The occupier

Steelers fans showed their love for Hampton by voting him to Pittsburgh's all-time team. Tom DiPace for ESPN The Magazine

HE IS A SIMPLE MAN, with a simple dream: He wants just one man to block him.

Is that too much to ask? Of all the requests he could make, isn't that one modest enough? After 11 years of dropping his hand on the turf and having his body torn up by the inhuman -- and inhumane -- demands of his position, his knees shredded, fingers bent and body in a constant state of fourth-degree bruising, is the occasional single-team really that big of a deal?

He wants it to be like the old days, when men were men and centers blocked nose tackles by themselves. "Mano a mano," he says wistfully. Those were the days when the whistle would blow at the end of a play and everyone in the stadium, and in front of their TVs, knew who the stronger man was. He wants to return to the days when he could pound a center all day, look across the line as the offense approached, point at his weary victim and tell the guards, "This man needs your help."

Those were the days. Back then, Casey Hampton had young legs, a big mouth and 21-inch biceps. The NFL didn't yet fully understand the havoc the Steelers nose tackle could wreak while making just a tackle or two a game. To use one of the league's fancy new terms, teams hadn't game-planned for Hampton the way they have since -- sending two and three guys at him, diving at his knees and running him down the line instead of blocking him.

He's not looking for pity, far from it. At 34, Hampton has reached his angle of repose.

"I was made for this," he says, holding his arms out to display a body shaped like a 55-gallon drum. He has a genial grin and an unselfish ethic that comes with doing a crappy job well. The game has changed, and so has he. Gone are the days when he thinks about all the plays he could make if he were lining up over the guard, as he did when he was a dominant college defensive tackle at Texas. He doesn't talk as much either; it takes too much energy. He's given up lifting the heavy weights in favor of relying on what he calls "grown-ass man strength."

Still, he's one of the largest men you'll ever see, seemingly shorter than his listed 6-foot-1 with a 320-or-so-pound body that must lead the league in density. Inside his own thoughts, though, he's still the fast kid who played running back and linebacker growing up in Galveston, Texas, before becoming a defensive lineman his sophomore year in college. Allowing Hampton to borrow his heritage, Troy Polamalu calls his switch from running back to lineman "The Samoan Evolution." From any angle outside Hampton's head, it takes some imagination to see the young running back within. "I'm a little guy stuck inside this body," he says. "This isn't me. This is just how I look."

From an early age, Hampton seemed uniquely positioned to adopt this role, high on selflessness and low on covetousness. He grew up poor in Galveston, where his mother worked a series of food-service jobs, bringing home what would otherwise go to waste. "To me, my childhood was good. We always had food," Hampton says. "We got the lights cut off a couple times, but that wasn't nothing. That's just things you go through."