CANTON, Ohio – Amid the tributes and the tears, one thing stood out: the chants.
On a Saturday when Troy Aikman easily had the most jerseys in the crowd, the fans' passion was reserved for the late Reggie White as they joined Warren Moon, John Madden, Rayfield Wright and Harry Carson in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When master of ceremonies Chris Berman introduced White's widow, Sara, and when White's son, Jeremy, presented his father, the fans chanted his name. It didn't matter if they were dressed in Packers or Eagles green — a collection of current Eagles, including Donovan McNabb, sat in the crowd wearing White's No. 92 — or even Cowboys, Giants or Oilers blue or Raiders black.
They all stood and cheered for the Minister of Defense, including Dallas' three-time Super Bowl champion quarterback.
"I too am saddened by the absence of Reggie White, a great player and a man who left us too soon," Aikman said in concluding the inductions. "It's an honor to be a member of the Hall of Fame class that includes five men I have so much admiration and respect for. They played the game the way it should be played, and John Madden coached the game the same way."
Jeremy and Sara White shared tears and a long hug after unveiling Reggie's bust before a rapt audience. An hour later, the usually unflappable Aikman's voice cracked as he explained his emotions:
"I was able to live a dream. I played professional football," he said. "That I was able to do so with so many great players and coaches and win three championships and wind up here — it is almost too much to believe. I am humbled to be welcomed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame."
White, who died in December 2004, was an ordained minister as well as an NFL superstar. White was a two-time defensive player of the year who made 13 straight Pro Bowls. He was the career sacks leader with 198 when he retired — Bruce Smith since has passed him — and won a Super Bowl with Green Bay in 1997 after starting his illustrious career in the USFL, then moving to Philadelphia.
"It's not how we die, it's how we live. I encourage you to live like Reggie lived.
"Reggie was not phony. Reggie stood for what he believed in. Whatever you believe in, you stand on your principles," his widow told the crowd. "We knew Reggie's history in football. His legacy will live on through you."
Aikman won 90 games in the 1990s, the most by any quarterback in one decade.The top overall pick in the 1989 draft, he guided the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles in four seasons, made six Pro Bowls and, as proof of his skill under pressure, had four 300-yard passing games in the playoffs, ranking third in NFL history.
He saved his strongest praise for his teammates, including NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith, who was in the audience and certainly will be on the stage for his own induction someday.
"I did what was asked to help the team win," he said, "and after a career of putting team goals first, it is so extremely gratifying to receive the highest individual honor a player can receive."
Earlier, Moon became the first black quarterback in the Hall, Madden brought comic relief and Carson made a pitch for more help for retired players and more diversity.
Moon is the only one of the six inductees not to win an NFL title. But he captured five straight Grey Cups for the Edmonton Eskimos after being undrafted out of the University of Washington.
"I was not really invited to the combine and no coaches came out to give me workouts," Moon said. "It was a foregone conclusion quarterback was not in my future in the NFL, but changing positions was. I was going to play quarterback and I was looking for somebody who would let me do that.
"Thank you Canada."
Moon came back to the United States as a free agent in 1984 and spent 10 seasons in the Houston Oilers' run-and-shoot offense. He also played for Minnesota, Seattle and Kansas City in 17 NFL seasons, passed for more than 70,000 yards (over 42 miles) and ranked fourth in TD passes, third in attempts, completions, yards passing and total offense when he retired at age 44.
"A lot has been said about me being the first African-American quarterback in the Hall of Fame," he said. "It's a subject I am uncomfortable with at times, because I want to be judged only as a quarterback.
"But significance does come with that, I accept that. I remember all the guys before me who blazed that trail to give me the inspiration. I always had that extra burden that I had the responsibility to play the game for my people. I carried that burden proudly."
It took nearly a quarter century for Madden to make it to the Canton shrine, and when the moment came Saturday, he got "goofy."
"I started thinking about this after I was voted to the Hall of Fame, and now I know," said Madden, elected by the senior committee for a coaching career in which he went 103-32-7, never had a losing season and won the 1977 Super Bowl. "At night, when the fans and visitors all leave, then the workers start to leave, then just one person turns out the light, locks the door, and I believe the busts talk to each other. And I can't wait for that conversation.
"We'll be there forever and ever talking about whatever. That's what I believe will happen and no one is ever going to talk me out of that."
Madden might be best known now for his announcing and his video game, but as his presenter, Raiders owner Al Davis, noted, Madden was 36-16-2 against other coaches in the Hall. Davis said he never doubted a 32-year-old Madden could handle the "Just Win Baby" legacy the team was building.
"He loved the game, his team, the Raiders, this league — and especially his players," Davis said. "At a time when our country needed it, John Madden saw no color."
Except the Raiders' Silver and Black.
Carson became the first inside linebacker from a 3-4 defense to make it to Canton. It was a long-awaited honor — he retired in 1988 after 13 seasons, nine Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl title with the New York Giants — that Carson recently had given up on.
Two years ago, after making the final 15 candidates for the sixth straight year but not being elected by a panel of sports writers, Carson asked to have his name withdrawn from consideration. It wasn't, and he finally made it this year.
"To represent all who preceded me and those who will come after me ... to know there is absolutely nothing beyond their reach," Carson said, explaining the meaning of being a Hall of Famer.
Carson gave his presenter, son Donald, a long hug before addressing the crowd. Donald Carson suffers from a rare blood disorder.
"This isn't about me, this is about my family," Carson said. "I am so thankful my son presented me this afternoon; he is definitely a man. He's been through so much in the last seven months, more than I could ever have gone through. I never knew needles could be so long."
Carson also called on the NFL and the players' union to upgrade its treatment of retired players and to continue "bringing a great sense of diversity" to the sport.
Wright also played 13 seasons, and won two Super Bowls in five appearances. He retired in 1979 and was chosen for the Hall by the seniors committee.
A former college basketball player expecting to play in the NBA, Wright was a tight end who was "stunned" when coach Tom Landry said he was being moved to tackle. Wright made his first start against Deacon Jones — only the most feared member of the Rams' Fearsome Foursome. Obviously, it didn't faze "Big Cat," who went on to make six consecutive Pro Bowls and help the Cowboys win 10 division titles.
Wright cited the poem "The Road Not Taken" for inspiring his career.
"Through this poem I discovered life would give me choices. It was recognizing those choices that proved to be the greatest challenge," he said in a teary speech. "My instinct was to always take the easy road, but the easy road never came my way.
"I'm privileged to be in such a stellar class."