CANTON, Ohio – The Pro Football Hall of Fame induction became a family affair Saturday night.
And Gene Hickerson's son, Bob, accepted on behalf of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Then Gene was brought onto the stage in a wheelchair guided by former teammates Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell -- all running backs he helped get into the hall.
Irvin kissed his hall bust before he capped the riveting ceremony with preacher's intensity. His eyes wet, his words coming slowly and emphatically, he commended Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and fellow "Triplets" Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman for motivating him. He saluted Cowboys fans, but saved his most moving tributes for the relatives who stuck with him through three Super Bowl wins and all the difficulties away from the field.
Irvin pleaded no contest to felony cocaine possession and was put on probation for four years after a March 1996 arrest. Police crashed Irvin's 30th birthday party and found him, marijuana, cocaine and strippers in a hotel room.
He subsequently had other incidents with police.
On Saturday, Irvin asked sons Michael, 10, and Elijah, 8, to stand before he recited the prayers he gives up for his sons.
"Help me raise them for their kids, so that they can be a better father than I," Irvin said. "I tell you guys to always do the right thing so you can be a better role model than dad.
"Look up, get up, but don't ever give up."
Thomas set a record by leading the NFL in total yards from scrimmage four consecutive seasons. The 1991 league MVP, he rushed for 12,074 yards in his career, and only all-time rushing leader Smith and Barry Sanders ran for more yards in the 1990s.
Thomas didn't kiss his bronze bust but rubbed the head when it was unveiled, and mentioned "it's really, really scary up here."
He later turned to wife Patti, seated in the crowd of 12,787, and asked if, after nearly 20 years together, she would marry him again.
Finally, Thomas saluted the thousands of Bills fans in the crowd.
"In closing, to the fans of Buffalo," he said to a huge cheer, "every guy that probably has stood here in all these Hall of Fame jackets and said they had the best fans supporting you, I am here to say that's hogwash. No fans are like my fans, Bills fans.
"It was a ride that none of us will ever forget. Unfortunately, we can't buy tickets for that ride again, but we will always have those memories."
Citing what he called a "simple but memorable life," Charlie Sanders entered the hall by thanking a mother he never knew -- she died when he was 2 years old.
Noting how players often mug for the camera and salute their mothers, a teary-eyed Sanders said: 'I thought it was something that was always special and I would want to do, but couldn't. So I take this time, right here and right now, in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to say, 'Hi Mom.' "
To finish his speech, the tight end with the Detroit Lions from 1968-77 read from a poem, "The NFL: Just Passing Through," that he wrote in 1976.
"So give your all and nothing less, today we win, tomorrow we rest.
"You are not just my teammate, but my very best friend. Let's play together until the very end."
Sanders foreshadowed the era of pass-catching tight ends that spawned fellow Canton inductees Kellen Winslow and Dave Casper. As a rookie in 1968, he made 40 receptions for 533 yards, almost unheard-of numbers for his position. He was selected to the NFL's all-decade team of the 1970s.
"Charlie is what you look for today at that position. He was a pioneer," said Lions owner William Clay Ford, his presenter. Sanders, currently an executive with the team, has spent all 40 of his years in pro football with the Lions.
Bob Hickerson remembered his dad, who was too ill to sit on stage or speak, as "still leading the way for" Brown, Kelly and Mitchell. Then those three great runners turned things around by leading Hickerson onstage.
As a 248-pound guard, Hickerson played 15 seasons for the Browns, and Cleveland never had a losing record in that time. He made five straight All-Pro teams (1966-70) and in 1964 won the NFL championship.
"It's a tremendous honor and the crowning achievement of his career," Bob Hickerson said.
Hall of Famer Mike Munchak, who introduced his former on the offensive line-mate, lauded Matthews' "work ethic, competitiveness and passion for the game, which were contagious. He raised the standard for all of us."
Matthews' set an enviable standard for blockers. He played in more games than any positional player in NFL history, starting 292 of 296, and 15 playoff games. He had 99 starts at left guard, 67 on the right, 87 at center, 22 at right tackle, 17 at left tackle.
"Having your name mentioned with the all-time greats in the game is very humbling," he said.
Matthews also asked hall voters to consider electing his brother, former linebacker Clay Matthews.
Wehrli was a shutdown cornerback from 1969-82 who also excelled as a punt returner. He recovered a franchise record-tying 19 fumbles during his career and made the NFL's all-1970s team.
Wehrli was elected in his final year of eligibility with the regular selection committee.
"The Hall of Fame is never a given. I never for once took it for granted that I would be or should be here," Wehrli said. "I believe I was elected at this time of my life so my children ... and three grandchildren could be here and enjoy this, and remember something special about their grand dad."