Not Jerome Bettis.
Forget the politics. Forget the bold-faced names nearing eligibility (hello LaDainian Tomlinson). Forget about the statistics, the wholly appropriate nickname, or even the Super Bowl ring that defined his singular career. The sixth-leading rusher in NFL history didn’t want to hear any of it.
Bettis wanted his final steps as a football player to take place in Canton. Badly. So while Haley and Brown did their best to remain politically correct every time they were passed over, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back went the other way.
“I didn’t care about the guys coming up behind me,” Bettis said Friday. “I cared about me! C’mon. Get me in!”
Relax. After five years of waiting (and more than a little campaigning), there’s a bust waiting for The Bus, who will have plenty of company on stage when the Class of 2015 officially joins football’s most exclusive fraternity Saturday night.
The diverse eight-man group Bettis headlines represents the value of patience. Linebacker Junior Seau is the only one in the group to get in during his first year of eligibility. The rest are football lifers who wondered if they’d have to spend the rest of their lives waiting on the front step hoping to be invited inside.
Haley collected five Super Bowl rings and 100 1-2 career sacks playing for San Francisco and Dallas, but was puzzled for a decade why the guys he won titles with got their due and not him.
Brown worked 17 seasons as one of the league’s most productive wide receivers — 16 in the unique crucible that came with playing for Al Davis’ Raiders. Brown was a game breaker who made up with relentless efficiency what he lacked in flash or ego on his way to 1,094 receptions. Despite the impressive resume, it didn’t stop doubt from creeping in as contemporaries Jerry Rice, Cris Carter and Andre Reid earned their gold jackets. Brown even told his wife that if he didn’t make it in 2015 he might as well “put this Hall of Fame thing to bed and pick it up 10 years from now.”
“I was definitely one of the guys I thought when I finally did hear the call I’d be like ‘it’s about time,'” Brown said. “But man I couldn’t do anything but cry.”
Like Brown, Kansas City mainstay Will Shields never won a title. Still, he visited Hawaii so often after making the Pro Bowl — 12 times in all — he should have bought a time share. It took four years for him to become only the third right guard enshrined.
“You’re not sure how to act,” Shields said Friday. “You wonder, ‘How are you supposed feel if you get in the first year, the second?’ Then by the fourth year, you’re pretty docile by then.”
Just no less grateful.
Center Mick Tinglehoff snapped the ball in four Super Bowls for Minnesota, most of the time to Fran Tarkenton. Tarkenton will return the favor when the Hall of Fame quarterback presents the 75-year-old Tinglehoff nearly four decades after their final play together.
Bill Polian served as the architect for Buffalo’s rise under Marv Levy, Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, then repeated the feat in Indianapolis with Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning. The 72-year-old Polian enters as a contributor. So does Ron Wolf, who hired Mike Holmgren, traded for Brett Favre and returned Green Bay to its “Titletown USA” status as general manager in the 1990s.
Wolf said he never gave football immortality a thought. Neither did Polian, who figured his job was to find Hall of Famers, not become one.
Now they’re both in.
So is the one member of the incoming class whose spot in Canton was never in doubt, but whose legacy is complex.
Seau spent 20 years stamping San Diego, Miami and New England with his brand of frenetic chaos. A six-time All-Pro, Seau could beat you with his smarts or his ridiculous speed. This is the player who spent his time at the Pro Bowl challenging running backs to the occasional foot race just for fun.
Press Shields on what kind of headaches Seau presented and Shields just laughs.
“Everything made blocking Junior a problem,” Shields said. “You could never find him because he’d always be moving from one place to another. He understood what you were trying to do to him. He’d try to anticipate it and he’d try to beat you there before you got there.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that Seau reached the Hall as fast as possible. Yet his induction is also a reminder of a sport wrestling with its own inherent violence. Seau took his life in 2012 and his family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL, claiming his death was due in part to the countless hits he sustained during his career.
Seau’s absence at a weekend that serves as the official kickoff of another season is acute. Sydney Seau and her brothers will represent their father Saturday night. Sydney will make remarks but not give a full-blown speech. It’s hardly necessary to secure her dad’s legacy.
“We did go to battle sometimes on the field,” Bettis said. “He never quit. He kept coming.”