OK, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith were shoo-ins. The 44 Hall of Fame selectors spent almost seven hours debating the other 13 finalists, but those two players were locks, two all-time record-holders who epitomize the very best of the NFL.
They were worthy first-ballot recipients.
Rice proved that by becoming unexpectantly emotional, even tearing up when he was announced. "To me, this is like winning a Super Bowl," Rice said.
Rice's accomplishments require pages in the NFL record book. The bottom line is he's first in touchdowns (208), pass receptions (1,549) and receiving yards (22,895), besides the most touchdowns in a single season (22) in 1987. Records are made to be broken, but Rice's and Smith's will take a while, if ever.
Smith, who led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles, retired after the 2004 season with the most carries (4,409), most rushing yards (18,355) and most rushing touchdowns (164). He also owns the most rushing touchdowns in the playoffs.
However, the remaining 13 finalists were all worthy candidates, all very much deserving of enshrinement in Canton, Ohio. It was the most difficult cutdown in my short history as a selector, especially with the logjam of receivers that eventually will be pounding on Canton's door, and I count tight end Shannon Sharpe in that group, considering he was a final 10 selection.
So was Buffalo's Andre Reed, who may have been the finest cold-weather receiver in the history of the game, considering the conditions he had to deal with, besides being Jim Kelly's main target on four straight Super Bowl teams.
Cris Carter and Tim Brown are also deserving of being in the Hall, but the modern-era candidates are limited to five selections, and this class is rich in history and I believe five dominant performers, although mainstream fans may not view Washington guard Russ Grimm and New Orleans linebacker Rickey Jackson as sexy picks. But they were great football players, as well as Minnesota defensive tackle John Randle, probably the most dominant inside pass rusher in the history of the game.
Let's talk about Randle. Brett Favre always said Randle was the toughest opponent he ever faced. He had 11 seasons of double-digit sacks and actually led the league with 15.5 in 1997 with the Vikings. He finished his 14-year career with 137.5 sacks, an amazing total for an interior lineman. Former Packers general manager Ron Wolf said his team couldn't block him, he was that dominant.
Yes, Randle painted his face and was a wild man on game days, but he was also a rags-to-riches story, coming from Texas A&I as an undrafted rookie and making himself into a six-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler. Now, there's debate whether he played the run as well as Seattle's Cortez Kennedy, another top 10 finalist, but there is no discounting his impact on the game.
This was Grimm's sixth year as a finalist, and what I can say is he was the best offensive lineman on the Hogs, one of the most famous offensive lines in NFL history. Why is that important? Well, the Redskins won three Super Bowls in Grimm's era, and they won with three different quarterbacks and three different running backs, but the Hogs were the one constant. Most top football men would say Grimm deserves to be mentioned with the great New England guard John Hannah as a dominant, physical inside blocker.
One must remember the NFC East during Grimm's days was a defensive-dominated division, and Grimm handled some of the best defensive linemen, including the Cowboys' Randy White. After a Redskins-Cowboys game, one said White looked like he went through a 10-round fight after finishing with Grimm.
Let me say this: The history of the NFL cannot be written without mentioning the Redskins and their offensive line, the Hogs. Grimm was that unit's leader, a man who was strong enough to play center and tackle, even able to block Lawrence Taylor when asked.
Jackson probably was the sleeper pick of the selectors. But any football historian would tell you if Jackson played in New York and not New Orleans, everybody would have known of his dominance.
Jackson, a strong-side outside linebacker, finished his career as a pass-rush specialist with the Super Bowl champion 49ers at the end of the 1995 season after a 13-year career with the Saints. He was such a ferocious tackler that he forced 40 fumbles while recovering 28, a figure that was No. 2 all-time when he retired. He finished with 128 sacks, including 9.5 in his final season with the 49ers.
With the Saints in tomorrow's Super Bowl, Jackson's selection will be an extra-special feeling for their fans.
The most emotional moment, though, was reserved for the two nominees from the seniors' committee, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and Broncos running back Floyd Little, who both waited over 30 years to be nominated and selected.
Little said he knew this was finally his year. "I wore No. 44, and so did Dick," Little said. "This is Super Bowl 44 and President Obama is our 44th president."
Yes, it was in the stars for those two.
Now, many will question Little and LeBeau's selections. But LeBeau did retire from the Detroit Lions with 62 interceptions, which ranked third in history at the time. He has been a coach for 37 years in the NFL, and you can bet his dedication to football meant a lot to the selectors despite LeBeau's entering as a player, not a coach-contributor to the game.
Little may have saved the Broncos in Denver. He went door-to-door trying to persuade voters to improve their stadium before the AFL-NFL merger, and if new taxes weren't approved, the Broncos, who have played in six Super Bowls, might have relocated. But as a running back, Little was the only great player on subpar teams, and many said his greatest runs were getting back to the line of scrimmage after being hit in the backfield. Little is the only runner on a last-place team to ever lead the NFL in rushing.