Pro Football Hall of Fame vote makes it 'a wonderful day to be alive'
Tears mingle with pride and remembrance for Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice and five others in the 2010 enshrinement class.
Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It was a day for tears, cherished memories and a coincidental fixation on the number 44 as seven new members were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame here Saturday.
Jerry Rice: "There's a sacrifice you have to make if you wanted to be great, and I respected this game."Wide receiver Jerry Rice and running back Emmitt Smith both were first-ballot selections. They will bring the most receiving yards and most rushing yards in NFL history to the shrine in Canton, Ohio, when they are inducted in August. Joining them in the Class of 2010 were guard Russ Grimm, defensive tackle John Randle, linebacker Rickey Jackson and two senior committee nominees -- Floyd Little and Dick LeBeau.
"It's a wonderful day to be alive," LeBeau said by telephone.
This Hall of Fame election was a made-for-TV event. In fact, the NFL Network televised it live from a third-floor ballroom at the Greater Fort Lauderdale-Broward County Convention Center, where the stage looked almost like a set on Letterman and nominees waited in a "green room."
The first new inductee introduced was Rice, who played 20 seasons, 16 with the San Francisco 49ers, and set almost every notable receiving record, including receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895), total touchdowns (208) and most 1,000-yard receiving seasons (14). Behind those prolific numbers was a rock-solid work ethic.
Former quarterback Steve Young recalled dropping by the team's facility to pick up items a few days after the 49ers had beaten the Chargers in Super Bowl 29. When he looked out on the practice field, Young saw Rice -- all alone, running wind sprints.
Under the klieg lights of the Super Bowl, Rice had caught 10 passes for 149 yards and three touchdowns. Now, with no cameras watching him, Rice was working out by himself.
Asked by NFL Network host Rich Eisen where his work ethic came from, Rice said, "I think it came from my parents and what they instilled in me." Rice then broke down in tears. After composing himself, he added, "There's a sacrifice you have to make if you wanted to be great, and I respected this game."
Smith, who played 15 seasons (13 for the Dallas Cowboys), owns several NFL rushing records, including most rushing yards in a career (18,355). He also couldn't hold his emotions in check when he related a conversation with his father.
"Son, I'm so proud of you," Smith said, recalling his dad's words. "I had the dream of doing what you're doing, but my mother got sick and I never went to college."
Little, who waited 30 years for his chance to join pro football's special fraternity, said he became discouraged two years ago and had doubts that his day would ever come.
A bowlegged running back for the Denver Broncos, Little used to go to bed at night with belts wrapped around his waist, thighs and calves because he wanted to fix his condition. It didn't seem to bother him on the field. Over nine seasons, Little rushed for 6,323 yards and 43 touchdowns.
Little and LeBeau, a cornerback for the Detroit Lions who intercepted 62 passes in 14 seasons, both wore No. 44. Little noted that there are 44 Hall of Fame voters "and there's a 44th president."
LeBeau, 72, has spent more than half a century in the NFL -- the past 37 as a coach. Currently the Steelers' defensive coordinator, LeBeau is known for creating the zone blitz as well as reciting "Twas The Night Before Christmas" from memory.
LeBeau called his election "a lifelong dream. I can't imagine anything else more rewarding for someone who made football his life's pursuit."
Grimm, now the offensive line coach of the Arizona Cardinals, played in four Super Bowls during an 11-year career with the Washington Redskins. One of the original "Hogs," Grimm was famous for executing Washington's counter trey, a running play where he and left tackle Joe Jacoby would pull around to the right side and lead the blocking for John Riggins and other backs.
Although he was an undersized defensive lineman, Randle was quick enough to have 137.5 sacks during a 14-year career with the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. He was known for trying to intimidate opponents by wearing face paint and yelling at them.
"I was terrified to death of John Randle," Rice said. "You looked across the line and saw this guy with makeup on his face, making faces. And he could put pressure on the quarterback."
Jackson helped the Saints make a transition from perennial losers to respectable contenders during his 13 years in New Orleans (he played his final two seasons in San Francisco). One of the elite pass rushers of his era, Jackson had 128 career sacks.
This story appears in Feb. 7's edition of Sporting News Today. If you are not receiving Sporting News Today, the only daily digital sports newspaper, sign up today.
Senior writer Dennis Dillon covers the NFL for Sporting News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.