CANTON, Ohio – The stage was set and adorned with dozens of past enshrinees. Fawecett Stadium outside the Pro Football Hall of Fame was packed full of 16,654 jersey-clad fans. ESPN's Chris Bermanbarked introductions and spouted jokes. Then, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodelldeclined to give his scheduled welcome speech, preferring instead to keep the event focused on the men of the hour. The former enshrinees had laid their bets on who would cry trying to deliver their acceptance speeches. There was nothing else to do but let the Hall of Fame's Class of 2008 speak.
First up for enshrinement: Andre Tippett.
Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Krafttook the stage and congratulated the Class of 2008, with Tippett's bust under a bronze drop cloth and his watercolor displayed.
"I'm a life-long fan of the NFL, and became a Patriots fan in 1960, when the team was created. In 1971, I became a season ticket holder and have enjoyed nearly every game since then with my family. Of all the players I watched and rooted for during that time, I can say, without a doubt, that Andre Tippett was the most dominant defender the Patriots ever had and one of the greatest ever to play the game," said Kraft.
"Andre possessed the perfect combination of strength, speed and athleticism. In his prime, Andre was probably the most intimidating player in the game. I can't think of a higher compliment for a linebacker.
"He is a great role model for our current players, and I encourage them to emulate Andre," said Kraft.
"For someone who sat in the stands all those years, this is truly the ultimate sports fan's dream. And I am extremely honored that Andre has given me this unique opportunity. Ladies and gentleman, on behalf of the entire New England Patriots organization and all our fans, it's my distinct honor and privilege to introduce one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, my personal friend, Andre Tippett."
The crowd erupted in applause. A burst of red and white fireworks exploded in the sky behind the stage, calling to mind Tippett's glory days in the blood red jersey bearing No. 56.
Tippett unveiled the bust, signaling his being immortalized in the annals of football history, and took center stage.
"Thank you, Robert Kraft. As Robert told you guys, he and I have shared so much personally and professionally," began Tippett. "When I was contemplating retirement, he chose to keep me in the front office, and for that I'm ever grateful."
"Robert, thank you again for believing in me. I am so proud to have been a Patriot for 26 years. I hope to be a Patriot for another 26 years. Thank you for presenting me. As I stand here today, I feel like a man standing on the North Pole. And the only way to go from here is south."
Tippet went on to thank the Hall and his selection committee presenter, Ron Borges. He thanked his fellow members of the Class of 2008.
"As I look out at all these great men sitting here, I can't believe I'm joining this fraternity. I tell our young players to know their history, because you are the living representatives of that history. You have inspired me since I was a young boy, dreaming of one day standing here. In my youth, I watched every game I could. I studied all the great players.
"To my contemporaries, you also inspired me. The linebackers of the '80s: You guys set the standard for how to play the position. You are – we are – the best of the best.
"My journey here has been a long one, and it hasn't always been easy along the way. So many people have touched my life. I'd like to use this time to thank as many of them as I can."
Tippett thanked his mother, Frances Tippett, and his brothers and sister. He thanked his stepfather, his uncle, his nieces and nephews, and everyone else who traveled to induction weekend. He thanked his high school coach, Frank Verducci, who was a father figure to him in his adolescence.
Tippett thanked his college coaches and teammates at the University of Iowa. He thanked Dick Steinbergand the Sullivan family and all of his Patriots coaches. He thanked "the 'backers." He thanked the Hall of Fame veterans who showed him the way, John Hannahand Mike Haynes.
He thanked his family, and Hannah almost won a bet when Tippett told his wife Rhonda he loved her, but for the first time in this whirlwind weekend, Andre didn't cry.
Tonight, it was easy to see why Head Coach Bill Belichickasks Tippett to address the rookies. It was obvious why he and Kraft have become so close, and it was a no-brainer why the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee elected him to the Hall.
Tippett is a role model's role model. On a night when the stage was markedly his, he gave it away. He paid homage to everyone who came before and celebrated those who led him down the path of greatness.
His only words of advice went to those who have yet to arrive.
"In closing, if I may, to the young kids out there: I am proof you should do everything you can to live your dream, whatever that may be. I did not have the material advantages, but through commitment to achieving my goals, using the advantages that I did have and listening to the wise men and women who offered their support, I was able to live my dream. This was my dream!
"I am truly humbled and I'm honored to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you. Thank you!"