By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
They drew hand-made signs. They hoisted black-and-gold flags. They wore hats shaped like buses. And, of course, they waved their Terrible Towels.
Thousands and thousands of Terrible Towels.
For one evening, Canton, Ohio, was not just the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And for good reason: Saturday night’s induction was as much a celebration of former Steelers’ running back Jerome Bettis as it was the seven men who joined him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
With former teammates Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward looking on and an army of Steelers’ fans chanting his name, “The Bus” wrapped up a memorable celebration by saluting his family, his friends, “the best teammates you could ever have” and “the best football fans in the world.”
“We love you!” someone yelled.
“I love you, too,” Bettis responded.
But as much as this was a homecoming for Bettis, he gladly shared center stage with an unlikely guest – a 21-year-old who never played a down, isn’t going into the Hall and wasn’t supposed to address the audience. I’m talking about the remarkable Sydney Seau, daughter of linebacker Junior Seau, who delivered a poignant and moving response when asked what the evening would’ve meant to her Dad.
“You really saw the character of her father in her,”Bettis said before turning to Sydney.
“I want you to know,” he told her, “that your father exemplifies everything a Hall of Famer stands for. He was a better person than he was a football player. So rest in knowing his legacy will live on forever in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
On with the show.
That would be the decision makers at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who last week reversed their policy of not allowing families of deceased inductees to speak and let Sydney Seau address the NFL Network’s Steve Wyche on stage. Not only was it a compassionate move; it was a wise one. Without the Hall making an exception to its five-year rule, we wouldn’t have witnessed Seau through the eyes of his daughter … and for that we should all be grateful.
PROFILE IN COURAGE
Score another for Sydney Seau. More than once during her speech, she stopped, saying, “This is emotional.” Yet she fought through it with a marvelous and moving address – depicting her father more accurately and passionately than any video could, with heart-felt memories that moved Junior’s mother … her grandmother … to tears. Heck, we all fought back tears when Sydney said, “I want nothing more than to see you come on stage and give me a hug one more time.” If you think that was tough to hear, imagine how difficult it was to say. “I couldn’t be more proud of the player he was and the person he became,” Sydney said. Nor would he more proud of the person his daughter became.
The night’s star attraction, Jerome Bettis
BEST “BUS” STORY
There were plenty of good ones, but on night fraught with emotion I’ll go with the memory of Bettis’ late father. “He was the strongest man I will ever know,” said Bettis. “And it’s because of him that I am here. When my father sent me off to college he told me one thing. He said, ‘Son, I’m sending you off to school. I don’t have much to give you, but I have a good name. So don’t mess it up.’ So, Dad, I hope I made you proud.”
LET’S HEAR IT FOR BREVITY
With last year’s Hall-of-Fame induction running nearly five hours, and most speeches in the 20-to-30-minute range, there was a conscious move to speed up this year’s program by making remarks by the Class of 2015 shorter … and mission accomplished. Only three speeches lasted longer than 12 minutes, though two of the last three – Tim Brown and Bettis – exceeded 30 minutes, making it a Notre Dame filibuster. Its two alums outlasted the field by 20 minutes.
Ron Wolf was the first inductee, and he set the tone by checking in at 6:42 with his remarks and getting off a good line when he said he graduated 103rd in his high-school class of 83. “That was great,” said emcee Chris Berman. I’m not sure if he was talking about the text of Wolf’s remarks or the length. Either way, Wolf aced the exam. “My father used to say, I love a good speaker,” said Wolf, “I really do. Not one who’s polished; one who’s through.”
CLOCKING THE SPEECHES
Ron Wolf — 6:42
Charles Haley – 11:42
Mick Tingelhoff (Frank Tarkenton, as speaker) – 1:07
Will Shields – 8:21
Bill Polian – 16:56
Tim Brown – 31:27
Jerome Bettis – 33:21
Hall of Famer and story teller Charles Haley
Charles Haley, come on down. Recalling how then-49ers’ owner Eddie DeBartolo once took him to Pebble Beach to play golf, he also recalled driving his golf cart on to the green. Not so surprisingly, that didn’t go over well with a bystander who told him to move it. “Eddie, Ronnie (Lott) and Joe (Montana) were laughing at me,” Haley said. So they go to the next hole … where, of course, Haley does the same thing. “And I thought: If this guy comes and opens his mouth again I’m going to knock him out,” he said. Well, he did … open his mouth, that is, screaming, “You can’t drive up on the green!” “Hey,” Haley shot back, “all this shit is green!”
BEST ANECDOTE II
Before Haley took the stage, DeBartolo presented him in a video where he recalled a Monday Night game where Haley was penalized and ejected. Concerned for his player, DeBartolo left his owner’s box and hurried down to the 49ers’ locker room to see if Haley was OK. As he turned a corner, he said, he found Haley seated on a bench. “Oh, my God, Mr. D.,” he said, looking up. “Did they eject you, too?”
BEST ANECDOTE III
Tim Brown admitted that he went to Notre Dame not to become a football player but to gain an education. Of course, he did both, but he remembered how he started his career there – and so, in all likelihood, do most Irish fans. He fumbled the ball the first time he touched it, which would have been on an opening kickoff. No problem. Brown said he shook it off by telling people, “I told you I came here for the education.”
PROOF THAT SHORT SPEECHES CAN BE MEMORABLE SPEECHES
Hall-of-Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton not only presented Mick Tingelhoff, his best friend and center with the Vikings; he spoke for him, too, in a moving address that lasted barely over a minute. But ask anyone who heard it. They’ll never forget it. With Tingelhoff standing to his left, Tarkenton marveled at how patient his teammate was waiting for an honor that, frankly, was long overdue. “He waited 37 years to get to the Hall of Fame,” he said, his voice cracking before he broke down. His comments drew a standing ovation. “For me,” said ESPN’s Tom Jackson, “that was the moment that touched me the most.”
EARLY CAMPAIGNING FOR 2016
Haley started it when he made a pitch for DeBartolo, who’s been a Hall-of-Fame finalist three times. “You think about the Hall of Fame, you think about winning,” Haley said. “If the standard is winning why is he not here? I pray that Mr. D. is in the Hall of Fame sooner rather than later.” He may get his wish. DeBartolo is a candidate for this year’s one nomination from the contributor category.
EARLY CAMPAIGNING FOR 2016, PART DEUX
Bill Polian put in a plug for former Tampa Bay and Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who’s been a finalist the past two seasons and has a chance to make it in 2016. Calling him “America’s coach,” Polian said that Dungy “did the unthinkable; the un-doable” when the two were together with the Colts. “He cleaned up my vocabulary.”
Hall-of-Fame inductee Bill Polian
THANKS FOR REMEMBERING
Polian did an exceptional job of remembering persons you wouldn’t expect – starting with Hall-of-Fame selectors Sal Paolantonio and Vic Carucci, both of whom presented him to the board in February and who, Polian said, he’d make “honorary Irishmen for a day.” But he didn’t stop there. He also mentioned secretaries, scouts, equipment guys and former NFL personnel chief Joel Bussert, who retired this spring. “We would not have succeeded and would not be here without these valued colleagues and friends,” said Polian. Nor would they have succeeded without the support of Bills’ fans, whom Polian didn’t forget, either. “You were truly the wind beneath our wings,” he said.
THANKS FOR REMEMBERING, PART TWO
When Bettis acknowledged his former Pittsburgh teammates, he rightly singled out quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose last-minute tackle in the 2005 AFC playoffs not only saved a 21-18 victory but a Super Bowl, too … and maybe, just maybe, a Hall-of-Fame spot, for Bettis. It was the divisional game in Indianapolis, and the Steelers were this close to closing out the AFC favorites when Bettis fumbled near the goal line, and cornerback Nick Harper returned the ball the other direction. He would’ve covered the entire field and clinched an improbable victory had Roethlisberger not chased him down and made a miraculous game-saving tackle. Yes, the Colts had a chance to tie it and send the contest into overtime, but, no, Mike Vanderjagt didn’t convert. Pittsburgh went on to beat Denver the next weekend and Seattle in the Super Bowl, Bettis’ last game. “Brother,” Bettis said, addressing Roethlisberger, “without you saving that tackle I still might be on the doorstep. I owe you my life.”
THEY SAID IT
“In my opinion, that was probably the biggest mistake I ever made as an owner. He changed the landscape of the competition.” – Eddie DeBartolo on Charles Haley.
“I never knew Mick Tingelhoff to have a bad day.” – quarterback Fran Tarkenton.
“This game has given me far more than I’ve given it.” – Bill Polian.
“I feel as if everything he did in his career was to make the ones he loved most proud.” – Sydney Seau on her father.
“Jerome is the type of guy you want to play with him and for him.” – John Bettis on brother Jerome.
“I want people to remember that greatness is not a ports term it’s a life term.” – Jerome Bettis.
DID YOU KNOW …
Half of the eight inductees didn’t win championships. Until Saturday, 68 percent of those in the Hall had.
There are 16 undrafted players in the Hall of Fame, with Mick Tingelhoff the latest.
Between Mick Tingelhoff and Will Shields, there are 31 seasons of games that were never, ever, ever missed. Tingelhoff started all 17 seasons of his career; Shields started all but one game in his 14 years but played in all of them.
Three of Saturday’s inductees are former Walter Payton Award winners.
Only nine Heisman Trophy winners are in the Hall of Fame. Tim Brown is the first Heisman wide receiver.
Brown was 4-25-1 in his high-school career.