Perfectly Special: No Regard for His Body : Even a Broken Neck Couldn't Put Chargers' Hank Bauer on the Bench

Times Staff Writer

Hank Bauer sauntered into the front office of the San Diego Chargers at Jack Murphy Stadium, seemingly without a care in the world. He looked for all the world un like a man who had long since donated his body to the science of suicide-squad football.

Propped back in an office chair with his feet on a desk, Bauer discussed his career, from Magnolia High School, through Cal Lutheran, followed by a six-year pro career with the Chargers, where today he is a special teams coach. His was a career that gave new meaning to the phrase reckless abandon.

Many players admit they have had various fears, particularly of injury. Bauer's only fear as a player was that he might not hit somebody on a given kickoff, an attitude that may have earned him greater respect around the NFL but shortened his playing days considerably.

Bauer on special-teams play: "It's chemical warfare-- anything goes."

With most such claims, you'd at least ask to see some game films to back it up. With Bauer, one need only peek at his X-rays.

"I played the last six games of 1982 before I found out that my fifth cervical vertebra was fractured and the disc on the sixth vertebra was ruptured," he said.

In laymen's terms, Bauer was playing with a broken neck.

"After the season, when the doctors told me that another hit could mean that I might never move my arms or legs again, I knew it was time to quit," he said.

"The first doctor that examined me told me that I should either be dead or in a wheelchair. He said I didn't know how lucky I was."

Bauer subsequently had surgery in which doctors removed the back of the fourth, fifth and sixth vertebrae, leaving only muscles to cover his spinal cord.

"It still hurts like hell, but nothing like before the surgery when my left side started to shrink, my fingers were numb, and my arms had no strength," Bauer said. "It's sound enough where now I can surf, play racquetball, lift weights, run distance--all probably more than I should be doing with it."

Until his surgery, Bauer had zealously played football through junior high, senior high, college and the pros without missing a game because of an injury. He did not take his decision to retire lightly, but he kept his sense of humor about it.

When reporters asked him about his injuries at the time, Bauer, a part-time sportscaster for a San Diego television station, replied, "Film at 11. Or maybe X-rays and CAT-scans at 11."

Bauer developed into a special teams player out of necessity. At 5-feet 10-inches, 205 pounds, he set and still holds the career rushing record of 2,659 yards at Cal Lutheran, but he was cut by the Dallas Cowboys after a free-agent tryout in 1976.

In 1977, the Chargers, having seen his aggressive play the year before, signed him as a special teams player.

Throughout his pro career, Bauer was one of San Diego's more popular athletes. He was host for an annual Arthritis Foundation golf tournament that has come to be called the Hank Bauer Invitational.

He endeared himself to fans and teammates with his reckless style, earning the nickname "Howitzer" for his approach to special teams coverage.

Charger Coach Don Coryell once called Bauer the best he'd ever seen on special teams. He was named special teams player of the year by Inside Sports magazine in 1980, by Cable News Network in 1981 and by the NFL alumni in 1982.

Bauer's favorite memory is of the Chargers' 41-38 victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl in the 1981-82 playoffs. The game, won on a Rolf Benirschke field goal in overtime, has been cited by those who saw it as among the most exciting they'd ever seen.

In that game, Bauer made three tackles, had a block that sprung Wes Chandler on a 56-yard punt return and recovered an onside kick by Benirschke.

"Special teams are the fastest way to lose a game, but they can help you to win one equally as easy," Bauer said.

Bauer delivered quite a few hits in his day, including 56 tackles on kickoff and punt returns in 1981, but it was a hit he took during his rookie season that helped set the tone for his career.

"We were playing the Rams at the Coliseum and Wendell Tyler was returning a kick," Bauer said. "Tom Mack tried to cross-body block me but I hit the breaks and at 265 pounds or so, he went flying by me.

"So I went on to pin Tyler on the sidelines. What I didn't know was that Mack had circled back. I never saw him coming and he just stuck his helmet right in my ear hole.

"I went and sat down on the wrong sideline. You couldn't have shocked me any more if you'd hit me with a sledgehammer. I learned from that that you always keep your head on a swivel, you develop your sight out of your ears."

In high school, Bauer had been a baseball and football star, starting at fullback and middle guard.

"Playing middle guard helped develop my intellect--or lack of it," Bauer said.

Magnolia has not forgotten one its favorite sons.

Bauer, 31, attended Magnolia's 10-6 victory over Anaheim last week, the first time he'd seen his alma mater play since he graduated.

And Saturday during halftime ceremonies against Savanna, Bauer's jersey No. 33 will be retired along with those of fellow Sentinel greats Jim Bratten (No. 13) and Bob Jensen (No. 61).

Bauer will be in Denver through the weekend with the Chargers, so his brother Jim, an assistant coach at Cal Lutheran, will stand in for him.

Bauer's advice to those that would follow in his footsteps are blunt:

"The odds of a high school or college player every making it in the pros, much less getting a tryout, are very slim.

"So you've got to play every play like it was the last time you're going to put on a uniform, whether in practice or a game, because you never know--look at me.

"But that way, you won't have any regrets later in life. I didn't shortchange anybody in my career, including myself."

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