In my 30 seasons covering pro football, I’ve found that nothing stirs the passions of fans—and plain ticks off the masses—the way Pro Football Hall of Fame voting does. During the raging Art Monk debate eight or 10 years ago (at the time, I was not in the pro-Monk camp and didn’t hide my feelings), I got off a train at Washington’s Union Station, and a redcap saw me. He sneered. He shook his head. I think if he’d been out of uniform, he would have asked me to step outside and settle the issue like men. In an airport last spring I was accosted about Charles Haley’s absence from the Hall. “What is wrong with you guys!” the fan said to me.
The 46 Hall of Fame voters are in a whittling-down phase right now. The Hall has a preliminary list of 126 modern-era candidates, and by Nov. 1 we have to vote for 25 from that group. After the list of 25 is finalized, we then vote for our top 15. The 15 finalists and the two Senior Committee nominees (punter Ray Guy and defensive end Claude Humphrey this year) will be debated and put up to a vote for election in New York on Feb. 1, the day before the Super Bowl.
So I wanted to give readers and passionate fans the chance to make the argument for their candidates. I asked for 250-word nomination essays, and you responded: We received 226 qualifying submissions for 64 of the 126 candidates from Monday through Wednesday, and the editors of The MMQB narrowed that list down to the 10 we liked best. (Well, 11, actually, and you’ll see why.) The winners weren’t necessarily the most obvious candidates or the ones the editors and I support; we chose based on the strength and the quality of the argument.
What I learned from the exercise:
You really want Terrell Davis in. He received the most nominating letters, with 18.
You’re Doug Flutie fans (11 nominations), Derrick Brooks backers (11) and Steve Sabol supporters (10).
You believe special teams should be better represented in the Hall. Morten Andersen, Steve Tasker and Brian Mitchell all had eloquent nominations.
You are quite humorous. As one of Don Coryell’s supporters wrote: “When considering someone for induction into the Hall of Fame, one needs to ask the ultimate question: Does he belong?” Well, uh, I guess we do.
This was such a fun exercise that I believe we’ll do it again next month, when the final 25 nominees come out, and we have to cut to 15. Thanks for your participation—and for contributing to a very difficult process. On the following pages are our selections for the best nominations (and we’ve sprinked in some outtakes from other essays that we particularly liked.) On the last page, you can see the breakdown of who you nominated, and how many nominations each player got.
The case for Charles Haley
By Stephen Hutchins, Wichita, Kans.
Hold out your hand. Look at it. Are you wearing a ring? If so, what does that ring represent? Perhaps it represents a commitment to another person. Maybe it represents solidarity with a group of individuals. In any case, that ring is probably special to you. It means you’ve done something worth remembering.
In the NFL, there is such a ring. That is the ring of a Super Bowl champion. Every player in the NFL strives for one thing, and that is to own such a ring. A player might be lucky to get one, or even two. At some point, though, luck ceases to be a factor. There are some players who are so influential, so talented, and so dedicated that they earn multiple rings.
Charles Haley has five of these rings. That’s more than anyone else in NFL history. He didn’t fall into these rings. He earned them by dominating his opposition week after week, year after year. Charles Haley was colorful, too. Yes, he once defecated in a team meeting. Yes, he once smashed a hole in a locker room with his helmet. But he got results. He pushed himself and he pushed his teammates to success like nobody else ever has. He has the rings to prove it.
Soon you will be asked to vote on whether or not Charles Haley deserves a place in the Hall of Fame. You know what to do. Hold out your hand.
The case for Jerome Bettis
By Mark Wilson, Hickory, N.C.
I will tell my children about Jerome Bettis one day. I will not break down for them how many touchdowns he scored, or how many 1,000-yard seasons he had. In fact, I probably won’t talk long at all. Bettis deserves to be seen rather than heard about. A Bettis run has to be experienced. It has to be experienced because everything about it is so implausible. Like a bumble bee flying, it doesn’t make sense. Where does the speed come from? How is he so agile? How do all of these seemingly contradictory skills end up in one package?
I should be writing here about Leroy Butler, the man who typified what it meant to be a member of my favorite team. Or, I could be writing about Kevin Greene, the best player to ever suit up for my hometown squad. But I’m not.
We have seen and will see numerous intense, athletic, consistent, and intelligent players, like both Butler and Greene (and pretty much every other candidate). Will we ever see a player like Jerome Bettis again? I doubt it. His stat sheet may provide the justification for is eligibility, but for anyone that watched him play, the stats mean nothing. He played for a team I hated and I still considered it must-watch TV. It wasn’t must-watch TV because of his excellence—and, of course, he was excellent. It was must-watch TV because you knew you might never see it again. And I still haven’t.
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Outtake 1: From a Giants’ fan: “I hate you Randall Cunningham! Good luck!”
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The case for Brian Mitchell
By Andrew Hamm, Richmond, Va.
I am the only person I know who wears a Brian Mitchell jersey.
I wear number 30 because Mitchell has the second-most all-purpose yards (23,330) in NFL history, trailing only Jerry Rice, which is not bad company.
I wear it because he has the second-most special teams touchdowns (13) in league history.
I wear number 30 because he covered kicks as well as receiving them, and no one wanted to be hit by Brian Mitchell.
I wear it because he played tailback on third-and-long, and a draw play to B-Mitch was often a better bet to convert than a long pass attempt.
I wear it because of the infamous “Bodybag Game,” where the last Washington quarterback left standing was a running back wearing number 30.
I wear number 30 because you never went to get a beer if Mitchell was back to receive, because you always felt like he was a one-man come-from-behind touchdown drive waiting to happen, hope in an era of quarterbacking mediocrity inconceivable for the franchise of Baugh and Jurgensen.
I wear number 30 because the team has inexplicably neglected to add it to their list of unofficially retired numbers, because I still can’t believe they let him go to the Giants and Eagles, and because fans wearing LaRon Landry jerseys make my blood boil.
I wear number 30 because Brian Mitchell took the opening kickoff of his first preseason game for a touchdown, and through the last snap of his 14-year career he was a threat to do it again. He holds the NFL records for kickoff return yards (14,014), punt return yards (4,999), and postseason kickoff return yards (875). If those aren’t Hall of Fame numbers, there are no such thing as Hall of Fame numbers.
I wear number 30 because when people ask, “Who is the greatest NFL player who isn’t in the Hall of Fame?” no one thinks to say “Brian Mitchell,” and that’s ridiculous.
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Outtake 2: From a Tony Boselli fan: “They named a sandwich after him at McDonald’s in Jacksonville when he was playing. If the fans of Jacksonville can get that excited about any of their current or past players, he must be something special.”
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The case for Steve Tasker
By Jamie Retallack, Snyder, N.Y.
Steve Tasker is the best special-teams player, ever.
What makes that statement truly amazing is that there is very little debate on the matter, and most who would discuss such things simply agree Steve was the best. His work was blue-collar as a special-teams gunner, and yet his performance week in and week out was exceptional. He didn’t have an impressive stat sheet, and he wasn’t the team headliner. Yet he changed the game. He was responsible for a number of Bills wins by forcing fumbles or pinning opponents against their end zone in key moments.
The Bills’ AFC dominance and four Super Bowl appearances would have been unlikely without him leading the way on special teams. His contributions caused the Pro Bowl to create a place for him, adding “special-teams player” on the list next to punter, kicker and returner. Steve filled that special-teams spot in Hawaii each year it existed until his retirement—and was selected as the Pro Bowl MVP one year.
The Hall of Fame should be a shrine to the best at all positions, and yet with only one full-time special0teams player in Canton, it isn’t. He was and still is the best, and that should be enough. Isn’t that what the Hall celebrates? What I do know is that when I watch football and see a tremendous special-teams play, I thank Steve Tasker for showing me what special-teams play can look like.
The NFL should thank him too.
The case for Doug Flutie
By Mark Castator, Victoria, B.C.
Doug Flutie belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is not called the “NFL Hall of Fame.” It is the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Flutie’s numbers across the USFL, CFL and NFL should all be considered when evaluating his prospects.
The story of pro football through the ’80s, ’90s and earlier 2000s cannot be told without Doug Flutie. While his most memorable moment in football came as a college player, his achievements as a pro are Hall of Fame numbers:
• Three Grey Cup titles and three Grey Cup MVPs.
• Six CFL All-Star selections and one Pro Bowl.
• NFL Comeback Player of the Year at age 36.
• 58,000 career passing yards, plus an additional 6,700 on the ground.
• 369 passing touchdowns and 82 rushing touchdowns.
Who else accounted for 451 touchdowns in football history?
But Doug Flutie’s impact cannot be measured by numbers alone. Hall of Famers should be required to meet an eye test—that they looked special when they played. Doug Flutie easily passed the eye test. Undersized, far from the conventional idea of what a quarterback should look like, Doug Flutie always did whatever it took to complete a pass, to gain that extra yard, to get that little advantage. It was apparent from watching him how much he loved the game and how much he loved to win.
And if all that isn’t enough, Doug Flutie is the only player to have drop-kicked an extra point in the last 70 years of the game.
The case for Terrell Davis
By Tyler Ward, Medford, Ore.
The first football game I ever watched was The Drive. I grew up watching John Elway take uneven teams to the brink of greatness again and again. That was football in Denver. That is, until the years of Terrell Davis.
Statwise, he compares favorably to Lynn Swann. His career numbers are not immense, but his impact cannot be underestimated. A sixth-rounder who made the team as a special-teams specialist, he had every tool a running back could have; running, catching, blocking, a north/south runner with a quick cut and an enviable open-field gait. In only four healthy seasons in the league, he won two Offensive Player of the Year awards, an MVP and a Super Bowl MVP for Super Bowl XXXII, when he rushed for 157 yards and three touchdowns despite missing the second quarter with a migraine.
After his MVP season, he spent the rest of his career fighting injuries and never had another full season, but he was the key ingredient to one of the stronger teams in NFL history, and for four years he and some guy named Barry Sanders were the gold standard at the running back position.
I know short careers are a hard sell for the exclusive club of the Hall of Fame, but no other career this short had so much production and so much impact. Without Terrell Davis, John Elway does not finish his career on top, and the Broncos do not win back-to-back Super Bowls.
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Outtake 3: From a Terrell Davis fan: “Did the R&R HOF downgrade Jimi Hendrix’s contributions because his career was cut short? HELL NO!”
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The case for Tim Brown
By Richard Aronson, Oakhurst, Calif.
Tim Brown belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Schroeder. Beuerlein. Marinovich. Evans. Hostetler. Hobert. Klingler. George. Hollas. Wade Wilson. Those were Brown’s quarterbacks his first 11 seasons. He still made seven All-Pro teams. With those quarterbacks, he had six years in the top 10 in receiving TDs, five in receptions, four in yards, when he was the only decent option and always drew the tightest coverage. That’s why Tim Brown was great. He got open enough so that even bad quarterbacks could find him.
He played 17 years in the NFL, more than any other wide receiver on your list. At age 33, when Gannon arrived, the Raiders finally developed a good offense, and Brown had three more good years. Yes, the end of his career overlaps the modern passing game, but only the end. Despite his quarterbacks, despite his teammates, Brown was fifth alltime in yards and receptions, seventh in receiving touchdowns. He also led the league in kick-return yards and average as a rookie, and had many excellent years as a punt returner. He was a professional even though most of the Raiders were not. For most of a decade he was the main reason to watch the Raiders.
It’s easy to be All-Pro with Montana, Young, Manning, Elway or Moon throwing to you. Tim Brown didn’t have that and still excelled. That’s why he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
The case for Gil Brandt
By Henry Martinez, Ennis, Texas
In what universe can you go from baby photographer to player personnel guru for the most visible NFL franchise in the world? Such was the case for Gil Brandt, part of the original triumvirate that established the Dallas Cowboys in 1960. While Tex Schramm (Hall of Famer) helped revolutionize the business side of pro football, and Tom Landry (Hall of Famer) did much of the same on the field, it was Brandt who played the lead role as vice president of player personnel in securing the players who would come to embody America’s Team.
Brandt developed a flair for finding elite players in the most unusual places or circumstances. Bob Hayes, Olympic sprinter. Roger Staubach, Navy college hero worth the five-year wait. Unheralded and undrafted free agents such as Drew Pearson, Cliff Harris and Everson Walls. If there was a player to be found at Fort Valley State College—and there was, in future Hall of Famer Rayfield Wright—Brandt helped the Cowboys find their man. His player personnel decisions helped usher in an unprecedented 20 consecutive winning seasons, five Super Bowl appearances and two world titles during the decade of the ’70s, and a slew of Cowboys who now reside at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Even as the team’s fortunes declined in the ’80s, he still had a few tricks up his sleeve, including the signing of Herschel Walker from the USFL. After leaving the Cowboys, Brandt remains an active and respected voice in all matters football.
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Outtake 4: From an Eric Metcalf fan: “My friends and I get drunk and watch Eric Metcalf highlights while eating chili the night before Browns games. He has the second-most punt return yards in a game in Cleveland history behind future Hall of Famer Travis Benjamin. His induction ceremony would be full of barking, which would raise awareness for abused dogs.”
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The case for Steve Sabol
By Paul Maslin, Madison, Wis.
“The autumn wind is a pirate. Blustering in from sea. With a rollicking song, he sweeps along, swaggering voicelessly.”
In 10 short evocative seconds John Facenda and the images accompanying his voice state the case for Steve Sabol’s inclusion into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The list of candidates contains many great players, coaches and executives, but only one truly transcendent individual whose contribution to the sport rivals that of Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Pop Warner, Paul Brown, George Halas, Pete Rozelle and all the others who left a significant legacy.
The best compliment any sports fan or journalist can give NFL Films is that, after a half-century, it still has no equal anywhere in professional sports, anywhere in the world. The Sabols not only found a niche, but they chiseled it so deeply that it has no reference point. They married music, film, narrative and the essence of a sport—admittedly and lovingly an unceasing hagiography—into wonderful mini-art forms. John Facenda was a genius choice as chief narrator, fortuitously placed as a local Philadelphia TV anchor. Steve Sabol’s handiwork can be found in those dulcet tones, in the stirring scores and in the use of film and slow-motion to bring out the highest drama in his subject.
Did some of the stories go over the top? Sure—see above and compare it to the squalor that has been the Raiders for nearly two decades. Did they glorify the violence we are only now learning comes at such a severe price to the gladiators Sabol featured? Yes, but all who have depicted the NFL have been similarly guilty. What he fundamentally did is tell a story through a medium that was a perfect match, in a manner only he, his father, Ed, and their crew thought to execute.
I have a theory about the 1960s. The turmoil had a lot of negative outcomes—but it also produced and showcased genius and greatness almost anywhere you looked. The Beatles. Dylan. Lombardi. Wooden. Russell and Chamberlain. Jim Brown. Steve Sabol was not a great actor or participant, as those men were. But he was an unparalleled storyteller. Canton is where he belongs.
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OUTTAKE 5: From a Steve Sabol fan: “To use a metaphor as Sabol was inclined to do, not having Steve Sabol in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is like not having Ray Kroc in the Fast Food Hall of Fame.”
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The case for Ron Wolf
By Andrew Crane, Green Bay, Wis.
On January 26, 1997, the Green Bay Packers defeated the New England Patriots 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI. Mike Holmgren was the coach, and he went on to appear in two more Super Bowls and win 174 games. Brett Favre, who accounted for three touchdowns, holds practically all of the major quarterback records in the NFL. Reggie White, who dominated the Patriots and had three sacks, was one of the greatest players in NFL history.
The Green Bay Packers had not been to the Super Bowl in 29 years. In fact, the organization had become the laughingstock of the NFL. Green Bay was the place teams would threaten to trade their players to if they didn’t shape up. The Packers’ rise back to the ranks of the elite was great for the NFL; Lambeau Field is its mecca, and the fans are among the most devoted in the league. Much like baseball with the New York Yankees, the NFL is more exciting and relevant when the Packers are contenders.
None of this would be possible without General Manager Ron Wolf.
It was Wolf who hired the coach to bring the West Coast offense to the Midwest.
It was Wolf who traded a valuable first-round draft pick for a hard-drinking gun-slinging backup quarterback.
It was Wolf who signed a coveted defensive end to the first major free-agent contract.
As the man who brought the title back to Titletown, and brought Titletown back to NFL significance, I recommend Ron Wolf for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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Outtake 6: From a Jimmy Smith fan: “Many Jaguars fans will remember Jimmy Smith as the lightning to Keenan Mccardell’s thunder. Many others will remember his history of drug abuse and recent six-year jail sentence (only to be reduced to house arrest) … I like to remember the J-Smooth who stuck it to the Broncos and Woody Paige who, before the 1996 Divisional Playoff matchup between the Jaguars and the 14-point favorite Broncos, called Jimmy Smith’s team ‘Jagwads.’ “
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And our bonus nomination. How could we not include it?
The case for Eddie George
By Nilson Marcelo Pereira da Silva, Rio de Janiero, Brazil
As a Brazilian, you must imagine how hard it was for me to get along with the NFL in the ’90s. Brazil is known for being a soccer-loving country, so my only contact with NFL and its players was through video games, most specifically a copy of Madden 98 I bought. And that’s where Eddie George shows up. A pure running back, zipping through the defenses and crushing them like lightning.
That’s how I remember Eddie George, playing until late at night on my PC. I didn’t pick the Oilers randomly. My father is an oiler! Playing them was like to try to honor him, and the Oilers were good. Eddie George was great. Jaguars, Steelers, Ravens and Bengals … Eddie didn’t forgive anyone, beating all the linebackers and running for 200, 300 yards in four five-minute-quarters that looked like seconds to me. I must say Eddie George was like a god, a beast and, since I had no means of getting news about the real NFL, I thought he was probably the best player who ever lived.
Time proved he was no god, but extremely good. Sorry if my story somehow is not about the real player, but I think they must be able to make us dream. Eddie George really made me dream.
The Final Tally
Thanks to everyone who submitted entries. And special thanks for this note from one submission about the election process: “When deciding who is befitting of inclusion into an exclusive group, it is often wise to view the applicant against those currently in the group, as a basis for determining the applicant’s inclusion.”
Yes. I’ll remember that when I go into the voting chambers on Feb. 1.
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