This year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony featured five players whose NFL imprints will never be forgotten.
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Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith were honored, too.
Obviously, the Class of 2010 was highlighted Saturday by the league’s all-time leading receiver and rusher, respectively. As previously evidenced, such star power often overshadows the other members whose bronze busts are being unveiled.
Not this year.
Combined with the achievements of Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little, Russ Grimm, John Randle and Rickey Jackson, this is arguably the greatest overall class in Hall history.
I don’t say that lightly. Vince Lombardi, Jim Brown, Y.A. Tittle and Norm Van Brocklin entered together in 1971. Fourteen years later, another unforgettable quartet – O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach and Pete Rozelle – got the nod. But the other members of those classes weren’t as strong overall.
The give and take on this topic can last longer than Chris Berman’s babbling speech during Friday night’s annual Hall dinner. But there’s no question Rice and Smith weren’t the only ones in this group who leave behind a special legacy.
Grimm was the inaugural member chosen from “The Hogs” – the Washington Redskins offensive linemen who during the 1980s and early 1990s paved the way in three Super Bowl victories. A true team player, Grimm said the inside of his yellow Hall jacket will feature the names of his fellow blue-collar grunts.
Jackson also set a precedent in becoming the first longtime member of the Saints inducted (none of the team’s other four selections were with the club for more than three seasons). A member of the Saints’ ballyhooed “Dome Patrol” linebacker corps in the 1980s and 1990s, Jackson drew laughs after an introductory highlight package aired by saying, “Boy, I didn’t know I did all that.”
The Hall history doesn’t end there. Dressed in white Steelers shirts and situated in the south corner of Fawcett Stadium, Pittsburgh became the first team to attend an induction ceremony en masse. Mind you, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t have any choice, because practicing Saturday would have been impossible. While I was at Steelers minicamp in May, I heard a swarm of players were heading to Canton even if it meant getting fined for leaving camp.
That’s how much defensive coordinator LeBeau means to his Terrible Towel-waving troops – and with good reason. You will not find a coach who commands more respect or loyalty, even though there is a five decade age difference between LeBeau, 72, and some of his players.
Hall voters were told to consider LeBeau strictly on his credentials as a Detroit Lions defensive back for 14 seasons. Though he was worthy based solely on 62 career interceptions, it would be naive to think LeBeau’s storied 38-year coaching career and overall impact on the game – he invented the zone blitz that is an NFL defensive staple today – didn’t influence some ballots.
Little was placed in the unenviable position of speaking between Rice and Smith. But in nine seasons with the Broncos, Little became accustomed to getting overshadowed. He was the first player to lead the NFL in rushing for a losing team. Denver was so underwhelming that Little never even made a playoff appearance.
As pointed out by the Denver Post’s Jeff Legwold during his stellar presentation to Hall voters, Little played with quarterbacks who completed just 43 percent of their passes and threw 65 more interceptions than touchdowns. Yet Little’s greatness still shined through with 6,323 rushing yards – the seventh-highest total in NFL history upon his 1975 retirement.
Randle had his own personal obstacles to overcome, rising from poverty in the tiny Texas town of Hearne through the community college ranks as an undersized, undrafted defensive lineman. Randle, 6 feet 1, 278 pounds, did so in spectacular fashion with the Minnesota Vikings through speed, power and nonstop tenacity. Randle also was one of the game’s great trash talkers, although you would never know from the low-key address given by a man who acknowledged being humbled at his induction.
Smith’s 22-minute speech sent the throng of Cowboys fans in attendance home happy. But it was Jackson who delivered the ceremony’s most sobering words. He alluded to the current labor strife between the NFL and its players union and warned both sides “need to keep football going.”
If the league and NFLPA can’t reach an agreement, there will be no training camps being held at this time next year, and pro football will be thrown into chaos. Under those circumstances, the Class of 2011 would become truly memorable for reasons besides their gridiron feats.
And on that point, there is no debate.
Alex Marvez voted for the Pro Football Hall of Fame classes of 2009 and 2010.