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2011 Hall of Fame class is star-studded

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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DALLAS

An eight-time Pro Bowler and a two-time Super Bowl champion, Deion Sanders headlined the first-ever class of Pro Football Hall of Famers revealed to the nation in prime time.

Naturally.

Sanders — arguably the greatest cover cornerback and return man in the game’s history — was one of seven 2011 inductees. The esteemed list also included Shannon Sharpe, Richard Dent, Marshall Faulk, Steve Sabol, Chris Hanburger, and Les Richter.

Mike Mayock, an analyst for NFL Network and NBC Sports, tells perhaps the greatest Deion Sanders story. The NFL Draft Scouting combine wasn’t what it is today back in 1989, when Sanders arrived in Indianapolis after a stellar career at Florida State.

Twenty-two years ago, there were no cameras, no salivating press corps, and certainly no 24-7 coverage of the event on TV. That year, Mayock explains, “Primetime” stole the show: “Sanders refused to do any of the drills except for one -- he would run one 40-yard-dash. As the story goes, he runs the forty, and has every GM in the league at the finish line, waiting breathlessly. He runs a 4.2 ‘something’, and never stops running. He waves to the crowd and continues to jog right out the tunnel. And then he hops right into a waiting limo outside, which took him directly to airport.”

On top of his undeniable talent, the 1994 NFL Defensive Player of the Year also had one of the most unique personalities the game has ever seen. With nicknames ranging from “Primetime” to “Neon Deion”, Sanders made an event every time he stepped on the field. His motivation, though, wasn’t rooted in endorsement deals or the NFL record books: "I didn't play this game for the accolades," Sanders said earlier this week. "I played for a little woman named Connie Hicks to make sure she never had to work another day in her life. I played the game for (my mother whom) I told when I was seven years old that she would never have to work another day. She hasn't had to work since '89."

Shannon Sharpe, of course had a bit of a personality, too. One of the league’s most outspoken players, he also had a bit of game. After getting denied last year in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, the three-time Super Bowl champion will don a jacket in Canton this August. A seventh-round pick out of tiny Savannah State in 1990, Sharpe retired in 2004 as the NFL’s all-time leader in catches, yards and touchdowns by a tight end.

TOP OF THE CLASS

Take a look at the Pro Football Hall of Fame 2011 inductees.

“It’s great to see another Bronco in the Hall of Fame and part of the club,” said John Elway in a statement after the announcement Saturday night. “It's a well-deserved honor, and I'm proud of him. This caps off a tremendous football career by a guy who truly was self-made and worked his tail off to become one of the best players in the history of the NFL."

Marshall Faulk, the 2000 MVP and the NFL's 10th all-time leading rusher, Redskins great Chris Hanburger, and Richard Dent, a key member of the Bears’ great defenses of the 1980’s and 90’s, will join Sanders and Faulk on the podium this summer.

In the most recent issue of GQ, the magazine lists the twenty-five coolest athletes of all-time and Les Richter was inexplicably left off the list. The late Los Angeles Rams star was no doubt the epitome of cool. A star in the pre-Super Bowl/pre-TV era, Richter graduated from Cal as the school’s valedictorian in 1952, was drafted second overall, and then traded from the expansion Dallas Texans to the Los Angeles Rams for eleven players. He then served in the military for two years before embarking upon a nine-year career where he was selected to eight straight Pro Bowls and known as one of the top linebackers in the league. In the era of Sinatra, James Dean, and John Wayne, Richter held his own.

At the same time Richter was starring for the Rams out in Los Angeles, Ed Sabol was selling overcoats in Philadelphia. In 1962, a budding filmmaker, Sabol contacted NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle with an offer to double the $1,500 bid for the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game between the Giants and Packers. Rozelle accepted the offer and Sabol’s dream to make football into art was fulfilled. After two years of incredible innovation, Sabol convinced the Rozelle and the NFL’s fourteen team owners that they needed their own motion picture company. NFL Films was born. During his tenure as Chairman of NFL Films, the company won 52 Emmy Awards and revolutionized the way the game — and sports as a whole — was captured on film.

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Left out of the 2011 Pro Football Hall of Fame class were two of the NFL’s top five all-time leading rushers. Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis, fourth and fifth on the list, respectively — did not gain the necessary voter support to have their busts eternalized in Canton this summer. Scanning the NFL’s all-time rushing list, Martin and Bettis are the only Pro Football Hall of Fame-eligible running backs in the top twenty to not make the Hall. Though they didn’t gain inclusion this year, the general sentiment in the media workroom in Dallas is that their time will eventually come.

Wide receivers Cris Carter, Andre Reed, and Tim Brown? They’re windows of opportunity may be rapidly closing. With fellow receivers Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Torry Holt, Hines Ward, Isaac Bruce, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Chad Ochocinco all flooding the Hall of Fame field in the next 5-10 years, things could only get tougher down the road. To be certain, in the next 5-10 years, 12 of the top 18 players on the career reception list will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

They can't all be sporting yellow jackets.

There’s hope, however, for all the former players and coaches who didn’t make the cut this evening. That hope comes in the form of next year's class.

The 2011 “newly eligible” list was loaded. The 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame “newly eligible” list? Well, it’s one of the weakest in recent memory, with the only legitimate first-ballot entries being Will Shields, Bill Parcells, and Bill Cowher. If Cowher returns to coaching in 2012, that list is reduced to just two.

Both Martin and Bettis will get into the Hall of Fame before Tiki Barber, and should get in next year. Carter, Reed, and Brown, meanwhile, all have far better resumes than another 2012 “newly eligible” receiver, Rod Smith. You can make the argument that both Dermontti Dawson and Willie Roaf—each of whom were passed up on Saturday  — will get in over Will Shields, too. Paul Tagliabue, a controversial pick who’s missed the cut in the past, could once again have a chance in 2012, as well. For those rejected from the 2011 class, 2012 offers a far better opportunity for Hall induction.

We’ve got a year to speculate about the 2012 class, though. This evening was all about “Primetime” and his six fellow inductees punching their respective tickets to Canton.

As for Sanders’ Hall of Fame speech?

It should be an all-timer.

I hope he finishes it with a jog and a limo ride.

Tagged: Rams

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