What's odd about the five professional football jerseys and awards that amount to a shrine of sorts for West Sioux High School grad Brian Hansen?
He didn't play football at West Sioux his junior year. Barely remembers any kind of postseason laurels his senior campaign.
“I punted a couple of times as a sophomore for the varsity,” said Hansen. “I didn't go out for football as a junior because I wasn't enjoying it.”
He would enjoy the sport in later life. He earned First Team All-America honors at the University of Sioux Falls and made the New Orleans Saints as a rookie in 1984. He even earned a trip to the Pro Bowl that year, and shared lots of time with the late Walter Payton, who served as backup punter for the NFC team when Hansen sprained an ankle stepping off a curb that week in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Hansen is one of three famous Hawarden natives. The others are Ruth Suckow, an accomplished author born in this Sioux County community in 1892, and Hope Emerson, a 1950 Academy Award nominee for her Best Supporting Actress work as prison matron Evelyn Harper in “Caged.” Emerson also earned an Emmy nomination in 1958.
Suckow's childhood home has been preserved at Calliope Village on the city's north side. Emerson? There doesn't seem to be much mention of her. Suckow died in 1960; Emerson in 1962, both in California. Emerson was interred at Grace Hill Cemetery here.
Hansen, on the other hand, is very much alive and keeps busy traveling across South Dakota as director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. When doing so, he shares his testimony of faith and how an incident when he was 16 changed the course of his life.
“I came from a solid, loving family, a good family environment,” said Hansen, 50. “We were very committed to our church. My dad was a man of integrity, someone I really looked up to. Even with that, I didn't have a stellar lifestyle. I wasn't walking the straight and narrow. I was flirting will all kinds of stuff, on the edges.”
It came to a head when the high school sophomore was busted for shoplifting at Kmart in Sioux Falls. He attempted to steal a pair of boots.
“I remember going hunting with guys and watching them come out of grocery stores with their pockets full of stuff,” he said. “The temptation set in and there was a thrill with getting away with it.”
Getting nailed and having to tell his parents and grandparents became the defining moment of his life. He served probation and faced the public humiliation. “That got me moving in a different direction,” he said.
The son of Marlin and Marilyn Hansen, now of Alcester, S.D., took this figurative kick in the back side and began kicking a football. He attended football games at the University of Sioux Falls where his older brother, Mark, played quarterback and studied how punters blasted the ball high and deep.
He averaged 39.8 yards per punt as a senior at West Sioux and earned a whopping $250 scholarship to play at USF. (He also earned $250 to compete in the pole vault for the Cougars' track team.)
Hansen suffered a knee injury his freshman year and sat out. He started for the Cougars as a sophomore, but was inconsistent. He went home the following summer and spent the time punting with his father. The time, that is, that he wasn't riding a mower at the school and golf course.
Hansen began showing signs of promise. His strong leg attracted a couple of professional football scouts to Sioux Falls. Then, as a senior, he led the nation with a 44-yard average.
He was working at the MGM Grand Casino in Reno, Nev., when the New Orleans Saints called in April to let him know they had selected him in the ninth round. (Hansen was in Reno to work out with a national kicking coach. He worked part-time at the casino as he had already graduated from USF.)
Hansen earned All-Pro accolades his rookie season with a 43.8-yard average. He showed up in Hawaii and found his locker next to that of Joe Montana, star quarterback from the San Francisco 49ers. Hansen's head must have been in the clouds, because a misstep on a Honolulu curb caused a sprained ankle. It meant the punting duties might be turned over to the team's backup: Walter Payton.
“Walter Payton punted in college and he was going to punt if I couldn't,” Hansen said of the longtime Chicago Bears star. “I worked out with him that week and got to know him. Walter was having a blast punting.”
Hansen's ankle healed and he competed. In fact, he became the first punter ever to have a kick blocked in the Pro Bowl.
Hansen returned to New Orleans and played another four years with the the Saints. He sat for a year as surgeons reconstructed his kicking foot. He came back with the Patriots and would later spend time with the Browns (3 years), Jets (5 years) and Redskins (1 year). He retired from football in 1999.
A friend managed to collect five of the jerseys Hansen wore during his professional career. All are on display in the trophy case at West Sioux, a daily reminder of how far dreams and diligence can take a Siouxland youth.
“I wasn't big, fast or strong,” said Hansen, who this year celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary to wife Lauri. They are the parents of three children.
“I was challenged to see how far I could go with football. As a kid, I had dreamed of being in the NFL. I guess it would have been enough just to get into an NFL training camp. Never in my wildest dreams would I have lasted 15 years. It was a great experience.”
Hansen, a Sioux Falls resident for the past 20 years, made it back to Hawarden for nearly a decade as he hosted a golf tournament that raised scholarship funds for West Sioux students. Eventually, the fund helped send children to camps run by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“We still send kids every year,” Hansen said. “It became a ministry opportunity as we felt we could reach more kids through camps.”