DALLAS – Three of the NFL's top 10 career rushers and one of its most dynamic cornerbacks lead a star-studded group of candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Curtis Martin, Jerome Bettis and Marshall Faulk are the running backs eligible for the first time for induction into the Canton, Ohio, hall. Defensive back Deion Sanders also is a first-time contender, along with tackle Willie Roaf.
It's quite a collection for voters to consider Saturday — and those are just the players who reached eligibility this year.
Holdovers include wide receivers Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed; tight end Shannon Sharpe; center Dermontti Dawson; defensive ends Richard Dent, Chris Doleman and Charles Haley; defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy; senior nominees Chris Hanburger and Les Richter, both linebackers; and NFL Films founder Ed Sabol as a contributor.
At least four and a maximum of seven nominees can be elected. If six or seven make it, two must be senior nominees.
Sanders won two Super Bowls and was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1994. He had 53 career interceptions and also was an outstanding kick returner. In his 14 NFL seasons, Sanders scored 18 touchdowns on returns, and he also played some wide receiver.
"I didn't play the game to go to the Hall of Fame," Sanders said. "That's not the way I thought. I played the game so I could take care of my mama for the rest of her life.
"You play the game because you enjoy the game. You play the game because of what it brings to you and your emotions."
Sanders was an emotional player known almost as much for his celebratory dances as his play.
"I think people on the outside, they get caught up in that persona of "Prime Time,' and they forget that Deion Sanders is a (terrific) football player and did a lot of things in this league," former Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "I think Deion did a good job of bringing fun back to the NFL."
Sanders is willing to campaign for someone: Faulk.
"I hope and I pray that if I'm blessed enough to go into the hall, then I want to go in there holding his hand," Sanders said. "I love him that much as a friend. He's that kind of a guy."
In Faulk's 12 seasons, he won a championship in 1999 with St. Louis, was the league's MVP the next year, and, perhaps most impressive, took Offensive Player of the Year honors in 1999, 2000 and 2001. He ranks 10th in career rushing with 12,279 yards and was the first player to gain 2,000 total yards in four straight seasons.
Martin ranks fourth in career rushing with 14,101 yards and had an amazing 10 straight 1,000-yard years. He led the NFL in rushing in 2004 and was the heart of the New York Jets for eight years after three seasons with New England in which Martin won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1995 — one season after Faulk won it.
"For me, the thing that I'm most pleased with is to be able to retire with a good name," Martin said, "a name that hopefully can be associated with good character, humility, a leader, a hard worker, someone who endured, those types of intangible things. Those are the things I'd like to be associated with and those are the things I'm most proud of."
Bettis finished right behind Martin with 13,662 yards and won a Super Bowl in 2006 with Pittsburgh in his hometown of Detroit, then retired. Nicknamed "The Bus," Bettis was one of the NFL's better short-yardage runners.
Roaf was among the best offensive tackles in football for much of his 13-year career, nine seasons with New Orleans and four with Kansas City. Roaf made 11 Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro four times.
One holdover getting support from a Hall of Famer is Sharpe.
"He was just a guy that, to me, as a tight end, kind of revolutionized that position," John Elway said. "He's a better blocker than people say he is. And then in the passing game, we had such great matchups with him. In the NFL, where everything matters so much about matchups, Sharpe was a nightmare matchup for any team he played."
AP National Writer Eddie Pells and Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins in Dallas contributed to this story.