A bucket list – everyone has one even if you’ve never really verbalized it. I checked a big one in visiting the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton.
It was coincidental, but that much more special as a Buffalo Bills’ fan that the greatest receiver in Bills’ history happened to be part of this year’s class. Andre Reed was a significant contributor and beneficiary of the K-gun offense that made the Bills’ offenses of the early 1990s so prolific and he had waited a long time to join fellow inductees from those teams – Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, James Lofton, and Thurman Thomas – in the HOF.
It was an honor to be there to finally see him receive that distinction.
I should have made the journey five years ago when Bruce Smith was inducted. Smith, the league’s all-time leader in total sacks, was and still is my favorite Bill simply for the ferocity with which he attacked the game. Supporting Reed during his own entry into the Hall would have to suffice as a mea culpa to Smith.
Upon arriving in Canton, I spent the majority of Saturday in the Hall itself prior to the ceremony.
If you love the history of the game and can spend hours absorbing every little tidbit about its players, founders, and evolution then being in the Hall of Fame is like being a kid in a candy factory – and if that was the case I consumed an awful lot of sugar that day.
Because I went during the HOF weekend the place was packed and I spent nearly an hour in line just to enter the gallery that houses the players’ busts. We were entertained by the hall’s guides that were giving away trading guards for correctly answering trivia about the NFL’s history as we waited.
Who knew that men’s heads could be so fascinating? But the Hall itself was just the precursor to that night’s ceremonies.
I’m not a movie buff and I don’t watch much television outside of sports so I’m not overly familiar (or excited by) with many ‘celebrities’ in the classic sense of the word. But put me in the same vicinity as some of the world’s best professional athletes and I have to admit it’s exhilarating.
My father and I spent nearly an hour next to the NFL Network stage that at any one time held legendary players such as Michael Irvin, Lawrence Taylor, Deion Sanders, Marshall Faulk, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, and Simeon Rice. But no one received the reception that former Bills’ and HOF quarterback Jim Kelly did. Kelly would draw the largest crowd and biggest cheers and show of support as he continues to battle cancer.
To see Kelly in person is tough – it is staggering the amount of weight he has loss and how fragile he looks. But his positive attitude and interactions with his many fans are a stark contrast to his outward appearance.
With Canton being a mere three-hour drive from Buffalo and with Bills’ fans being as supportive of their own as any of the top franchises, Bills fans showed up in droves and probably made up nearly 75 percent of the crowd in attendance.
Outside of Buffalo, I have never seen that many Bills’ fans in one place and am used to being the lone Bills’ fan wherever I go. But this weekend, was different and that was a great feeling. And Bills’ fans clearly love Kelly – a man who has supported the Buffalo community long after his playing days were done.
Prior to the induction of this year’s class emcee, Chris Berman, listed each of the nearly 100 HOF alumni in attendance and when he reached Kelly, the Bills’ great would receive two standing ovations which visibly moved Kelly and Berman alike.
Usually not one who is prone to emotion, the scene was one of many involving Kelly that would belie my normal calm demeanor that night.
The speeches themselves were not brief and later, among talking heads, that would spark debate about whether the speeches needed to be more carefully regulated to keep the ceremony on a reasonable pace. But as Claude Humphrey, the former defensive lineman for the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles, said he had waited 30 years for this moment and he wasn’t going to be rushed.
At times, it seemed like Humphrey and Derrick Brooks before him would see fit to thank every single person they had come in contact with during their football journey, and while I admit I, along with many others in the crowd grew restless, it is their night and as such is theirs to savor with their loved ones and teammates in the way they choose to.
Besides if some in the crowd were bored they could have always made their way out to the concourse where some fans devolved into a screaming mass when the famous R&B singer, Usher, arrived to view the latter part of the ceremony.
Apparently, Usher takes precedence over some of the greatest athletes ever to play the game – to each his own.
Aeneas Williams, former defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams, made things a bit more interesting with his passionate speech that reminded the crowd of the pastor that he has become.
One of the greatest offensive tackles of all time, Walter Jones, was eloquent with a touch of humor sprinkled in that quickly drew the crowd in. But that congregation of fans seemed to be there specifically for Andre Reed and the entertainment value of Michael Strahan which is probably why they were both placed at the end of the ceremony to make sure that the crowd would stay to the last inductee.
Reed was deliberate in his speech and talked at great length about his relationship with his father. He spoke with a bit of an edge to him and you were always aware of the fact that he did not agree with those that made him wait nine long years to enter the Hall.
But his most touching moments were his time speaking about Kelly which again drew in the crowd more than at any other time that night. Kelly seems to be the inspiration for many now and the catchphrase ‘Kelly Tough’ has made its way around the social media an internet circuit like wildfire.
The toss that he and Reed exchanged at the conclusion of Reed’s remarks was cheered as loudly as if it was the game winning pass in the Super Bowl – the victory that eluded the Bills all those years before.
It was not contrived or staged – it was genuine and a representation of the relationship among Bills’ players and their fans during that era.
I wonder if some, like me, were pondering if the Bills would ever find another quarterback as essential to the franchise as Kelly. One can hope that EJ Manuel and Sammy Watkins display half the chemistry and connection that Kelly and Reed did.
I was anticipating that Reed would speak on the Bills’ sale situation and he did not disappoint. Reed has been vocal in recent months about the need to keep the team in Buffalo and to say he is not the biggest fan of Jon Bon Jovi now would be an immense understatement.
Reed would again have us all on our feet when he stated with a conviction, leaving little room for argument, which the Bills would be staying in Buffalo.
The sentiment must have resonated because the next day the Buffalo News would print an open letter from Bon Jovi, who up until now has remained silent on his attempts to buy the team, asserting that he would do everything he could to make the “Bills successful in Buffalo.”
As noted by the Bills Fan Alliance the letter still does not represent a firm commitment to keeping the team in Buffalo. Robert Irsay did the same with the Baltimore Colts community….right up until the night he loaded the team’s offices and equipment to be moved to Indianapolis in the dead of night to avoid the wrath of Baltimore fans.
But for this weekend Bills’ fans could revel in the faith of the team’s former players that the team will remain theirs. And by the hundreds that sported ‘No To Bon Jovi’ t-shirts its clear the singer will not be welcome in Buffalo anytime soon.
Though not a New York Giants’ fan it’s hard not to appreciate the entertainment value of former defensive end Michael Strahan and his engaging personality.
Though closing in on the event’s fifth hour by the time Strahan was introduced his self-deprecation and funny stories had the entire audience (at least those that had not exited following Reed’s speech) engrossed.
It was clear the respect he has for former coach Tom Coughlin and teammates such as Eli Manning – playing his part of the unemotional quarterback to perfection – and it was also obvious that he recognized and was grateful to the doors the game had opened for him.
Some would say that Strahan has a bit too much media exposure at this point but he’s enjoyable to listen to and always comes across as unpretentious and likable. It was a fitting way to wrap up a long day and night.
The NFL is almost certainly acknowledged as a major business in this country now. And as such, especially after all the controversy surrounding concussions, player safety, off the field incidents, and the power of commissioner Roger Goodell, many view it a bit cynically as a money-making machine with no concern for the men that are the very foundation for the product it is offering.
But the Hall of Fame weekend is very much about the players themselves and their own personal journeys within the sport, and for a brief three-day period the league was once again humanized.
Ultimately, that may be the true meaning of the game of football – one that often gets lost in the corporate entity that is the NFL. Really it’s all about the players and their connections to the fans.
The league would do well to remember that core tenet as it continues to grow its coffers.