard rushing games I had, it's the Washington game that I'll reflect back to. I appreciated the fans' ovation.''

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 Hampton's hefty contract, as the Giants continued to develop Wheatley and Barber into every down backs.

"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.''

Hampton
, still confident in his ability to play, said ''I'm playing next year, just not with the Giants. I guess it's kind of sad because I spent a lot of years in New York. I'll miss the Giants, but it's time to move on.''

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. 

Despite the tremendous ovation he received upon his return, Hampton had gained just 81 yards on 23 carries in the final two games of the regular season. And in the first round of the playoffs, a soul-crushing home loss to Minnesota in which the Giants led by nine points inside of two minutes, he carried only eight times for 18 yards. It was clear that the knee injury, coupled with the punishment he had endured over 2,000 plus NFL touches, caused Rodney to lose a valuable step. At 29, he was headed towards the age in which even the best running backs have seen their productivity decline, and no teams were interested in taking a flier on him.

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.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great, great article. Please tell me that you reviewed the game tapes because if this is from memory then I'm impressed.

It should be mentioned that while not officially employed by The Giants Rodney is very active in their alumni events and Big Blue Travel. What a year. Make the 90's less painful.

Josh Wilker said...

Yeah, great stuff.

While I followed football avidly as a kid, I found myself losing interest during the '90s. At the nadir of my interest I seemed to turn on one football game a year, and I swear I always turned the TV on to see Rodney Hampton running off-tackle for three yards. Year in, year out, Rodney Hampton off-tackle for three yards. A seasonal ritual, like the leaves turning colors. He's one of my all-time favorite football players because of that.

Platon said...

only medium size on the jersey? dammit