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Bears great Richard Dent on Hall induction: ‘This isn’t about me’

Former Bears defensive end Richard Dent is crediting his mother two coaches for making his Hall Fame career possible.

Former Bears defensive end Richard Dent is crediting his mother and two coaches for making his Hall of Fame career possible. | AP

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Updated: November 14, 2011 12:18AM

Richard Dent will be inducted Saturday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, completing a circle that began a half-century ago in Atlanta.

As much as the honor is a testament to the greatness of his 15-year NFL career, including 12 with the Bears, Dent insisted the momentous occasion has little to do with him. This is about those who gave him a chance at a better life and helped instill in him the importance of doing the same for others.

‘‘It has taken me some time to get here, but this isn’t about me,’’ Dent said. ‘‘I could wait 100 years, for all I care. But the people who made a difference in my life, I can’t let them wait 100 years. They’re more important than me getting this honor. I’m full; I’m happy. But those people who helped me get to that space need to be recognized.’’

The three people he most wants to thank aren’t as well-known to Bears fans as legendary coaches Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan. His induction speech will focus on his mother, who taught him how to approach life and treat people; the late William Lester, his high school coach, who wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to Dent’s future; and Tennessee State coach Joe Gilliam Sr., who will present Dent during the induction ceremony and taught him life lessons he carries with him to this day.

‘‘Here’s a man who had more wisdom than you can imagine,’’ Dent said of Gilliam. ‘‘I could listen to him for the rest of my life.’’

If not for those three people, Dent never would have led the NFC with 171/2 sacks during his second NFL season. He wouldn’t have been a driving force on one of the best defenses in NFL history, a Super Bowl MVP and a five-time Pro Bowl performer. He never would have racked up 1371/2 career sacks, eight interceptions and 37 forced fumbles.

Chances are, he would’ve ended up dead or in prison.

Tried golf first

‘‘What happens to young guys who grow up in poverty is, the most attractive and easiest things to do are filled with illegalities,’’ Gilliam said. ‘‘This was the environment Richard was in. If he stays in that environment, he doesn’t have a chance. He’s going to get into trouble; he’s going to go to prison. He wouldn’t have survived. Chances were against him being where he is today had he stayed in Atlanta.’’

Dent grew up with seven brothers and a sister. While many of his siblings earned money as musicians, he didn’t have that talent, so he got a job in a clothing store when he was in third grade. He pushed a mower 10 blocks to cut grass. He worked in cafeterias and fast-food restaurants while growing up because not working wasn’t an option.

He learned about work ethic and the perils of alcohol abuse from his father. His mother instilled in him the importance of helping others.

‘‘She would cook, clean and do clothes for two or three families a day,’’ Dent said of his mother, Mary. ‘‘These were people who did not just love her for her work, but for the person she was. They would buy her biscuits in 12- and 24-packs and take them home and freeze them. It was just nice to work beside her and watch how she treated people and how people treated her, understanding what common courtesy and business was about and really just understanding people. She was a very sweet person who did a lot for a lot of folks.’’

Dent didn’t participate in sports until his junior year in high school, when a friend’s words resonated: You’re going to work for the rest of your life. Why not pursue a dream?

Because his uncle caddied for Gary Player, he tried golf first. The golf coach told him to play football. He played basketball, too. He excelled at both.

He became the second member of his family to graduate from high school. When it came to college, he had only one criteria: anywhere but Atlanta.

‘‘I planned on coming back with a better story than the one I left with,’’ Dent said. ‘‘It wasn’t about where you come from but where you’re going. I wanted everybody to be proud of where I’d been.’’

Relentless on the field

Coach John Merritt and assistants Alvin Coleman and Gilliam had transformed Tennessee State into a powerhouse that would win seven black national football titles. Dent grew up idolizing Tennessee State star Claude Humphrey and wanted to be among the many Atlanta-area players to sign with the Tigers, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Gilliam had no use for a 190-pound offensive tackle. Lester was one of Gilliam’s graduate students and begged his professor to reconsider.

‘‘Coach, I can’t leave him here,’’ Gilliam recalled Lester telling him. ‘‘He’s got to get out of Atlanta.’’

‘‘I just can’t sign him,’’ Gilliam told Lester. ‘‘If I did, I would be a laughingstock.’’

That’s how they left it. But when training camp began, Gilliam spotted Lester walking across the practice field with Dent, who was carrying a small suitcase.

‘‘Here he is, Coach,’ Lester said.

‘‘I thought we had an understanding,’’ an exasperated Gilliam replied. ‘‘I can’t sign him.’’

‘‘It’s like I told you before: I can’t leave him in Atlanta,’’ Lester said. ‘‘He won’t last. I’ll see you in class.’’

Thus began an unlikely success story.

After the first few practices, the offensive coordinator sent Dent to Gilliam, who coached defense, with a simple message: ‘‘I can’t use him.’’

Dent was undersized and couldn’t keep weight on. He was quick but not fast. Gilliam assigned him to the scout team and eventually noticed that Dent wouldn’t stop until the whistle blew — and sometimes not even then. He thought something might be wrong with his hearing. Nothing was wrong with his hearing; relentlessness was part of his nature.

Gilliam had an idea. In those days, teams ran to the strong — or right — side and rarely passed. The best place to hide a poor blocker was at left tackle. Gilliam split Dent out three yards wider than a normal right defensive end and unleashed him into the backfield.

‘‘The more we played him, the better he played,’’ Gilliam said. ‘‘If it was a running back going around the other end, he would run him down. If it was a receiver downfield, he had better look out because Richard was going to catch him. If it was the quarterback, even if Richard got knocked down, he would get back up and run him down.’’

Dent went on to become a three-time All-American before beginning his Hall of Fame career with the Bears. He never has forgotten those who helped him along the way, nor has he reneged on his vow to do for others what his mother, Lester and Gilliam did for him.

His Make-a-Dent Foundation has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to improving the lives of underprivileged children, and he’s as proud of what he has accomplished as a humanitarian as anything he has done on a football field.

‘‘I just hope I can keep it together when I speak,’’ Dent said of his induction speech. ‘‘It’s telling your story, and with that story are a lot of thank-yous. A lot of people tell stories, and they don’t want to say thank you because they will forget some people. Everybody has their way. For me, there will be more thank-yous than anything.’’

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