Football fans remember Dale Hackbart as a defensive back who played for the Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Cardinals, and Denver Broncos from 1960 through 1973. However, things could have been extremely different. He could have been known today as a prominent major league baseball player. Hackbart spent a season playing baseball for the Grand Forks, North Dakota Chiefs, a Class C minor league team in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
(I interviewed Dale Hackbart on October 27, 2004)
Football fans remember Dale Hackbart as a defensive back who played for the Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Cardinals, and Denver Broncos from 1960 through 1973. However, things could have been extremely different. He could have been known today as a prominent major league baseball player. Hackbart spent a season playing baseball for the Grand Forks, North Dakota Chiefs, a Class C minor league team in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. It was Vince Lombardi who convinced Hackbart to drop baseball and concentrate on a career in the National Football League.
Born on July 21, 1938, Hackbart grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. He started playing sports while in ninth grade at Madison East when he went out for the junior high school’s football team. “I went out for football because all my buddies thought it was the thing to do,” said Hackbart.
He originally tried out as a wide receiver. “The coach had already selected two kids to play quarterback so I went out for end,” said Hackbart. “In practice, as I ran out the pass patterns and caught passes I would then throw the ball back to the center. The coach watched this for a couple days and then pulled me aside and asked me if I ever played quarterback. I said no. The coach said, you are now. So my career took a turn immediately when I was switched from end to quarterback in ninth grade.”
Hackbart went on to play quarterback during his junior and senior years at Madison East High School. He also played volleyball, basketball, baseball, and ran track. Out of all those sports, he liked baseball best. “I really wanted to be a Major League baseball player,” he said. “My sports hero at the time was Mickey mantle.”
During his high school sports career, Hackbart was named Most Valuable Player in the Big 8 Conference in basketball his senior year and was named to the All-City team, All-Area team (which included the Milwaukee area), and All-State team in football in his senior year. That was 1956.
He was recruited by the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota. “The University of Minnesota heavily went after me,” said Hackbart. “I made three trips to the campus and actually committed without putting it in writing to attend Minnesota. Then the admissions department for the school sent me a letter that said my grades were not good enough to make the University. I had a C average in high school. So I committed to the University of Wisconsin. The coaches at Minnesota didn’t know I got the letter from the admissions department and later told me that they could have gotten me into the school. But by that time I was already committed to Wisconsin.”
Hackbart played football, baseball, and basketball at the University of Wisconsin. He was the starting quarterback for the Badgers for the last three games of his sophomore year. He also played strong safety. He was influential in getting Wisconsin’s football team to the top of the Big 10 Conference and quaterbacked the team in the 1960 Rose Bowl against the University of Washington. The Badgers lost to Washington — 44-8.
“The Big 10 that year was very tough,” remembered Hackbart. “There were a lot of good teams. Northwestern, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue were all competitive. When we got to the Rose Bowl we were just burned out.”
After his senior season, Hackbart placed seventh for the Heisman Trophy which was won by Billy Cannon of Louisiana State University that year (1960). The Green Bay Packers drafted Hackbart in the fifth round of the 1960 draft.
At the time, the American Football League was being formed. The AFL had committed placing a franchise in Minnesota and Hackbart was drafted in the first round of the first AFL draft by this franchise. However, the NFL also chartered a franchise in Minnesota. Soon the AFL franchise moved on to become the Oakland Raiders. All the players drafted by Minnesota became the draft choices of the Raiders. So Hackbart officially became the first player ever drafted by the Oakland Raiders.
Hackbart signed with the Packers. But he really wanted to play baseball and the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him a contract which he signed. “The Packer contract had a clause in it that said if I signed a baseball contract, then the contract with the Packers was null and void,” explained Hackbart. “So when I signed the contract with the Pirates I just figured that the Packer deal was dead and I played baseball for the Grand Forks Chiefs of the Class C Minor Leagues.” Hackbart remembered that Willie Stargell was on that team at the time and that Joe Torre, now the manager of the New York Yankees, played catcher for another team in the league, the Duluth Dukes. Hackbart played first base and the outfield.
The Grand Forks Chiefs played some games in Winnipeg, Canada. At the time, Bud Grant was the head coach of the Canadian Football League Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He tried to convince Hackbart to play for the Bombers. At the end of the baseball season, Hackbart decided to take Grant up on his suggestion. But after he signed a contract with the Blue Bombers the Green Bay Packers stepped back into the picture. “The Packers said that I couldn’t sign a contract with Winnipeg. So I re-signed with Green Bay and the Pittsburgh Pirates were really upset.”
When Hackbart joined the Packers in 1960 Vince Lombardi tried to convince him to dump baseball and stick with a career in football. “Lombardi said that baseball players were wimps and that football players were real men. I took the advice and dropped baseball.” That year the Packers went on to lose to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL championship game.
In 1961 Hackbart found himself in competition with Willie Wood for the strong safety position and during the regular season he was traded to the Washington Redskins. Bill McPeak was head coach and Ray Wilsey was the defensive backfield coach. Hackbart started out as a corner with the Redskins then was moved to free and strong safety. Hackbart noted that Wilsey put in some special safety blitzes for the defense and also had corner blitzes. “We had it but we didn’t use it much,” said Hackbart. They got the idea from the St. Louis Cardinals, he added.
About that time the Redskins had drafted Norman Snead from Wake Forest to play quarterback and had traded for Bobby Mitchell. In the 1962 season the team went undefeated for the first six games (4-0-2) and Hackbart contributed to the streak with an interception of a pass from Sonny Jurgensen in the endzone in the final seconds of a game against the Philadelphia Eagles to preserve a victory. The `Skins went on to lose seven of the last eight games of the season and ended with a record of 5-7-2. “The wheels just fell off,” commented Hackbart. “Some key players got hurt and the opposition figured out and exploited our weaknesses. We hadn’t learned how to win.”
Prior to the 1964 season the Redskins selected Paul Krause in the second round of the NFL draft. Krause challenged Hackbart for his safety position. Still, when the season started Hackbart was the starter. However, he separated his shoulder during a play in which he intercepted a pass and was tackled by John Nisby. Hackbart could not play for the rest of the season and Krause took his position. The Redskins subsequently cut him.
Hackbart worked hard to re-hab himself from the injury and ultimately joined the Minnesota Vikings for the 1965 season. He played free safety during the exhibition season but before the regular season started, he was cut from the team. He then went up to Winnipeg, Canada and played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League coached by Bud Grant.
The Canadian Football League season begins a month or so sooner than the NFL season. Hackbart played eight or nine games for Winnipeg. But, before the playoffs, he was released. Because of the difference of the schedules between the CFL and NFL, Hackbart was able to re-join the Minnesota Vikings and he finished out the 1965 season with that team. Norm Van Brocklin was the head coach of the Vikings at the time. “Van Brocklin was a great strategist. He could put in great offenses and defenses that picked the opponents apart. But he was a perfectionist. He couldn’t tolerate mental and physical errors. He would really chew you out unmercifully. He was tough on his players. You had to be strong emotionally and mentally to play for him,” said Hackbart.
Hackbart remained with the team through the 1966 and `67 seasons. Van Brocklin left the Vikings after the `67 season and was replaced with Bud Grant. Yes, the same Bud Grant Hackbart had played for at Winnipeg. “I told Grant you cut me in Winnipeg, please don’t cut me from the Vikings. He didn’t. We got along well.”
Hackbart continued to start at safety for the Vikings until a name from his past came back to haunt him. Prior to the 1968 season the Redskins traded Paul Krause to the Vikings. Once again, Krause took Hackbart’s job. However, the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings at the time was Jimmy Carr. He had a philosophy of playing as many as seven defensive backs at any one time and was one of the first to use the nickel back defense. “He was one of the first to implement the fifth defensive back. In Minnesota we called that the “Hack Defense” named after me,” said Hackbart. Hackbart may have lost his starting safety position but he was the nickel back and also played weak, strong side, and middle linebacker on passing downs. He remembers a game he played against the Redskins at the middle linebacker position. “The first play from scrimmage Jurgensen came out from the huddle, saw me at middle linebacker and started laughing,” remembered Hackbart.
He was with the Vikings when they played in Super Bowl IV against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs won that game 23-7.
“It was a devastating loss,” said Hackbart. “Going into the game Kansas City had an outstanding offense and defense and it was the first time we played against the 3-4 defense (three down linemen and four linebackers). The Chiefs’ offense had a lot of motion. They used what was called the Tight I, both ends in tight with the quarterback lined up with the fullback, tight end and halfback. Then before the play, they moved to different positions and then went into motion. They had multiple sets with multiple plays off these sets. It confused us. We were underprepared to play that game.”
The Vikings traded Hackbart to the St. Louis Cardinals prior to the 1971 season and Hackbart was a back up safety through the 1972 season. He retired after the `72 season.
“I retired and moved from Minneapolis to Longmont, Colorado,” he explained. “A friend of mine who played football with me at the University of Wisconsin, Jim Holmes, bought a tire store in Longmont and he wanted me to buy in as a partner. So I did. After I got to Longmont Jim suggested that I try and work out a trade with the Denver Broncos so that I could play for them. He thought it would be good publicity for the store. So I was able to work out a trade to the Broncos and I was their starting safety in 1973.”
In the first regular season game against the Cincinnati Bengals Hackbart broke his neck. “It was just before halftime and the Bengals had the ball at around the 45 yardline going in. Boobie Clark came out of a split backfield and ran down the hashmarks. I was playing free safety so I dropped back to the center of the field. The ball went up in the air and I converged into the endzone. Billy Thompson, who was playing left corner for the Broncos, jumped in front of me and Boobie Clark and intercepted the pass. I tried to block Boobie and landed on the ground. When I came up on to one knee watching Thompson run the ball, Boobie came up from behind me and whacked me in the back of the head and drove me into the ground. My left arm went numb. At halftime in the locker room I couldn’t take off my helmet so I was packed in ice around my neck and helmet. Then I went out and played the second half.”
Hackbart went on to play the next two games against the San Francisco 49’ers and the Chicago Bears. After the Bear game he was in so much pain he went to the hospital on his own and had X-rays taken. It turned out that he had fractured the C4, 5, 6, and 7 vertebrae on his neck. Obviously, his football career was over.
In 1974 neurosurgeons told him that if he didn’t have surgery to repair the damage, he would lose use of his left arm and shoulder and the muscles involved with the damaged vertebrae. The Broncos said that they were not liable. So Hackbart hired an attorney, Rodger Johnson of Johnson & Mahony, and he told him to sue the Bengals. Hackbart V. the Cincinnati Bengals became a precedent setting case. In the case the courts ruled that in the course of a professional football game an intentional infliction of an injury by one player upon another does constitute a tort action.
As a result of the lawsuit, the National Football League mandated that all stadiums had to be equipped with X-Ray machines. Moreover, the head slap was banned. Later, rules against spearing with the helmet and helmet to helmet contact were initiated. Hackbart settled with the Bengals and the Broncos filed a Workman’s Compensation claim which paid for the surgery that was performed in 1976.
After his recovery, Hackbart returned to the tire store in Longmont, Colorado. In 1980 he went to work for Bridgestone/Firestone and has been working with the company ever since. He works for the Bridgestone mining division selling large radial tires for the 240 to 300 ton trucks used by companies that mine iron ore, copper, gold, and coal.
In 1999 Hackbart was diagnosed with breast cancer and in 2000 his wife of 41 years, Beverly, died while hiking in New Mexico.
He appears to have beaten the cancer. He has just gone off the medication and the prognosis, according to doctors, is good.
He now lives in the Boulder, Colorado area with his second wife Eileen. He has two sons and a daughter from his first marriage. His daughter Rhonda and her husband have a 15 year old daughter and they live in Denver, Colorado. His son Todd is married, has two daughters and they live in Atlanta, Georgia. And his son Tracy Jay is married and lives in Northern California.