Commentary

The skinny on greatness

Richard Dent wasn't imposing coming out of college, but he stands among NFL giants

Updated: August 5, 2011, 5:49 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

[+] EnlargeRichard Dent
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesFormer Bears scout Bill Tobin wrote in his report that Richard Dent "is one of the quickest you will see upfield."

Not long after Richard Dent was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in February, former Bears scout Bill Tobin took a trip to his basement and came up with a treasure trove.

He knew he had kept all of his original scouting reports, and this was one of those times when it was going to be fun to re-read them.

Tobin was the one who put the second-round grade on the skinny kid from Tennessee State, but the Bears had other needs in 1983 and were pretty satisfied with their early round picks that day: Jim Covert and Willie Gault in the first round; Mike Richardson in the second; Dave Duerson in the third and Tom Thayer and a tight end named Pat Dunsmore in the fourth. They also had their eye on a defensive tackle from Iowa named Mark Bortz.

The Bears had traded their fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks to New England and Cleveland, and when they looked up after a lunch break and saw that the skinny kid was still available in the eighth, they grabbed him. He was the 203rd overall pick.

"He is one of the quickest you will see upfield," Tobin read from his original scouting report on Dent, "and he has a mean streak in him. He will really wrap up the quarterback when he gets to him.'"

Tobin was, of course, dead on, the pick worked out and 28 years later, the skinny kid has been recognized as one of the greatest football players who ever lived. Dent will be enshrined in Canton on Saturday.

"Somebody once said greatness is not what you achieve but what you overcome," said former Bears coach Mike Ditka, "and Richard Dent achieved a lot and he overcame a lot."

"Richard," said former Bears teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Dan Hampton, "is one of those guys with a chip on his shoulder. Even though he was an eighth-round pick, he always had an image of himself as a big-time player and he felt he had to prove it. Even when he was the MVP of the Super Bowl, Ditka was calling him 'Robert' and all that. It was like nobody gave him his due, and I hate to say it, but now he gets the last laugh."

The eighth-round designation was a tough one to figure. Yeah, he was underweight, but he was an outstanding pass rusher with instincts honed by great coaching and tutoring from former Tennessee State All-American and six-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Claude Humphrey.

Still, Hampton, a first-round pick of the Bears in '79 and one of the fiercest defenders in the game, wasn't convinced. After a week of training camp, Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan asked him what he thought of the rookie end.

Hampton compared Dent to Bortz -- a classic "Ask-him-to-jump-and-he'll-ask-how-high" guy -- and deduced that Dent "looked lazy."

"But I'll never forget Buddy saying, 'Just watch him. He never makes a bad decision,'" Hampton recalled. "Fridge (defensive tackle William Perry, who was drafted two years later) had a world of natural talent, the quicks, but Fridge never had the sixth sense Richard had, that ability to know when someone is trying to block trap you, pinch you, when they're going to bootleg, a bunch of subtleties. A lot of guys don't have it. But after a week or two, you could tell Richard did."

The Bears deduced that dental problems were the cause of Dent's relatively low weight and had them fixed. One way or the other, Dent would grow an inch and a half taller and gain nearly 40 pounds over the next two years.

He would play in every game as a rookie, and by his second season he was a full-time starter, beginning a span in which Dent would record 10 or more sacks in eight of 10 seasons.

"He probably would have been the top pass rusher sack-wise, if I had let him rush the passer," Ryan said, "but we needed him dropping into coverage."

"What distinguished him," Tobin said, "was his second step and his intelligence. Knowing when he had the offensive tackle off-balance, when he could beat him to the corner. He could run and chase and catch and when he got to the quarterback, he could strip."

Though Dent would become a dedicated run-stopper, it was as a pass-rusher that he became a feared defender. "He had this certifiably great move where he could get off the tackle with a bull rush, sort of post up, then drop his hips and go around the guy," Hampton said. "We called it 'The Swoop.' Bruce Smith did it a little. Freddy Dean could run around people. But nobody did it like Richard did."

Dent was one of the 15 finalists for the Hall of Fame in seven of the years in which he was eligible. But when Dean and Andre Tippett made it in 2008, Derrick Thomas made it in '09 (with 11 fewer sacks than Dent) and John Randle and Rickey Jackson were elected last year with fewer credentials than Dent, there was a definite rumbling among '85 Bears.

But for Dent, there was bigger disappointment in not winning any player of the year awards. Upon learning he was to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, he said that was all he needed to hear.

"As a kid, thinking back to the time being a Pro Bowler, winning the Super Bowl, always wanting to be defensive player of the year or rookie of the year or MVP, this is my first award for my career. And baby, it just doesn't get any better than this," he said.

"It was worth the wait. In my first three seasons in the league, I wondered 'What is it? Why did one not get something for it?' It was a surprise after the second year, and then you come back and do it again the third year and there was nothing there. Yeah, we won the Super Bowl and yeah, I won the MVP of the Super Bowl, but that didn't calculate to one's career that season. So for the Hall to come in now and acknowledge your career is just amazing. A kid that comes out of Murphy High School [in Atlanta], didn't play but a year and a half of football and went to Tennessee State to find himself ... I'm so grateful and so happy."

Dent is one of three players on the vaunted '85 Bears defense -- along with Hampton and Mike Singletary -- to be named to the Hall, and one of four on the Super Bowl champions as he joins the late Walter Payton.

[+] EnlargeChicago Bears
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDan Hampton (99) said he and Richard Dent enjoyed a "wonderful bond" that helped both land in the Hall of Fame.

He thanked all of them last February, making special mention of Jimbo Covert, the Bears' seemingly immovable left tackle who literally butted heads with Dent in practice.

"I had to slow it down," Ditka said. "They went crazy there for a little bit and there were a couple of fist fights too."

"Make it live, make it live," Dent would yell in practice, meaning the offense better be ready because the defense was coming.

"At the drop of a hat, he was ready to go to war," Hampton said.

Former Bears safety Gary Fencik marvels at Dent and Hampton manning the line. "Two guys who are Hall of Famers right next to each other [when Hampton was at right tackle], think about the chaos," he said.

It was Fencik who would talk to Ryan during timeouts, often carrying messages from his defensive teammates about what they thought would work on the next play.

"The linebackers would want to blitz, the line to stunt and I'd go over to Buddy and he'd say, 'Who the hell is running this defense, them or me?'" Fencik said. "But Buddy would give them a little flexibility, and if Hamp wanted to run hard outside and Richard wanted to go underneath, he'd say, 'Fine, run that but if it doesn't work, you can't run it for the rest of the day.'"

Dent and Hampton had an unspoken communication on the field, a sort of unchoreographed ballet that looked perfectly synchronized. And it was that relationship, said Hampton, that serves as the backdrop for his favorite and indelible image of No. 95.

"Richard and I had this wonderful bond," Hampton said. "There were subliminal ways we'd communicate. Before every play, Richard had this solemn game face, but with these puppy dog eyes. Every play he wanted to come underneath and he'd look at me for a signal, but you couldn't do it every time or we'd have no contain and they'd have your head on a platter. Buddy would have it, too.

"Our integrity as a rush always had to be upheld. If he's coming underneath, I'd have to work to the outside. If we both got outside, we'd get in each other's way. It was organized chaos but one of those things where there was a method to the madness. But before every play I'd kind of glanced at him and he'd always be looking straight ahead. In my mind, that's the picture I'll always have of Richard. Looking straight ahead with his game face on but those puppy dog eyes. 'Are we going to do it?' he'd be saying to me."

More often than not, they were.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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