(Photos courtesy of Denver Broncos)
By Rick Gosselin
Talk of Fame Network
Legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes called Randy Gradishar, “the best defensive player I ever coached.”
Joe Collier, who spent 32 years coaching NFL defenses, called Gradishar, “the best player I’ve ever coached.”
Dan Reeves, who played with the Dallas Cowboys during the Doomsday Defense era and later spent 23 years as an NFL head coach with three franchises, called Gradishar, “as good a linebacker as I’ve ever been around — and I’ve been around some great ones.”
When Pro Football Weekly selected an all-time 3-4 defense, Gradishar was one of the four linebackers along with Hall-of-Famers Lawrence Taylor, Andre Tippett and Harry Carson.
Gradishar played only 10 seasons but went to seven Pro Bowls and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1978.
But Gradishar’s praise and productivity have fallen on deaf ears and blind eyes in Canton. It’s less than an hour drive from his hometown of Warren, Ohio, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame — but it’s taking Gradishar forever to get there.
Gradishar retired after the 1983 season at the top of his game, coming off his seventh Pro Bowl appearance. His choice. Few NFL players elect to leave on top as John Elway, Barry Sanders and Gradishar have done.
And the top of Gradishar’s game was impressive.
“We didn’t see Denver that often,” Chicago’s Hall-of-Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton said, “but it was fun watching game films of Gradishar. We’d kid Mike Singletary and say, `Look at that — Gradishar takes on a block, he doesn’t dance around it, Mike.’
“One time I asked Walter Payton who gave him the hardest shot in his career. He told me one name — Gradishar. He was well-respected in Chicago.”
The Broncos credited Gradishar with more than 2,000 tackles in his career. He was credited with five 200-tackle seasons. Those statistics are subjective. But his 20 career interceptions, 13 career fumbles and four career defensive touchdowns are not. Nor was his hitting ability.
Walter Payton wasn’t the only Hall-of-Fame back to respect Gradishar’s striking ability. Gradishar also left quite an impression on Tony Dorsett.
“I ran a pass pattern and was wide open but Danny White did not see me,” Dorsett said. “I go back to the huddle and tell Danny I’m wide open. I ran the same route again, but this time I was almost decapitated. My eyes were only partially open when I hit the ground. Trainers and doctors came running on the field. They thought I was dead. Hey, I thought I was dead, too.”
Gradishar never missed a game in his 10 seasons, starting 130 of 131 games over his final nine seasons. He was a three-down linebacker and the face of the Orange Crush defense that helped the Broncos reach the playoffs four times, win two AFC West titles and an AFC championship.
Gradishar has been a Hall-of-Fame finalist twice, in 2003 and 2008. But players are allowed a window of eligibility of 25 years for election as modern-era candidates. Gradishar has been eligible for 27 years, so his fate is now in the hands of the senior committee.
As a member of the Hall-of-Fame senior committee, I shake my head at the quality of candidates we consider every year. It boggles my mind that some of our recent nominees — Jack Butler, Les Richter, Dick LeBeau, Curley Culp, Chris Hanburger and, coming up in 2015, Mick Tingelhoff — had never been even finalists for the Hall of Fame. All were quickly ushered in when presented as senior candidates.
Gradishar deserves the same fate. I have no explanation why he slipped through the cracks during his window of eligibility in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. But, like so many senior candidates, I consider him a Hall of Famer without the bust and gold jacket.
Follow Rick Gosselin on Twitter at @RickGosselinDMN