Something got me thinking about Phil Hansen the other day. It was when I was packing my peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my lunch pail.
Year after year, game after game, his contributions to the NFL and the Buffalo Bills were described in the same clichéd way by football broadcasters and their sidekick analysts: “Hansen is the best defensive end you’ve never heard” or “Hansen is the most underrated defensive end in the game,” they’d say.
But how can a player be unheard of or under-appreciated when, week-after-week, millions of viewers are being informed of his undervalued, yet virtuous deeds on the gridiron? Yet, that was Hansen. Despite racking up 61.5 career sacks – second in Bills history when he retired – and anchoring the left side of the Bills defensive line for more than a decade, the North Dakota State product continuously flew under the radar.
Hansen was one of those players that occupied the territory of better than average at his position, but not good enough to reach the level of top tier defensive end during his 11-year career from 1991-2001. The second-round pick never played in a Pro Bowl and only once recorded double digit sacks in a season (10 in 1995).
Hansen was solid and dependable. He wasn’t a star. He wasn’t flashy. He wasn’t flamboyant. He wasn’t Bruce Smith.
On a team lined with Hall of Fame talent and Hall of Fame showmen, recognizing the contributions of Hansen was similar to the challenge of spotting Waldo in one of those books. You had to squint your eyes for a few minutes and look closely.
As a young football fan, I was too wrapped up in the Bills’ high-powered offense and the exciting defensive play of Smith, Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley to see Hansen’s worth to the Bills’ success throughout the ’90s. To me, Hansen was just another player, a piece of the puzzle. Maybe even expendable.
It’s interesting how our outlook on life and what we value changes as our lives undergo alterations. I wouldn’t overlook Hansen and his blue collar work ethic and never-ending motor today. If he was playing now for the Bills, he would be among my favorite players.
Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly summed up Hansen this way: “He was a guy you’d want your child to emulate, on the field and off the field. Always gave 100 percent. Never took a down or a practice off. You knew you’d get it all from him. He deserves to be among all of us.”
It says a lot about Hansen’s seemingly indistinguishable career that he was inducted into the Bills’ Wall of Fame in 2011 (video). To be certain, mention of his name may have been met with quizzical expressions in other NFL cities throughout the ’90s, but Hansen’s impact in Buffalo will never be forgotten.
The Phil Hansen File
Jersey Number: 90
Playing Height: 6-foot-5
Playing Weight: 275 pounds
Date of Birth: May 20, 1968
Place of Birth: Ellendale, N.D.
College: North Dakota State
Drafted: 1991, Second Round, 54th overall
After Football: Owns a small landscaping and snow plowing company, works as a color commentator on North Dakota State football radio broadcasts, and runs youth fitness camps.
Did You Know?: Hansen ran as a Republican for election in Minnesota’s state senate in 2012 but lost a close race.