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Bears defensive end Armstrong has more than a trace of greatness

The comparison keeps cropping up. The path of succession is clear. Chicago fans know that strongman Dan Hampton can't play football forever. No need to worry. There's a younger, quicker model ready to assume his role _ Trace Armstrong, the Bear apparent.

But Armstrong, a former University of Florida standout who was drafted in 1989's first round, isn't waiting idly. Lining up at left defensive end for the Bears, Armstrong thus far has produced at a Pro Bowl pace. With veteran Richard Dent at right end, the duo has combined to put the pinch on a dozen opposing quarterbacks (a team-leading six sacks apiece).

Chicago, by no coincidence, leads the NFC Central at 6-1 and is playing the second-tightest defense in the conference. And Armstrong's performances are receiving rave reviews. From everywhere.

"He's a damn good player," said Green Bay tackle Tony Mandarich earlier this year, after he surrendered two sacks in a game to Armstrong. "Twice as good as last year. If he keeps working hard, why can't he be a (Steve) McMichael or a Hampton? He's got the talent."

"I hate to say this," Hampton said, "but he reminds me of me 10 years ago."

Never at a loss for words, Armstrong's reaction to such high praise borders on embarrassment. The publicity has surprised even him.

"Yeah, I think I'm probably the most overexposed defensive end in the league," joked Armstrong, who will visit Tampa Sunday for the first Bucs-Bears encounter of the season. "But it's fun, yeah. I'm really enjoying it. As a defense we're playing better. After what happened last year (a 6-10 record), it just makes this year so much more fun. We're having a great time."

Relentless is the word thrown around most to describe the method of Armstrong's madness.

"It's hands and tenacity, that's really what it's all about," said Armstrong, who is 6 feet 4, 270 pounds. "It's kind of like pounding a rock with a sledgehammer. The first time you hit it, nothing happens. But if you keep hitting and hitting and hitting and hitting, sooner or later you get a little crack. And if you keep hitting, that crack gets a little bit bigger, then sooner or later you've busted the rock in half. That's what a pass rush is like."

Sledgehammers? Rocks? Sounds like Bears football to Chicago coach Mike Ditka.

"Trace is one of the hardest workers we've ever had," Ditka said during Wednesday's conference call. "Trace practices very hard. He's not a guy who goes out there and goes through the motions. He's always trying to get better. As a result, sometimes the guy across from him doesn't understand that he better strap it on, because that's the way Trace practices.

"Maybe he doesn't have some of the pass-rushing skill of other guys, but he's got enough that if you're not relentless, he's going to be relentless. I know that."

These are the good times for Armstrong. But not so long ago, he doubted whether football would ever be so much fun again. After spending his first three collegiate seasons at Arizona State, he was told by the NCAA that he would have to transfer or forfeit his final year of eligibility if he remained at ASU. The problem stemmed from Armstrong's freshman grade-point average falling a fraction below NCAA standards.

"When I came out (of college), I thought life had been too good to me, going to a team that ran a four-man line and having the opportunity to play with the Bears," said Armstrong, who chose Florida for his senior season. "If my career ended tomorrow, 20 years from now I would consider myself pretty privileged to play with these guys.

"I don't think there's any doubt that we feel deep down that we're different than the other 27 teams in the league. We feel like we have a tradition that's very special. We have 47 men of character, and we feel that separates us a little bit from the rest of the league."