Sunday, August 5, 2007

Pro Football Hall of Fame Ceremony Features Two Touching Moments

The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted six new members on Saturday: Gene Hickerson, Michael Irvin, Bruce Matthews, Charlie Sanders, Thurman Thomas and Roger Wehrli. Hickerson played his entire career for the Cleveland Browns, blocking for Hall of Fame running backs Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell. Irvin was the emotional leader of the Dallas Cowboys teams that won three Super Bowls in four years in the 1990s. Matthews played 19 years as an offensive lineman, never missed a game due to injury and not only played guard, center and tackle but also was a long-snapper, the emergency quarterback and the emergency kicker. Sanders earned seven Pro Bowl selections as a tight end, more than any other Hall of Famer at that position; it is hard to understand why such a decorated player had to wait more than 20 years to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. Thomas was an all-purpose running back on Buffalo teams that made it to four straight Super Bowls. Werhli was called the league's first "shut down" cornerback by Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach.

Each player's highlight films are full of heart stopping plays but what caught my eyes and ears were a couple heart rending moments during the ceremony. Hickerson became eligible for induction nearly 30 years ago but inexplicably and inexcusably was passed over for three decades. His health has deteriorated to the point that he is no longer able to deliver the acceptance speech, so his son Bob spoke on his behalf, concluding with these words: "So at this time I would ask all of you to please join me in welcoming Gene, who still is leading the way for Hall of Fame running backs Bobby Mitchell, Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly." Then, those three players guided Gene Hickerson's wheelchair on to the stage; Hickerson indeed still led the way, but now his running backs provided a timely push. It was a very touching moment but Gene Hickerson deserved to receive this honor when he was young enough and healthy enough to fully appreciate and acknowledge it. I wonder if the voters who denied him his just due for decades can sleep well at night with that image of the wheelchair-bound Hickerson in their minds; I certainly hope that it haunts them. It made me think of basketball legend Artis Gilmore. Hopefully, Gilmore will not have to wait as long to join the Hall of Fame as Hickerson did.

Irvin's speech came last. It is easy for people to mock his well documented legal troubles but, as ESPN's Tom Jackson put it after Irvin finished, Irvin spoke from the heart and laid himself bare emotionally. In case you missed it, here are the final paragraphs of his speech, words he delivered with tears pouring down his face:

You know the Bible speaks of a healing place. It's called a threshing floor. The threshing floor is where you take your greatest fear and you pray for help from your great God. I want to share something with you today. I have two sons. Michael, he's 10, and Elijah, he's 8. Michael and Elijah, could you guys stand up for me. That's my heart right there. That's my heart. When I am on that threshing floor, I pray. I say, God, I have my struggles and I made some bad decisions, but whatever you do, whatever you do, don't let me mess this up.

I say, Please, help me raise them for some young lady so that they can be a better husband than I. Help me raise them for their kids so that they could be a better father than I. And I tell you guys to always do the right thing so you can be a better role model than dad. I sat right here where you are last year and I watched the Class of 2006: Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Harry Carson, Rayfield Wright, John Madden, and the late great Reggie White represented by his wife Sara White. And I said, Wow, that's what a Hall of Famer is.

Certainly I am not that. I doubted I would ever have the chance to stand before you today. So when I returned home, I spoke with Michael and Elijah . I said, That's how you do it, son. You do it like they did it. Michael asked, he said, Dad, do you ever think we will be there? And I didn't know how to answer that. And it returned me to that threshing floor. This time I was voiceless, but my heart cried out. God, why must I go through so many peaks and valleys?

I wanted to stand in front of my boys and say, Do it like your dad, like any proud dad would want to. Why must I go through so much?

At that moment a voice came over me and said, Look up, get up, and don't ever give up. You tell everyone or anyone that has ever doubted, thought they did not measure up or wanted to quit, you tell them to look up, get up and don't ever give up.

Thank you and may God bless you.

Yes, Irvin has made mistakes but he has acknowledged them and he wants his sons to grow up to be better men than he is. Suddenly, one liners about Irvin don't seem quite so funny, do they?

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