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Hub Arkush: Canton welcomes eight new greats

August 5, 2018

CANTON, Ohio — Canton is often thought of by those embracing the history of the NFL as small-town, Middle America, but it is in fact a city of about 72,000 and the eighth-largest city in Ohio, which is the seventh-most populous state in America.

It boasts one of our last great daily newspapers, the Canton Repository, the William McKinley Presidential Library, National First Ladies Library and of course is a bastion of antique and classic cars.

Just a little local color for you, and the answer to what George Halas and the fellas were doing here on September 17, 1920 at the Hupmobile Showroom, when they got together to found the National Football League.

While it is a much bigger city than many realize, with a robust culture, there is no denying it was really the only place the NFL could put its Hall of Fame. And upon arrival here in town, you quickly realize all arrows and signs point to the mecca of professional football, especially for anyone who’s ever played or worked around the game.

This first weekend of August, as they have every year since the Hall opened in 1963, the doors were opened to admit a class of the greatest players and contributors of all time — this group including OLB Robert Brazile, GM Bobby Beathard, OG Jerry Kramer, MLB Brian Urlacher, S Brian Dawkins, WR Randy Moss, MLB Ray Lewis and WR Terrell Owens.

All but T.O., who became the first Hall member to decline his invite, holding his own ceremony Saturday at his alma mater University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, were present on a sweltering Saturday evening to celebrate one of the most important weekends of their lives, with speeches accepting the greatest honor their game offers and acknowledge those that helped get them here.

None waited longer than Kramer to get in. He was a finalist 11 different times without getting the votes he needed for entry, and after 45 years he became a selection of the veterans committee, and his bust was unveiled.

Kramer explained the lifelong impact the game had on him saying, “I think I wanted to play, because football, there was just something about it that I responded . . . I knew I wanted to be a part of something. I wanted to be a little different than the average kid, and that really propelled me the rest of my life.”

Kramer is the 13th member of the Packers’ five championship teams between 1961-67 — interrupted only by the ’63 Chicago Bears and ’64 Cleveland Browns behind Jim Brown — to be inducted in Canton.

Kramer was under the weather the Friday before his induction and unable to keep his date with the national media, but nothing was going to keep him from his enshrinement speech Saturday.

He summed up a lot of what all the Hall of Famers said this weekend, “I think I played because I wanted to be part of a team — that’s why most of us played, to be part of a team.”

Kramer also told a story about when he was drafted, saying he was pleased to go in the fourth round but when he asked by whom and was told the Packers, he asked, “Where the hell’s Green Bay?”

Kramer finished by quoting Vince Lombardi: “After the game is over, the stadium lights are out, the parking lot is empty and you’re back in your room with your championship ring on the dresser, your only lot in life is to make the world a little bit better because you were in it.”

Brazile was also a veterans committee nominee after 29 years of eligibility.

According to his dad who presented him for induction, Brazile’s idol was Dick Butkus, and Brazile was careful to mention early on in his acceptance speech his college teammate and fellow first-round pick in 1975 was Walter Payton.

Oilers teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Ken Houston says of Brazile, “If you ask any player who played with him or against him about the best linebackers, they’ll tell you Robert Brazile.

“Before Lawrence Taylor, he was Lawrence Taylor.”

Beathard was an integral part of building the two Dolphins Super Bowl teams in the ’70s, and as its general manager, he oversaw the building of Washington’s two Super Bowl champions in the ’80s.

Known for trading away his high draft choices, Beathard explains, “A lot of people in the league thought I was nuts. Maybe that was true.

“But we figured if it was a draft that we had evaluated ... and it was rich in talent, we could get players in the later rounds.”

ESPN’s Chris Berman was the emcee Saturday night, and he pointed out before introducing Joe Gibbs to present Beathard, that Washington had 27 free agents on its second Super Bowl team.

In a minor departure from tradition, and possibly for health reasons, Beathard’s acceptance speech was prerecorded and shown on the video screens in the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, while Beathard was on stage.

Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis were both first-ballot choices at middle linebacker to be enshrined Saturday night.

Urlacher is credited by many for redefining the position in the 21st century with his near-freakish combination of size, speed and athleticism.

There was nothing he couldn’t do on a football field, whether it was stuffing the run, defending the pass or rushing the quarterback, and Urlacher also lined up at tight end a few times and scored on several trick plays over his 13-year career.

For 13 years he was the ultimate stoic in Chicago, but Urlacher became emotional early on Saturday night as he tried to talk about others.

“However, today is not really about me, or what I was able to do on the football field,” he said. “I’m primarily here tonight to pay respect to the men and women who have made this all possible. And I honor them for the impact they’ve had on my life.

“I love everything about football — the friendships, the coaches, the teammates, the teachers, the challenges, and the opportunity to excel as a teammate and as a leader.

“Football has provided me with virtually everything I have in life. It has provided for my children and my family,” Urlacher said, welling up and heaving a bit. “Not yet … uh, uh. Uh, uh!”

After Urlacher, it was Dawkins’, Moss’ and Lewis’ turns on the stage and the induction ceremony became part football and part revival.

Each focused as much on their faith as they did on their careers and the impact their faith had in bringing them to this moment.

Dawkins played 16 seasons — 13 in Philadelphia, then three more in Denver — and was a five-time All Pro.

He also echoed a theme he addressed several times during the week.

“It’s simple. ... I’m always striving to do more,” he said. “Whatever I accomplish, it’s not enough, I don’t get satisfied. That’s not my nature. ... There will never be a perfect year, because I know there will always be plays I could have made.”

Dawkins’ speech bordered on dark in several spots as he was very open about his battles with depression, but he brought it home with grace in professing his confidence in a brighter tomorrow.

Moss will be remembered as one of the greatest athletes in the history of the game and possibly the most dominant to play receiver. The greatest is tough to single out, but no pass catcher was more impossible to guard man-to-man.

Moss struggled early in his career with his image and how he carried himself, but Saturday night in Canton he was as impressive, focused and admirable as any great athlete you’ll ever meet.

Like Dawkins and Lewis, he returned often to his faith and quoted the bible, but he also singled out not just the Vikings, but each of the other organizations he played for — the Raiders, Patriots, 49ers and Titans.

Moss drew boos but powered right through them when he offered a special thanks to Bill Belichick, and brought the crowd to its feet when he ended by asking everyone in his hometown in West Virginia to meet him at 4:30 Sunday in the town square and celebrate the gold jacket they all earned together.

Lewis was saved for last, we assume, because everyone knew he would preach well beyond his “requested time limit,” and of course he obliged.

He tended to ramble a bit and get lost several times in what exactly he was saying. But there is no question that Lewis is one of the greatest and most inspirational players in the history of the game, and he delivered his speech with an incredible passion, engaging most of the crowd all the way.

In the end, Lewis had sweat through his gold jacket, and much like he left it all on the field every time he played the game, he did leave it all on the stage Saturday night in Canton, as did his six classmates also mostly trying to say thanks.

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