CANTON, Ohio — After some waited decades to get the call from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they waited an additional 12 months for the ceremony because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Hall’s class of 2020 and the Centennial class each got their moment Saturday night.
In a four-hour ceremony, 20 former players, coaches and contributors were honored — five from the class of 2020 and 15 from the Centennial class selected as part of the league’s 100th anniversary last year.
The class of 2020 was selected by the Hall’s board of selectors in February of 2020 while the Centennial class was selected by a blue-ribbon panel put together by the Hall that included several of the board of selectors as well as Hall of Famers and longtime league personnel executives.
Asked to make shorter speeches than usual, the enshrinees went big on quality, as one heartfelt list of thank-yous on the respective journeys followed another. Former Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James provided perhaps the biggest exclamation point when he ended his speech with a call to not judge people on appearances but their character — “my career started with gold teeth and ended with this gold jacket.”
Centennial class enshrine Harold Carmichael opened the evening and former Steelers coach Bill Cowher ended the ceremony. In between some tears were shed, former teammates honored, families celebrated and former coaches thanked as “I love you” was the universal phrase.
Twelve enshrinees participated in person while eight were honored posthumously. Former Steelers safety Troy Polamalu had been at home since late last month and his status for the enshrinement ceremony was in doubt after he tested positive for COVID-19. But he was cleared medically to travel to Canton and he took part in the Hall of Fame parade in the morning.
Since he missed the gold jacket ceremony Friday night, Polamalu was awarded his gold jacket at Saturday’s ceremony by Hall of Fame president David Baker and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Troy Polamalu gets to don his gold Hall of Fame jacket for the first time and lauds the Pittsburgh Steelers during his speech.
There were video tributes played throughout the ceremony to honor the eight members of the Centennial class who were enshrined posthumously — Bobby Dillon, Winston Hill, Alex Karras, Steve Sabol, Duke Slater, Mac Speedie, Ed Sprinkle and George Young.
Because of the size of the class and the trend of some of the enshrinees’ speeches topping 20 or 30 minutes in recent years, the Hall of Fame told each of them that their remarks were not to exceed six minutes and that an Academy Awards-style musical cue would be used at eight minutes.
But the time limit forced the enshrinees to offer their best to the crowd. Cliff Harris said, “Football was my passion, but my fallback was to become a doctor” and James said, “I always knew who I was, a great player, a great father, a lion and this is my mane [pointing to his hair] … My closing message is proudly represent the real you.”
A tearful Steve Hutchinson honored his family. Isaac Bruce kept the receipts for two receivers some said were better than he was before the 1994 draft in Bert Emanuel and Ryan Yarborough. He also acknowledged the defenders he faced: “To all the defensive backs, the ones that baptized me and all the ones I baptized, I thank you.”
Steve Hutchinson thanks his children and wife, among others, during his Hall of Fame speech.
With Cowher, Polamalu and Donnie Shell honored, there was a heavy contingent of towel-waving Steelers fans in the stadium as Polamalu encouraged them to yell even louder as he stepped to the podium.
Former Cowboys and Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson went as far as to say he gave up trying to make a list of all he wanted to thank.
“To hell with it, I can’t make a list, there’s too many,” Johnson said before he added: “I coached, recruited or drafted 13 players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame … I was never was really a dreamer; dreamin’ is hoping. I believed.”
Johnson, whose split with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after the team won the second of back-to-back Super Bowls in the early 1990s was high drama, did thank Jones Saturday.
“You want to know what I’m going to say about Jerry Jones,” Johnson said. “Well, Jerry, you told me we were going to make sports history. … We — we — did make sports history.”
The class of 2021 will be enshrined Sunday night, a class that includes Peyton Manning and Calvin Johnson.