The Pro Football Hall of Fame welcomed eight new members on Saturday night in Canton, Ohio, with the inductees sharing emotional stories of the hard work, family support and unbreakable bonds with teammates who helped them reach football immortality.
Much of the emotion centered around the Denver Broncos, with cornerback Champ Bailey entering the Hall as a first-ballot inductee and longtime owner Pat Bowlen being enshrined posthumously, less than two months after his death.
Bailey, who shares the NFL record among defensive backs with 12 Pro Bowls, credited Bowlen’s presence upon his arrival in Denver — via trade from the Washington Redskins for running back Clinton Portis — for taking him to new heights.
“The best thing for my career happened in 2004,” Bailey said. “I was traded to the Denver Broncos. Once I began to learn about Mr. Bowlen and the Denver Broncos, I was sold.
“… Mr. B was a great man, and a great leader. He will surely be missed, but he will forever be my teammate. I love you.”
Bowlen, who bought the Broncos in 1984 and led them to seven Super Bowl appearances and three Lombardi Trophies, died in June from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease at age 75.
Earlier in the evening, six of his children and longtime team trainer Steve “Greek” Antonopulos — who presented Bowlen for enshrinement — pulled the drape off his bust, which sat adjacent to his framed gold jacket. Bowlen’s family will receive the jacket, after jackets had previously been given only to inductees who were living at the time of enshrinement.
After Bailey’s speech, tight end Tony Gonzalez capped the night — more than four hours after the ceremony started — by reflecting on the aftermath of his own trade, which sent him to the Atlanta Falcons following 12 years with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I wasn’t sure how the fans were going to treat me,” Gonzalez recalled of his first game back in Kansas City with the Falcons. “So I was worried about it all week long. And then during pregame, they introduced … me. Which I thought was very special.
“And then something happened that was one of the greatest moments of my career. The Chief fans started yelling at the top of their lungs. … So you Kansas City Chiefs fans know how much I appreciated you.”
Safety Ed Reed became the third homegrown member of the Baltimore Ravens to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, joining former teammates Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis.
“The NFL changed my life and put me in a place I never thought I’d be,” Reed said. “There’s no place like Baltimore. No place like Baltimore.”
He was one of four defensive backs to be inducted.
“I always said I wanted to become a master of my game, like Bruce Lee,” Reed said. “I mastered my art of football, because that’s what it truly is when you understand it.”
Ty Law, who was part of the early wave of New England’s Super Bowl greatness, remembered how when he was a first-round draft pick, the Patriots hadn’t quite become “the Patriots” yet. He praised his former teammates in the crowd, telling him this moment belonged to them, too.
“[You] know where it started fellas,” Law said. “Together, we are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
Center Kevin Mawae, who played 16 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets and Tennessee Titans, thanked dozens of people. They included his wife, former teammates, the coaches who taught him the game as his father served in the military in Germany, and his brother, who was killed in a car accident. But his biggest thanks in an emotional speech were for his mother.
“Raising four boys, you learned to take the bumps and bruises along the way,” Mawae said. “You were our other teammate in our odd numbers of front-yard football. What other mom plays tackle football in the front yard with her sons? True story. She hit hard.”
Johnny Robinson, who played defensive back for the Dallas Cowboys and Chiefs, waited nearly five decades for his Hall of Fame moment. The 80-year-old, who was this year’s senior nominee, expressed his appreciation in a pre-recorded speech.
“It’s been 47 years since I last played football, and for this all time, I thought I had been forgotten,” Robinson said. “I can’t tell you how pleased I was to be notified that I had been selected as the senior finalist after all these years. But then, to receive that knock on the door from [Pro Football Hall of Fame president] David Baker seems surreal to me.
“I think back to when I was young boy, and all I wanted to do was play ball.”
The architect of the early Dallas Cowboys, Gil Brandt drafted 501 players and signed countless more over the course of 29 years as director of player personnel. The 86-year-old packed more than 50 names into his nearly 20-minute speech, including Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Mel Renfro. Aikman, a Hall of Fame member, was Brandt’s final first-round choice. Owner Jerry Jones, who presented Brandt for enshrinement, fired him after the draft.
–Field Level Media (@FieldLevelMedia)