Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2007 Inducted: As Emotions are Rampant

(Canton, OH) – On Saturday August 4th on a cloudy day, as this year’s class of six legends came to rest at the Hall of Fame (PFHOF membership now stands at 249). For the first time, the enshrinement ceremonies were held in the evening, however it did not stop over 15,000 fans packing Fawcett Stadium adjacent to the Hall. The ceremony of the six inductees was an emotional event filled with references to family and giving much thanks for undying support. At several points there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as some of the toughest men showed their sensitive side (tough guys cry too).

The ceremony began with welcoming remarks from Pro Football Hall of Fame President/Executive Director Steve Perry and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell once again in his first year knew actually what to say and he looked very comfortable representing the league. Emcee ESPN’s Chris Berman introduced many of the nearly 62 returning Hall of Famers that returned for the ceremonies including Jim Brown, Kellen Winslow, Mean Joe Green and other greats. I always love the return of the Hall of Famers, because the scene reminds me of the great knights of yester year meeting and honoring each other in Camelot and it shows the unity of the special group.

Seven-time Pro Bowler Detroit Lions TE Charlie Sanders was the first inductee to step to the podium. He was introduced by Detroit Lions owner/chairman William Clay Ford, who said “Charlie richly deserves to be in this Hall of Fame … and the Hall of Fame is better off for having Charlie.”. A new twist on the ceremony this year was the video introductions before each presenter spoke. I liked it, because it gave everyone in attendance a visual storyline of each player including seeing them in their prime. Charlie, a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1970s, was a smooth, but tough TE in his playing days. He referenced his work ethic and upbringing and gave thanks to the many people who helped raise him including his community, his many aunts and his strict military father. He took a special moment by acknowledging his first junior high school Coach McKee who he said inspired him the most athletically. Sanders said “I was preparing to attend Dudley High School, our senior high school, and Coach McKee calmly walked up to me and asked me, ‘Are you going to try out for the football team?’ Without hesitation, I responded, ‘Yes.’ He looked at me with a gleam in his eye, smile on his face, and he said, ‘I don’t think you’re tough enough.’ As I look back, I don’t think he doubted me; I think he wanted to see if I doubted myself. I have since learned that growth is a mental obstacle you overcome and not just a physical accomplishment you attain.”

Sanders closed his speech with an emotional “hello” to his mother, who died when he was just two-years-old. He said he always wanted the opportunity to thank her publicly and Saturday’s gathering seemed like opportune setting. Sanders said “Of all the things I’ve done in football, and there have been a lot, there’s one thing that I really, really regretted. Many times I’ve seen athletes, college, professional, often look into a television and say, ‘Hi, mom.’ I always thought that was special and always something I’d want to do but couldn’t. So I take this time right here, right now in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame to say, ‘Hi, mom.’ Thank you for the ultimate sacrifice. This day belongs to you, for it was written.”

The second inductee to take center stage was former St. Louis Cardinals DB Roger Wehrli. Wehrli was elected into the hall of fame in his last year of eligibility and you could tell the moment was worth the wait to the scrappy DB, who played his entire career and I do mean his entire career (high school, college and professional) in the state of Missouri. Like Charlie Sanders, he was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1970s and he was introduced by his friend and former teammate Hall of Famer Larry Wilson. Wilson described Wehrli as having “the highest morals of anyone I’ve ever met.” You can also add humble to that list as Wehrli’s acceptance speech as expected was the shortest of all the inductees. In his short time at the podium, he packed in a meaningful speech filled with an abundance of thank you’s to the people who have been a part of his life including his wife, children, grandchildren, coaches, family, fans from St. Louis and his Cardinal teammates. Wehrli punctuated his speech by saying “Football is such a team sport that none of us are successful by ourselves. It takes a whole team for one person to succeed. I want to thank those players and coaches on those Cardinal teams and in some way share this with them. I hope they can feel the pride I have in being here on this stage as one of their teammates.”

The third inductee to take the podium was Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans iron man offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, who was introduced by his friend, former teammate, and coach Hall of Famer Mike Munchak. Ironically, it was Matthews who introduced Munchak when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame back in 2001. You could sense the special relationship between the two men forged from sweating together in the trenches, when Matthews said “Mike Munchak was my teammate for 11 years. He was my roommate in the hotel and the offensive lineman that I aspired to be like. He was my best friend, my advisor and an example of the man I wanted to be like. Introducing Mike for his induction in the Hall of Fame in 2001 was one of the biggest thrills of my life. I’m honored that he introduced me today. I thank God for my friendship with Mike. You’re like a brother to me and I love you very much.”

Matthews who was a quiet lineman for over 16 years including playing 14 Pro Bowls (shared record with Merlin Olsen) did open up though to first campaign for the induction of his role model and older brother Clay Matthews. Clay also had a very lengthy career and was a dominant player in the heyday of the Cleveland Browns in the ‘80’s. Younger brother spoke fondly of his older brother when he said “without a doubt the best all-around linebacker I have ever played with or against.” We will have to wait and see if Clay makes it into the hall, but it was nice for Bruce to try an encourage the voters on his brothers behalf. Matthews commenced his speech by acknowledging his family, namely his wife whom he described as “the one thing that I cherish most on this earth.”

The fourth inductee to the podium was former Buffalo Bills RB Thurman Thomas, who it just seems like he stopped playing last season. Thomas was introduced by his former head coach legendary Hall of Famer Marv Levy. It was fitting, because Levy was the man that took a chance on Thomas coming out of Oklahoma State in spite of reported severe knee problems. Thomas paid Levy back with great dividends becoming one of the cornerstones along with Hall of Famer Jim Kelly and future Hall of Famer Bruce Smith of the Bills’ Super Bowl teams. Thomas recounted the glory days of those Super Bowl appearances, which was much to the delight of the pro-Bills crowd. He also took the opportunity to campaign for his former teammate WR Andre Reed to be inducted as well.

Thomas said fondly of his time in the NFL with the Bills “Someone once told me I needed to enjoy every minute of my football career because when it ended I would miss it. I look at all of you today and every memory comes back. The memories are amazing, of a time when teammates were like brothers, regardless of race, religion or politics ….. to the fans of Buffalo, every guy has probably stood up here in all of these Hall of Fame jackets and said they probably have had the best fans in the world supporting them. I’m here to say that’s hogwash. No fans are like my fans, like Bills fans ….. I don’t know how to thank you for the support our team has shown over the years. It was a ride that none of us will ever forget, a ride we would all probably love to hop back on. Unfortunately, we can’t buy tickets for that ride any more, but we will always have those memories. To the city of Buffalo, to the Buffalo Bills organization, I love you.”

Thomas ended his speech by acknowledging each of his four children and sweetly asking his wife of over 20 years Patti to marry him all over again.

The fifth induction was of former Browns tough guard Gene Hickerson. The moment was hard-hitting, emotional, and showed that football can sometimes be an unforgiving game, because Gene who now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and was unable to accept the award himself. The Hickerson family had longtime friend and former teammate Bobby Franklin introduced Hickerson, but his illness prevented him from being able to stand and deliver an acceptance speech, so his son Bob spoke for him, thanking many and recounting events from his father’s career. In a true Hall of Fame moment, the three Hall of Fame players he helped pave the way for RB Jim Brown, WR Bobby Mitchell and RB Leroy Kelly wheeled Hickerson out next to his bust. There was not a dry eye in the entire place and it was a moment that will live in NFL lure forever.

The last player to take the stage was fittingly the player known as “The Playmaker” former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin. Irvin, who is a polarizing individual due to his electric personality that sometimes rubs some the wrong way and his struggles off the field, in mind my is no doubt a Hall of Famer. Irvin had his friend and confidante Dallas Cowboys Owner/GM Jerry Jones introduce him. Jones described him as the “heart and soul” of the 1990s Dallas Cowboys’ championship teams. Irvin stepped to the podium speaking directly from the heart, without notes. He proceeded to spend the next 25 minutes speaking about the highs and lows of his NFL career. In his speech he showed that he was in fact human, sincere, passionate and honest about his feelings. Many times he had tears rolling down his face especially when he proclaimed himself as a true Hall of Famer. The entire speech gave me a new prospective on a player, who I am not going to lie to you that I despised as an Eagles fan. The part of Irvin’s speech that I enjoyed the most was when he spoke directly to his sons about his struggles.

Irvin said, “I have two sons. Michael, he’s 10, and Elijah, he’s 8 ….. That’s my heart right there. That’s my heart. When I am on the threshing floor, I pray. I say, ‘God I have my struggles and I made some bad decisions, but whatever you do, don’t let me mess this up.’ I say, ‘Please help me raise them for some young lady so that they can be a better husband than I. Help me raise them for their kids so that they could be a better father than I.’ And I tell you guys to always do the right thing so you can be a better role model than your dad. I sat right here where you are last year and I watched the Class of 2006: Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Harry Carson, Rayfield Wright, John Madden, and the late, great Reggie White represented by his wife Sara White. And I said, ‘Wow. That’s what a Hall of Famer is. Certainly, I am not that.’ I doubted I would ever have the chance to stand before you today.” He finished with a prayerful inspirational message saying “Look up, get up, and don’t ever give up.’ You tell everyone or anyone that has ever doubted, thought they did not measure up or wanted to quit, you tell them to look up, get up and don’t ever give up.”

That is a wrap and BIGPLAY Football will be back at Fawcett Stadium in 2008 for the possible induction of Darrell Green, Cris Carter, and others. I will have a more in-depth look at “who is deserving” and “who is not deserving” for the 2008 class in a later article.

Lloyd’s Leftovers

  • Tackling NFL Retirees Benefits – More than 80 of the returning Hall of Fame members carved out an extra three-and-a-half hours of their valuable time (beginning at 8 a.m. on Friday) to meet with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw (a Hall of Famer himself) regarding ways to help former players with their benefits and health problems. I believe the “Commish” has been great in understanding the former players problems and I also believe he will find an amicable compromise. This issue is to him is like all other NFL player related issue and I know he will attack it head on. Maybe Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who boycotted the ceremonies, because of the retiree issue should have been there too.
  • Arena Football League at the Pro Football Hall of Fame – I really love that the Hall of Fame is not just about the NFL. Remember that it is dedicated to documenting professional football in America. In the past I was able to view rare exhibits on the WFL and USFL and now the AFL has a place in the hall as well. The Pro Football Hall of Fame unveiled its first-ever exhibit dedicated to chronicling the past, present and future of the Arena Football League on February 26th. The AFL, which just completed its 21st season, is the nation’s fastest growing sports league. “The Arena Football League is a mature property that has experienced explosive growth in recent years,” said Pro Football Hall of Fame President/Executive Director Steve Perry when the exhibit opened. He added, “A true success story, the AFL has earned its place in pro football history and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
  • Hey Steelers Fans Get to Canton – A must see for every fan of the Steelers is the Hall of Fame exhibit paying tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers 75th Anniversary. The exhibit is huge and takes up an entire room with more than 100 artifacts from the HOF’s collection as well as from the Steelers, the Rooney family, and the Senator John Heinz History Center. Legendary Steelers’ RB Franco Harris donated a piece of turf from the now demolished Three Rivers Stadium where he made the famed “Immaculate Reception.” The artifacts include uniforms, footballs, cleats and much more. Everyone should hurry, as the exhibit will only be on display until the end of August 2007.
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