|Pro Football Hall of Fame|
|Buffalo Bills rookie EJ Manuel poses with the Hall of Fame bust of his godfather (and franchise icon), Bruce Smith.|
CANTON, Ohio -- Standing behind a lectern, in front of a roomful of fresh faces two months away from their first NFL game, Pro Football Hall of Fame president Stephen Perry began his introduction as you might expect.
With the full attention of the incoming class of 2013 rookies, why not give them all the reason they'd need to pay close attention while touring these hallowed halls as part of this week's NFL Rookie Symposium?
"When you calculate the odds," Perry told them, "it's a pretty good bet that somebody sitting in one of these seats will someday return to Canton to be enshrined here."
But wait just a minute. Clearly, Perry must not have done his homework on this year's draft class. A Hall of Famer in this group? Doesn't Perry realize the most notable prospect in front of him, Manti Te'o, only became a household name because he was involved in a hoax worthy of its own kind of hall of fame?
As it turns out, Perry might be onto something.
Since 1936, which serves as the first draft class to have a player inducted in Canton, only four draft classes that no longer have an active player (1943, 1986, 1991, 1992) have been shut out of the Hall of Fame. And it stands to reason at least two of those classes will eventually wind up sending someone. (Brett Favre, for instance, was drafted in 1991).
So, yes, even as many have analyzed this year's draft class as a lackluster group filled with anonymity, the hope rightfully exists. It's what makes a trip like this one -- this is the second year the NFL has put its rookie symposium in Ohio, to include a visit to the Hall of Fame -- very much worth the effort.
"To be in the presence of all of these busts, it's special," said Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, whose godfather, Bruce Smith, is enshrined in the building. "It feels like ... this is ultimately where you want to get to. This is what you want to do with your NFL career. We've made it to the NFL, but we want to leave it as Hall of Famers. This is the ultimate accomplishment.
"And that's the beautiful part about it: We all want it. But only a select few elite get to it. Hopefully, I'll work toward it. Seeing Jim Kelly over there? That's awesome, man."
Three years ago, when Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin first suggested the league find a way to make sure incoming rookies saw the Hall of Fame, Irvin did so because he felt the young players needed to have more appreciation for the game's history. As Cleveland Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo perused a corner of the Hall of Fame, eyeing the busts of Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary, it became vividly clear that the efforts appear to be paying off.
"These are really good linebackers," said Mingo, noting it was his first time here. "They played the game the right way, and they were rewarded by being enshrined here. And that's the ultimate goal, to get to this place, to wind up between these walls, you know?
"Somebody that's here today -- hopefully it's me -- is going to have a bust up here one day. That's just incredible to think about."
It is, indeed, incredible to think about. As dozens of rookies toured through the halls in Canton, it felt almost like a game: Who is it going to be? Which man inside this building ultimately will find a home here forever? Will it be him over there? Or him? Maybe him?
Last year, as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III toured the Hall of Fame during the rookie symposium, it felt much more realistic to be able to tag someone as a future Hall of Famer. In reality, however, there are currently more undrafted free agents (15) in the Hall of Fame than there are No. 1 overall picks (13).
No doubt, the names of those undrafted players weren't well known prior to their rookie seasons, either.
"It's definitely been inspiring for me to see players in my organization, like Curtis Martin (a third-round pick, by the way, who was plagued by injuries most of his college career) and Joe Namath, who are part of this Hall of Fame," New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith said. "To see many records broken. It just gives me an opportunity to see what the NFL history is all about, in case I haven't noticed already.
"I just got a chance to see it, and it is inspiring."
So, who will it be? Will it be one of the first two picks, Eric Fisher or Luke Joeckel? Might it be someone like Jarvis Jones? Or maybe Mingo? Or Sharrif Floyd? Will Te'o or Smith put together a career that lives up to the significant attention received at this young point?
When the rookies first arrived at this week's symposium, vice president of player engagement Troy Vincent told the players to look to their left and to their right. He then reminded each of them that very soon, only half of the room will still be in the league. And that much is very true. It won't be easy to make a roster.
However, there's also an optimistic way of looking at the future of these young rookies, too -- even in a room of mostly anonymous players. Look left. Look right. Somewhere in that room, somewhere among the fresh faces that might otherwise be unknown to the casual fan, there's a Hall of Famer in the making.
Somewhere in that room, there's a player who will likely return to this Hall of Fame someday, only to look not at the bust of another man, but instead at the bust of himself.
"That's definitely inspiring," Joeckel said. "To get to this point, you've got to be great. And I think all of us want to be great. But we've got a lot of work to get to this point."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington