TELANDER: Pro Football Hall dinner not something anyone present will forget
BY RICK TELANDER firstname.lastname@example.org August 3, 2013 1:08AM
Members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013 are introduced after receiving their jackets at the Enshrinees’ Gold Jacket Dinner at the Canton Memorial Civic Center on Friday in Canton, Ohio: Warren Sapp, Dave Robinson, Bill Parcells, Jonathan Og
Updated: September 5, 2013 6:37AM
CANTON, Ohio — On and on they came.
This old scribe isn’t easily impressed, but here was one of the most stunning, dramatic things I’ve seen in my life: one NFL Hall of Famer after another parading across the floor of the Canton Memorial Civic Center on Friday.
If you love football — if you even care about football — this would set your soul spinning. It sent me into reverie.
Fred Biletnikoff, Ron Mix, Roger Staubach, John Elway, Rickey Jackson, Bob St. Clair, Forrest Gregg, Steve Largent, ‘‘Mean’’ Joe Greene, Paul Krause, Lem Barney, Mel Renfro.
Each was clad in a gold Hall of Fame jacket. Each stopped to spin and wave to the crowd. Each was part of the largest group of Hall of Fame players to assemble at once in any sport. More than a hundred.
On and on they came.
The occasion was the 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Weekend, and this was the Gold Jacket Dinner.
The men — some fit and still young, some hobbled and frail, some slipping into dementia and the darkness before the final curtain — represented the toughest and best the game has seen.
Andre Tippett, Leroy Kelly, Rayfield Wright, Russ Grimm, Jerry Rice, Willie Roaf, Jackie Slater, Jim Taylor, Dermontti Dawson, Alan Page.
There were some old-timers, such as Willie Wood, who were chair-bound and nearly expressionless. Then there were others, such as Howie Long, who looked very nearly ready to put on the pads again.
At the Hall of Fame museum earlier, I had moved swiftly past the jerseys, the videos, the old helmets and the interactive displays. But the room with the busts stopped me cold.
These weren’t the dry, symbolic plaques at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. These were like living creatures.
Anthony Muñoz was moving through the darkened, eerily lit room, explaining the busts to a group. He stopped in front of his own head, a remarkable symmetry staring back at him.
Munoz explained that nobody put his real head in a plaster cast or anything like that to create this avatar.
‘‘The sculptor did it from photographs from all angles,’’ he said. ‘‘And then he came to my house, and we just talked. He looked at me and sketched from all angles right there at the dining-room table.’’
Jim Otto hobbled badly. Jack Youngblood looked hawk-nosed and jut-jawed, like the man who once played a game with a broken leg.
The great Gale Sayers, then Chris Doleman, followed by Cowboys Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith. Then Randall McDaniel, Larry Little, Dwight Stephenson, Willie Brown, Marshall Faulk, Kellen Winslow, Elvin Bethea, John Madden, Charley Taylor and Carl Eller.
And then — to the second-biggest round of applause — Mike Ditka, Da Coach.
There were Joe Namath, Lenny Moore, Franco Harris, Roger Wehrli, Curtis Martin, John Hannah, James Lofton, Jim Kelly, Paul Warfield, Lawrence Taylor and more.
But the biggest roar was for 82-year-old former player and coach Don Shula, who had to be helped onto the stage by three men. The crowd’s standing ovation was for the overwhelming emotions his presence elicited from those who remembered what he was like when he was young, when he was middle-aged, when he was merely old. A competitor, a teacher, a battler.
Second-to-last came Jim Brown, maybe the greatest football player who ever lived, slow and nearly rigid now with a neck that doesn’t move, yet still defiant. Of the entire group, he was the only one who refused to wear a gold jacket. Who knows why.
When the Hall of Fame members, including the seven new inductees, had been seated, there was yet another treat.
Chicago football writer Dan Pompei was introduced in front of the thousands in attendance by emcee Rich Eisen as the winner of the Dick McCann Award for sportswriting.
Pompei, who is 52 and at his peak, started on the agate desk of the Sun-Times in 1983 and worked his way up the sports food chain until he left for The Sporting News in 1997. He was there until 2006, when he joined the Chicago Tribune, while still doing freelance work for WSCR-AM (670), ESPN and the National Football Post.
He is leaving the Tribune this week and ‘‘is considering a lot of different things,’’ but his reputation will land him at the top of whatever new gig he discovers.
As the crowd watched the video of Pompei’s career, saw him with the Super Bowl champion Bears — with Ditka, with Walter Payton, with so many other greats in the field — it made one realize that even the best athletes in the world need skilled chroniclers. Pompei’s induction made this observer proud to be a fellow writer.
As young Dan said when the microphone was his: ‘‘I’ve never lost my wonder for the game.’’