CANTON, OHIO — Musings, observations and the occasional insight as the star-studded Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018 took its enshrinement-night bows (minus the Tennessee-based Terrell Owens, of course) before a record crowd of 22,000-plus at Tom Benson Stadium.....
* Green Bay Packers legend Jerry Kramer retired from the NFL after the 1968 season, 50 long years ago. He’s been eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the past 45 years, racking up so many near-misses at election (an 11-time finalist) that he became known as “the best player not in Canton.’’
So now that he’s finally and deservedly enshrined here in pro football’s historical home, you could say it was all worth his wait in gold — as in the color of his newest jacket.
Kramer, 82, stole the show here Saturday night, and it wasn’t even close when it comes to the other seven players who earned induction this year. Imparting life lessons and telling stories of what it was like to play for the Packers before and during the Vince Lombardi era, Kramer was masterful in accepting this long-overdue honor with grace, wit and inspiring words of wisdom.
Could there have been a Hall of Fame member sharing the stage in Canton who didn’t wish he had the opportunity to play for Lombardi and with those epic Packers teams after listening to Kramer’s entertaining 18-minute speech? True, he’s had longer to prepare what he wanted to say than any Hall of Famer in history, but Kramer knocked it out of the park and covered himself in glory in becoming the 13th of Lombardi’s Packers enshrined.
They don’t honor guards with a bust in Canton all that often, it being perhaps the game’s least glamorous position without any conventional statistics to accumulate. But Kramer was one of the game’s best, and his career was far more than just that one defining moment when his pivotal block sprung Packers quarterback Bart Starr for the game-winning touchdown sneak in the iconic Ice Bowl against Dallas — the 1967 NFL title game.
Kramer said when he was drafted in the fourth round by the Packers in 1958, he wondered “Where the hell is Green Bay?,’’ and actually had to get out a map to see where the NFL’s smallest city was located.
Because of Kramer, and his fellow championship-winning Packers, Green Bay has in many ways been the center of the football map for decades.
“A great deal in life is a matter of choice,’’ Kramer said in conclusion. “Coach Lombardi, to sum it all up: After the game is over, stadium lights are out, parking lot is empty, you're back in the quiet of your room, championship ring is on the dresser. The only thing left at this time is for your to lead the life of quality and excellence and make this whole world a little bit better of a place because your were in it.
“You can if you will. You can if you will.’’
* I don’t know about you, but other than when he was talking about his beloved hometown of Rand, West Va., I thought Randy Moss saved his most emotional and heartfelt thanks for the Patriots. In particular, Bill Belichick and the Kraft family, along with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Robert Kraft and Belichick were both on hand to hear his words of appreciation.
“To the Kraft family, thank you for ignoring the noise and welcoming me with open arms,’’ Moss said. “I wanted to thank you personally.’’
Belichick, standing in the wings, smiled broadly as Moss turned his attention to him, toward the end of his comments.
“Last but not least, I’m not going to forget about ya. Bill Belichick, I’m not going to forget about ya,’’ Moss said. “I want to thank you for being a friend when it wasn't always about football.
“You showed me how much I loved the game. You challenged me every day to go out here and be great. You challenged me to be great, coach. And I’m sorry we did not bring it home, coach. All those individual awards don't really mean a thing to me. Football is a team sport.’’
Moss highlighted a letter Scarnecchia wrote to him years ago, when he said he was at a low point and wanted to end his NFL career.
“I received a letter from you, telling me what you had learned from me and what an inspiration I was to you,’’ Moss said. “Coach, that uplifted me so much. You have no idea, because I was down and out. I wanted to leave the game. Scar, you talked me back into the game.’’
Moss will rightfully go into the Hall as a Viking, the team he first starred for and spent almost half of his 14-year NFL career with. But you can still tell how much his three-plus seasons as a Patriot means to him, and what an impact his time in New England made on him. He made sure of that Saturday night.
* Ray Lewis did pretty well in football, but you get the feeling maybe he missed his calling. Was that a Hall of Fame induction speech, or a revival meeting that broke out at the end of the night’s program? The Ravens linebacker didn’t even bother staying at the podium to speak, he instead used a wireless mic, like a TV evangelist. I kept waiting for him to take up an offering at the end of his 33-minute-plus sermon.
Not that we really expected anything less. The man has been preaching for years. Usually while wearing a pair of shoulder pads. Or sometimes in front of ESPN cameras in his NFL analyst role.
Understanding Lewis at times is challenging, to say the least. His train of thought frequently jumps the tracks and skids off into the unknown. But the claim he made Friday to ESPN came through loud and clear and might just deserve a place in his own Hall of Fame of Outlandish Quotes. Lewis said the enthusiasm surrounding his induction in Canton reminded him of his playing days, in its effect on people.
“When I played, crime went lower in Baltimore,’’ Lewis said. “It’s like, nobody needs to be mad now. It’s like everybody wants to be happy and celebrate.’’
Wow. That is some gold jacket-quality self-aggrandizement. Way to still bring your oratorial “A’’ game five years after your retirement, Ray. Lewis was an all-world player, but I still feel the impulse to cringe when he speaks.
* It’s still 2018, so it’s the Eagles world and we’re all just living in it. The crowd here was filled with those always-vocal Philly fans, to watch Brian Dawkins enshrined, the four time All-Pro safety who embodied a stout Eagles defense in the mid-2000s.
Dawkins gave an impassioned and energetic speech, touching more than once on his battle with depression and suicidal impulses early in his NFL career. Dawkins was so fired up at times, he seemed ready to climb back into a uniform and go hit someone.
“I wasn’t just suffering through suicidal thoughts, I was actually planning the way that I would kill myself so my wife would get the money,’’ Dawkins said. “But what that pain did for me, it increased my faith exponentially.”
But Dawkins also provided one of the coolest moments of evening when he had his wife, Connie, stand up and be presented with a golden shawl, calling her his “Hall of Fame wife,’’ his “Hall of Fame bride.’’
Smooth move, Dawk. Very smooth.
* Very nice beginning to the ceremony, seeing Oilers linebacker Robert Brazile finally immortalized in Canton. He was presented by his father, Robert Brazile Sr., even though the younger Brazile has been waiting for the Hall call for 29 years, and retired in 1984.
Brazile, nicknamed Dr. Doom, was a tackling machine for some very good Houston teams in the late ‘70s, and just because Oilers coach Bum Phillips never got his club past the vaunted Steelers and into the Super Bowl doesn’t mean they weren’t some of the best of the best in their era.
“After all these years, I’m at home!’’ Brazile shouted as he concluded his remarks.
* I’ve always been a bit of a Bobby Beathard fan, because he never seemed to take himself too seriously. The former Washington and San Diego general manager had one of the keenest eyes for personnel in the NFL (minus the Ryan Leaf draft pick, granted), but he understood there was more to life than just football. He famously loved to surf and was an avid marathon runner, but above all he was known for his quiet, unassuming personality in a game chock full of monster egos. Beathard always knew it wasn’t all about him, and that his success came from a lot of different sources, with a healthy does of fortuity mixed in.
Another interesting angle to Beathard’s long career is how his family became such a famous football family. His younger brother, Pete, was a star quarterback on USC’s 1962 national championship team, and played 12 seasons in the AFL and NFL from 1964-75. And his grandson, C.J., is the former Iowa quarterback who is now Jimmy Garoppolo’s backup in San Francisco.
* Almost as much as Dick Butkus before him, Brian Urlacher seems like he was born to be a Bears linebacker. Urlacher nervously rushed through his comments at times, but what a moving tribute he gave to his step-father, Troy Lenard, who helped raise him into the man he became after Urlacher’s parents divorced.
Urlacher seemed truly humbled and almost surprised at receiving the game’s highest honor, and showed his respect for his Bears teammates.
“This is my legacy moment,’’ Urlacher said. “As a player, I just want to be remember as a good teammate, that's it. I want to be remembered as a guy who would do anything for his teammates and always go above and beyond for you.
“I feel like I played it the right way. I had fun when I was out there. I respected opponents as well as teammates and coaches. I may be one of the most competitive people you ever know. I want to win every snap, every game, even though it was not possible.’’
* Let’s give Terrell Owens some not-so-subtle style points for that suit he showed up in on Saturday, to give his Hall of Fame induction speech at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, his alma mater. The suit featured small logos of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the institution Owens was giving the stiff arm to by taking the unprecedented step of staying away on the Hall’s enshrinement weekend. Well played, Mr. Owens. Well played.
I’ve got no problem with Owens’ decision to skip the show in Canton, because it’s his call and his call alone to make. It’s far from the first time T.O. has made a controversial decision that went against conventional wisdom, and I’m guessing it won’t be the last.
Owens had his former Cowboys receivers coach Ray Sherman speak about him from the stage in Chattanooga, among other coaches, and Sherman said he could “go on all day about how great a person’’ T.O. is. I know Sherman, having covered him with the Vikings, and he’s a good man. If he vouches for Owens, that speaks volumes to me.
Far from a small intimate and irrelevant gathering, Owens drew quite a crowd in McKenzie Arena (estimated at more than 2,500), and if even half those folks opted to plunk down the $40 for a ticket to the Terrell Owens Hall of Fame VIP After-Party — tonight at a nearby Chattanooga night spot — he’ll wind up having a nice little bash in his honor after all.
Owens told CBS Sports that he wasn’t 600 miles away in Canton in order to make a point to the sportswriters who comprise most of the Hall’s 48 electors.
“Many of you are probably wondering why we're here instead of Canton,’’ he said. “I'd like to set the record straight. It's about the mere fact that the sportswriters aren't aligned with the mission and the core values of the Hall of Fame.’’
Later he added that he shunned the Hall’s ceremony so others “will not have to go through what (he) and others have gone through,’’ meaning his three-year wait for induction.
Okay, T.O. But by that measure, Jerry Kramer should have told the Hall to stick his bust where the sun doesn’t shine. But he went an entirely different route, thankfully so.
* Ran into Hall of Fame Steelers receiver Lynn Swann at a Canton area Starbucks Saturday morning and couldn’t resist asking him what he thought of Owens’ Hall of Fame no-show this weekend?
“That’s his decision,’’ said Swann, wearing a USC cap. “I personally don’t know why he made it, but I know a number of members of the Hall have talked to him and tried to convince him to change his mind and come. But he chose not to. I really don’t know why.’’
Owens and Randy Moss add two more receivers to the ranks of the Hall of Fame, and Swann said that number will only increase in the years ahead.
“It will grow by virtue of more passing in the game today,’’ Swann said. “But I think the voters are really going to have to sit down and educate themselves on older players, and study and understand how the rules have changed in the game today.
“It’s a flawed process when there are guys like (Packers guard Jerry) Kramer, who guys already wearing a gold jacket believe he should have been in the Hall a long time ago. For decades his friends and people who knew him introduced him as a Hall of Famer, making the assumption he was already in.’’
* Allow me to digress from Saturday night’s festivities for a moment to point out that Johnny Manziel once played his NFL ball just up the road an hour in Cleveland. But I’m guessing he’s never felt further away from Canton that he does today, after that abysmal showing for Montreal in his CFL starting debut Friday night.
Good grief. Four interceptions and just 104 yards passing, with two rushes for four yards in a blowout loss to his former team, Hamilton? And he didn’t even get to finish the game, grabbing some bench in the second half. Manziel said the football gods were humbling him, but realistically that happened quite a while ago, didn’t it, Mr. J. Football?
The football fields in the CFL may be wider, but Manziel’s chances of returning to the NFL look narrower than ever.