NFL Hall of Fame welcome new class
CANTON, Ohio — Prime Time has come to Canton — with an extra touch of gold. And a black do-rag.
Deion Sanders strutted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night sporting a pair of gold shoes to go with the gold jacket emblematic of the special company he has become a part of.
At the end of his riveting acceptance speech, he placed his ubiquitous do-rag on his hall bust.
Neon Deion indeed.
“This game,” Sanders repeated dozens of times, “this game taught me how to be a man. This game taught me if I get knocked down, I got to get my butt back up.
“I always had a rule in life that I would never love anything that couldn’t love me back. It taught me how to be a man, how to get up, how to live in pain. Taught me so much about people, timing, focus, dedication, submitting oneself, sacrificing.
“If your dream ain’t bigger than you, there’s a problem with your dream.”
Sanders joined Marshall Faulk in entering the hall in their first year of eligibility. Shannon Sharpe, Richard Dent, Chris Hanburger, Les Richter and Ed Sabol also were enshrined before an enthusiastic crowd of 13,300 — much lower than the usual turnout. With Sunday’s Hall of Fame game a victim of the 41/2-month NFL lockout, Fawcett Stadium was half full.
Not that Sanders needs a big audience.
The dynamic cornerback and kick returner ran off a list of people who influenced him as smoothly as he ran past opponents, whether running back kicks or interceptions — or even catching passes when he appeared as a wide receiver, or dashing around the bases in the major leagues, including one World Series appearance.
He spoke of promising his mother she could stop working in a hospital when he became a success, and of how he created the Prime Time image at Florida State — then turned it into a persona.
A Hall of Fame persona.
“What separates us is that we expect to be great,” he said. “I expect to be great, I expect to do what had to be done. I expect to make change.”
Just as Sharpe expected to change his life as a kid who went to college with two brown grocery bags filled with his belongings.
When Sharpe headed to Savannah State, all he heard was how he was destined to fail.
“When people told me I’d never make it, I listened to the one person who said I could: me,” Sharpe said.
Failure? Sharpe went from a seventh-round draft pick to the most prolific tight end of his time. He won two Super Bowls with Denver and one with Baltimore, and at the time of his retirement in 2003, his 815 career receptions, 10,060 yards and 62 TDs were all NFL records for a tight end. Three times he went over 1,000 yards receiving in a season — almost unheard of for that position. In a 1993 playoff game, Sharpe had 13 catches against Oakland, tying a record.
Sharpe patted his bust on the head Saturday before saying, “All these years later, it makes me proud when people call me a self-made man.”
In a captivating acceptance speech, Sharpe passionately made a pitch to get his brother, Sterling, who played seven years with the Packers, considered for election to the shrine. Sterling, who introduced his younger brother for induction, wept as Shannon praised him.
“I am the only player who has been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and am the second-best player in my family,” Sharpe said.
“I am so honored. You don’t know what this means for me. This is the fraternity of all fraternities.”
Faulk was the running back of running backs for much of his 12-season career.
As versatile and dangerous a backfield threat as the NFL has seen, Faulk was voted the NFL’s top offensive player in 1999, 2000 and 2001, and was the NFL’s MVP in 2000. He was the league’s scoring leader in 2000 and ‘01, made seven Pro Bowls, and was the first player to gain 2,000 yards from scrimmage in four consecutive years.
The second overall draft pick in 1994, when Faulk was offensive rookie of the year, he played five seasons in Indianapolis, then his final seven for St. Louis, helping the Rams to their only Super Bowl victory in 1999.
Through tears, Faulk said, “Boy this is pretty special. … I am glad to be a part of it. This is football heaven.
“I am a football fan just like all of you,” Faulk told the crowd. “I have always, always been a fan and had an abiding passion and love and respect for this game of football, even when I was a kid selling popcorn in the Superdome because I couldn’t afford a ticket.
“It’s tough going from the projects to the penthouse.”
Dent was a dynamic pass rusher on one of the NFL’s greatest defenses, the 1985 NFL champions. He was the MVP of that Super Bowl and finished with 1371/2 career sacks, third all-time when he left the sport.
He epitomized the Monsters of the Midway: fast, fierce and intimidating.
“Richard was like a guided missile,” Joe Gilliam, Dent’s college coach, said during his introduction.
“You must dream and you must be dedicated to something in your life,” added Dent, who asked everyone in the audience to rise in applause for Gilliam, then thanked dozens of people, including many from the ‘85 Bears who also were in the stadium. He saved his highest praise for the late Walter Payton.
“When you have dreams, it is very tough to say you can do everything by yourself,” Dent said. “It’s all about other people.”
Sabol made a life out of telling other people’s stories.
An aspiring filmmaker, Sabol approached Commissioner Pete Rozelle offering to double the rights fee for filming the 1962 NFL championship game between the Packers and Giants. Rozelle accepted the $3,000 and a wildly successful marriage was formed.
Seated in a wheelchair, the 94-year-old Sabol said he “dreamt the impossible dream, and I’m living it right at this minute.”
“This honor tonight really goes to NFL Films, I just happen to be accepting all the accolades,” Sabol added.
Sabol’s son, Steve, who replaced him as president of the company, introduced his father, about whom he said, “My sisters used to say my dad was two stooges short of a good routine. He loved to entertain.”
Hanburger called his induction “one of the greatest moments in my life and I mean that from my heart. I am just overwhelmed by this.”
Hanburger never let his job with the Redskins overwhelm him. He was the signal-caller for George Allen’s intricate defenses in Washington, which included dozens of formations.
He also was a physical player. Nicknamed “The Hangman,” Hanburger stood out for one violent move he practically patented in 14 seasons with the Redskins: the clothesline tackle, which eventually was outlawed.
A senior committee nominee, Hanburger made nine Pro Bowls in his 14 seasons, although he never won a championship. The linebacker’s knack for finding the ball helped him to 19 interceptions and three fumble returns for TDs, a league mark when he retired after the 1978 season.
Hanburger stared into the face of his bust before saying induction is “something that I never gave a thought to.”
Richter, who died last year, also was a senior nominee. He played nine seasons for the Los Angeles Rams, who acquired him in 1954 for 11 players after he was the second overall draft pick.
Richter served two years in the military, then became one of the most rugged defenders in the NFL. He made eight straight Pro Bowls while also seeing time at center and as a placekicker for part of his career. He retired in 1962 and went on to a successful career in motor sports.