CANTON– Imagine being in the greatest fraternity in sports and being able to have a reunion every year in the Valhalla of football.
That’s quite simply what it’s like in Canton each year as more than 80 Hall of Famers come back to greet each other as well as welcome this year’s enshrinees to their special group.
As an observer and reporter, it’s a privilege to be with them and just watch as they welcome each other with open arms.
The Thursday evening Trustee’s Reception, held this year at the Hall’s new Event Center, kicks off the long weekend and is laid back and informal.
It’s like being a kid in a candy store, and it never gets old even as I am here for the 24th time.
There is Gale Sayers chatting with Lem Barney. Roger Wehrli with Jackie Smith. The greatness in the room can’t be overstated. Bob Griese. James Lofton. Elvin Bethea. John Randle. Randall McDaniel. Gary Zimmerman. Warren Moon. Carl Eller. Joe DeLamielleure. Lynn Swann. Dave Wilcox. Billy Shaw. Tom Mack. Mel Renfro. Jan Stenerud.
See what I mean? Bob St. Clair. Ted Hendricks. Fred Biletnikoff. Willie Lanier. Bobby Bell. Bob Lilly. Forrest Gregg. Jim Taylor. Lenny Moore (class of 1975). Charley Trippi (1968).
I probably missed some. The Hall also invites wives of deceased members. There is Sylvia Mackey, wife of John Mackey, who died last year. Linda Brown, the wife of the legendary coach and owner Paul Brown.
They all will have another whirlwind weekend, although they all say how great it is to come back after being almost overwhelmed in the year of enshrinement.
“You really appreciate it when you come back,” Lofton tells me.
Friday, there is a special luncheon where the Hall of Famers tell this year’s group just how special this is. Then, a dinner Friday night where they receive their gold jacket for the first time, then have it
taken away to be dry-cleaned and to make sure no spills occur before the ceremony 24 hours later.
The parade Saturday morning is especially eye-opening.
“I’ll never forget that,” says Wehrli, who was enshrined five years ago. “Here’s all these people screaming at me and cheering, and they probably had no idea who I was!”
There are 273 immortals in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including this year’s class of Jack Butler, Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman, Cortez Kennedy, Curtis Martin and Willie Roaf.
Of the 273, a total of 115 are deceased, leaving 158 living Hall of Famers. To think that more than half make sure to be part of the festivities shows what it means to them.
Just to be in their company is like living a dream.