CANTON, Ohio (AP) — Dick LeBeau hasn’t suited up as a player since the Nixon Administration. Floyd Little last played in the NFL in 1975.
Russ Grimm and Rickey Jackson haven’t been retired as long, but they haven’t put on pads in nearly two decades.
On Saturday, they join two of the easiest choices for the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith, who were slam-dunk selections in their first year of eligibility — and John Randle, who had to wait only one extra year before being voted into the shrine.
LeBeau and Little are joining their sport’s most prestigious fraternity through the senior committee route. And the long wait might make it a bit more special.
“I still get up in the morning and pinch myself and count my blessings and say I guess I’m not dreaming,” LeBeau said. “I’ve always had a strong sense of history, and that’s the largest impact that it’s had on me, that I’m going to be a piece of National Football League history forever. That just kind of makes me shake my head a little bit. … It’s 10,000 dreams come true.”
Ditto for Little, who admits he was bothered by all the rejections through the years from hall voters.
“It’s hard to let it go when people keep introducing you — like a Frank Gifford or a Pete Rozelle — as a ‘future Hall of Famer,’ and you’ve always been called a ‘future Hall of Famer,'” Little said. “Well, how far in the future are they talking about?”
Finally, they are talking about this weekend. The former star running back of the Denver Broncos and the ex-Detroit Lions defensive back will stand on the same stage in Fawcett Stadium along with the game’s most prolific receiver (Rice) and career rushing leader (Smith). They will join Randle, an outstanding pass-rushing defensive tackle for the Vikings, and Grimm, one of “The Hogs” on the Redskins’ great offensive line of the 1980s. Plus Jackson, a playmaking linebacker for the Saints.
LeBeau ostensibly was voted into the hall because of his playing credentials, which included 171 consecutive starts at cornerback, a league mark, and his 62 interceptions. But he began coaching soon after he retired as a player in 1972, and is the mastermind of several defensive schemes, including the zone blitz used nowadays by every team.
“Dick LeBeau,” Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said, “is the greatest coach of all time.”
The Steelers will bus to Canton from their training camp in Latrobe, Pa., for the inductions as LeBeau joins former Lions secondary teammates Dick “Night Train” Lane, Yale Lary and Lem Barney in the Hall of Fame. More than 80 Hall of Famers will be on hand.
“I don’t know anyone that knows Dick LeBeau who doesn’t like him, who doesn’t have a high regard for his abilities as a coach,” said Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown, who hired LeBeau to be his team’s head coach in 2000. “He’s a very imaginative coach, a very successful coach. No matter where he’s been, he’s done well. And I think this is a wonderful thing that he has made this level, it really is. And I look forward to his being enshrined in the Hall of Fame.”
Little was the face of the Broncos franchise to the point that his signing helped keep the franchise from leaving Denver. He rushed for 6,323 yards and 43 touchdowns — not nearly in Smith’s territory — and made five Pro Bowls.
“Floyd has made immeasurable contributions to our franchise and to the NFL, on and off the field, and he deservedly takes his place in Canton among the greatest ever to play this game,” Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said.
Grimm is the first Hog to make the hall.
“We’ve finally got that first step, where one of us is in now,” Grimm said. “I think that’ll put a little bit more light on some of the guys I played with.”
A left guard as adept in run blocking as pass protection, Grimm currently is the assistant head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
Jackson had 128 sacks officially — in his rookie year of 1981 sacks were not yet kept by the NFL — and was a four-time All-Pro. He was a key to the Saints’ turnaround from laughingstock to playoff team.
Randle did even better with 137 sacks, the most for a defensive tackle in league history.
Then there are Rice and Smith, both unstoppable forces during their unequaled careers.
Rice had a record streak of 274 consecutive games with a catch; 11 straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons; 22 touchdown catches in 12 games of the strike-shortened 1987 season; and final totals of 1,549 receptions for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns.
Like Rice, Smith put his record-setting numbers far beyond established standards. While Rice did it with explosive grace, Smith’s game was powerful and persistent.
He rushed for 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns, and also had the most carries (4,409) for a career. Playing a position with an average life span that can be measured on one hand, Smith was a force for all of his 13 seasons in Dallas and nearly reached 1,000 yards in his last of two seasons in Arizona.