Feb. 18, 2010
Big Ten Black History Month Website
Chris Hinton had been preparing for this day since he was a young boy, playing football with his three older brothers in the streets of Chicago's south side. An avid Bears fan from birth, he grew up just a few miles from Soldier Field.
Twenty-two years later, Hinton found himself once again in his native city, only this time he was boarding a plane bound for Hawaii. A fresh face in the crowd, the rookie anomaly watched as the rest of the 1983 Pro Bowl contingent piled onto the aircraft. Among the epic cluster of NFL greats, one particular face stood out as Walter Payton took his place among the vacant seats. Awestruck, Hinton could not refrain as the corners of his mouth turned upward to reveal a boyish grin. The young man from Chicago had arrived.
A four-year letterwinner at Northwestern, Hinton is arguably the best offensive linemen to ever compete in the Wildcat trenches. One of the most sought-after prospects in the country, the Wendell Phillips prep sensation did not venture far after graduating from high school in 1979. The college football nation was shocked when a young and unseasoned head coach by the name of Rick Venturi secured Hinton's verbal commitment early in the recruiting season.
A former Wildcat quarterback turned head coach, Venturi and his staff knew Hinton was special. Beyond his massive frame, they recognized speed, athleticism and the inherent making of an impact player who was born to lead. It was exactly what Northwestern needed as the `Cats looked to rebound from a winless season in 1978. Although his decision was challenged by skeptics and naysayers, Hinton remained true to his declaration.
"I was recruited by pretty much everybody in the Big Ten, but I chose Northwestern for the education," Hinton said. "I really connected with the current student-athletes and we shared a lot of the same values. Education was very important to me."
In Hinton's second game in a Wildcat uniform, Venturi's squad managed to squeak out a win over Wyoming before entering a downward spiral of 34-straight losses.
His education had begun.
A linebacker as a freshman, Hinton was moved to tight end during his sophomore season before reverting back to his original position late in the year. The outcome was always the same as Northwestern continued to sink further into its infamous drought, posting back-to-back 0-11 marks in his first two campaigns. Afflicted by doubt and an insatiable hunger for winning, Hinton contemplated transferring.
"The greatest challenge was staying motivated," Hinton said. "My teammates were beginning to accept losing and I started to recognize that same mentality within myself."
With a new leader at the helm in head coach Dennis Green, Hinton's junior year held promise for revival. There were several incidents that led to this so-called awakening, beginning with the first practice of summer camp. After watching his star two-year letterman fail to complete the mile run, Green suspended Hinton indefinitely. If he was going to come back, he would have return on Coach's terms.
The first African-American head coach to pace the Big Ten football sidelines, Green imposed stringent rules and continued to push his stalwart veteran in ways Hinton had never been challenged before. To his credit, Hinton chose to buy into the wave of change that was sweeping over the Northwestern gridiron at a time when surrendering seemed the obvious choice.
"I fought my whole junior year to do the right thing and in doing so, I learned how to prepare myself to be the best," Hinton said. "Coach Green got me to buy into the team concept and changed the whole Northwestern culture by developing a winning mentality. He made me believe it could happen."
At the onset of his senior campaign, Hinton put on 20 pounds before shifting positions once again to offensive tackle. Known for his foresight and ability to project talent, Green understood the offensive line was evolving from the fundamental staple of size toward athleticism. A double-threat, Hinton had finally found his niche.
"I had always thought the offensive line was a place for the big, slow guys who were not athletic enough to catch the ball," Hinton said. "But I found that you can still be aggressive. Also, to be an offensive lineman required a certain degree of intelligence."
Four weeks into the season, the Wildcats downed Northern Illinois, 31-6 - it was Hinton's first taste of victory since beginning classes at Northwestern in September of 1979. That season, Hinton piloted his team to a pair of upsets over Minnesota and Michigan State, launching Northwestern's resurrection from the Big Ten basement.
For his efforts, the senior co-captain earned first-team All-America and first-team All-Big Ten honors and was also lauded NU's Most Valuable Player, the Thomas Airth Spirit Award winner and the "N" Club Performance Award recipient. To cap off his collegiate career, Hinton was also invited to compete in multiple all-star games, including the East-West Shrine Game and the Blue-Gray Classic.
With the NFL draft in sight, the nation's eye once again turned to Hinton.
Regarded as one of the strongest annual distributions of college football talent to date, the 1983 NFL Draft offered a bevy of talent in the first round, including Hinton, who was selected fourth overall by the Denver Broncos. His selection continues to stand as the highest draft pick for a Northwestern football player. However, Hinton's stint with the Broncos was short-lived- six days to be exact - as Denver packaged Hinton to Baltimore for a quarterback out of Stanford by the name of John Elway. The Colts were coming off a blistering 0-8 season - not quite the winning tradition Hinton had in mind. With mixed emotions, he left the friendly confines of the Midwest to join the professional rankings with the Colts.
"It was a rollercoaster," Hinton said. "I was still excited about being drafted as the fourth overall pick, but I was also excited about going to Denver. It was a tough introduction into the NFL. I kept reminding myself that it was a great opportunity, so I embraced it, dug in and started playing football."
Hinton's stellar NFL career spanned 13 years playing for the Colts, Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings. Among his catalogue of accomplishments, one of Hinton's most defining milestones came during his inaugural season when he became the first rookie offensive lineman to make the Pro Bowl.
"When I walked into the locker room for the first time, I was literally surrounded by all the people that I had grown up watching for the past 10 years from high school through my collegiate career," Hinton said. Exchanging glances with fellow Big Ten alum and rookie Pro-Bowler running back, Curt Warner, Hinton highlights the experience as one of the most exciting moments of his career. "It was mind-boggling. I had to pinch myself to make sure it was all really happening."
Consummate from the front line, Hinton wasted no time building his case for a potential future in the Pro Bowl Hall of Fame, earning six appearances with the Colts and one with the Falcons. A five-time All-Pro selection, his exploits set him apart as a pioneer among the nation's elite. Not only was he the first player to make the Pro Bowl in three different positions, he was also the first player to be inducted into the Colts' Ring of Honor since the franchise moved to Indianapolis.
After enjoying a long career in the NFL, it soon became apparent to Hinton that he would have to find a new avenue in which to channel his entrepreneurial interests. Little did he know that football would soon lend itself to another passion.
During one of his six Pro Bowl trips to Hawaii, Hinton detoured to Napa Valley where he discovered his inherent love for wine. He began making frequent visits to specialty wine shops and vineyards, and gradually developed his own personal cellar. Once his professional career had ended in 1996, Hinton returned to Atlanta with his wife, Mya Whitmore - a former Northwestern women's basketball standout - where they soon recognized a void in the wine retail market. In 1999, the couple opened Hinton's Wine Store in Alpharetta, Ga. Two years later, Hinton expanded the industry to include Bin 75 - an adjoining tasting bar named after his NFL number.
"I always had a passion for fine dining, and food and wine go hand in hand," Hinton said. "I wanted to turn a passion into a vocation. It's been 11 years now, and I've been loving it ever since."
In February 2008, Northwestern raised its glass to the all-time Northwestern great, inducting Hinton into the 25th class of the Athletic Hall of Fame. At long last, Hinton rightfully assumed his position among the most accomplished student-athletes in NU history. The Chicago native turned legend was home once again.