CHICAGO – Richard Dent had just joined the Bears, and Dan Hampton was a little less than impressed.
He saw a player who was scrawny – even a bit lazy – and when Buddy Ryan asked about two weeks into practices what he thought of the rookie, well, the “Danimal” couldn’t be restrained, using a few choice words to describe him.
“I said, ‘Why, you like him?’ ” Hampton recalled. “And Buddy said, ‘Watch him. He never makes a bad decision, and that’s the essence of being a defensive lineman.’ ”
What a defensive end he turned out to be. And now, after some near misses, Dent’s long wait for a spot in the Hall of Fame is almost over.
Dent finally will become the third member of that legendary 1985 Bears defense to be inducted into the Hall on Saturday, when he joins fellow “Monsters of the Midway” Hampton and Mike Singletary. It’s an honor that his teammates and coaches say is long overdue.
Who can forget the mangled mess of opponents that group left behind while shuffling all the way to a championship? Whether it was the crunching hits or Dent bursting past the tackle and stripping the ball as he sacked the quarterback, few teams made offenses wilt like that one.
He will go in as part of a class that includes Shannon Sharpe, Marshall Faulk, Chris Hanburger, Les Richter, Ed Sabol and Deion Sanders. He’ll be presented by his old coach at Tennessee State who, like Hampton, was far from impressed – at first.
“I’m very appreciative of those people who appreciate my career and having an opportunity to come in their homes to entertain them on Sundays,” Dent said. “They can turn you off, but they turn you on.”
A four-time Pro Bowl pick and MVP of the Super Bowl in 1986, Dent played 15 seasons and is tied for sixth with John Randle on the NFL’s all-time sacks list with 1371⁄2. He set a team record with 171⁄2 in 1984, led the NFL with 17 sacks a year later and finished with 10 or more eight times in his career.
Now, after missing out as a finalist six of the previous seven years, he’s finally going into the Hall. Not bad for a guy who barely made his college team, who then watched as 202 players got drafted before him in 1983 and who showed up to the Bears undersized and needing extensive dental work.
“The thing about Richard was he really made himself what he became,” said Mike Ditka, the ’85 Bears’ coach.
He’s the first Hall of Famer from Tennessee State, a historically black school that produced Pro Bowl picks such as Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Claude Humphrey. And yet, Joe Gilliam Sr. wanted nothing to do with Dent.
He just couldn’t avoid him, though. And Saturday, he’ll be the one making the presentation.
The defensive coordinator at Tennessee State, Gilliam happened to be teaching a graduate course in public health and one of his students was William Lester, Dent’s coach at Murphy High in Atlanta.
Gilliam was also responsible for recruiting in Georgia, and one spring day, he stopped by the school. Lester put in a tape and asked what he thought.
“I said, ‘I have cornerbacks that are bigger than Richard Dent and he’s an offensive tackle. He just won’t cut it, coach,’” Gilliam said.
Lester wouldn’t take no for an answer, though, and when fall practices started, Gilliam said he showed up with Dent in tow even though there was no scholarship offer.
“He says, ‘We can’t leave him in Atlanta. He won’t make it, coach.’ I said, ‘I can understand, he comes from a pretty rough area and all that, but I just don’t have a scholarship for him.’ He says, ‘Coach, I can’t leave him. So I brought him.’ He says, ‘You do what you can for him. I know you’ll do that.’”
He remembers Lester telling him, “Well, you got him” and then leaving.
“I was with Dent, so I sent him over to the offensive coach,” Gilliam said.
Eventually, Dent got sent back to him and began to show his potential as a defensive end after redshirting his first year. He put on some weight and started making life miserable for opposing linemen and quarterbacks.
He was relentless, like “a guided missile” going after the ball carrier.
“We didn’t teach him that,” said Gilliam, who eventually moved over to offensive coordinator while Dent was there. “Buddy Ryan didn’t teach him that with the Chicago Bears, either. ... If you knocked him down, he’d get up before you and he’d make the tackle. I don’t care who it was or where it was, he’d run until the whistle blew.”
He also seemed impervious to pain.
Gilliam remembers Dent suffering a small fracture in his left forearm in a game, practicing on Thursday and then getting four sacks in the next game, even though he was essentially playing with one arm.
As tough and as quick as he was, Dent was easy to overlook because he didn’t really stand out as a physical specimen. Even though he put on weight in college, he still only tipped the scales in the 220s when he started the Bears. He also had to undergo extensive dental work. But soon the eighth-round pick began to pack on the pounds, eventually playing at about 265.
Ryan, the coordinator of that 46 defense, said he simply “had all the natural ability in the world,” and he stood out on a unit packed with stars.
With Hampton, Singletary, Steve McMichael, Otis Wilson, Wilber Marshall, Dave Duerson and Gary Fencik, the Bears were loaded, but Dent did not get lost in the shuffle. “The Sackman” was at his best in the playoffs, starting with that divisional game against the New York Giants in which he had 31/2 sacks. He kept it going in the NFC championship, sacking Dieter Brock and forcing a fumble that Marshall ran back 52 yards for a touchdown as snow started to fall at Soldier Field, capping a 24-0 romp over the Los Angeles Rams. And in the Super Bowl, all Dent did was have a hand in two sacks, force two fumbles and block a pass while taking the MVP as the Bears stomped New England, 46-10.
As dominant as they were, though, they never won another championship, and there was a perception that Dent’s numbers were bloated because of whom he played alongside.
“Oh no, he was good,” McMichael said. “He was good. ... On any team that’s ever been, he’d make the same plays.”
Wilson said, “He would have done what he did on any defense, on any team.”
Now, finally, he’s set to take his place among the game’s greats.