Buffalo Bills legend Andre Reed asked the Canton faithful on Saturday night, "Where would you rather be than right here, right now?"
Football rules the American sports landscape in the 21st century, largely due to the dramatic increase in casual fans over the past couple of decades. On the same night that 70,000 fans turned out for a Packers practice, though, the Pro Football Hall of Fame's enshrinement ceremony was our annual reminder that the NFL emerged from its early 20th-century dark ages on the strength of diehard supporters.
Seven men were enshrined in the Hall of Fame on Saturday: Derrick Brooks, Claude Humphrey, Aeneas Williams, Walter Jones, Ray Guy, Andre Reed and Michael Strahan. Here are the highlights from all of the speeches:
Brooks as a servant-leader
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks kicked off the proceedings by emphasizing the importance of "mental toughness." It's a theme running throughout a sport that started with coal miners and continues with an inordinate number of great players raised in the ghetto rather than air-conditioned SUVs. Brooks thanked his stepfather for "loving me enough" to "whip me in front of my fifth-grade glass" -- a lesson that shaped his life and career.
Another lesson Brooks learned, this time at Florida State: "Football is a bottom-line business. You either make the play or you don't."
The 2002 Bucs defense was the pinnacle of the Tampa 2 scheme that Tony Dungy learned in Pittsburgh, and Brooks was the quintessential weak-side linebacker. The foundation of that Super Bowl championship squad was laid in 1995, when Dungy called Warren Sapp and the rookie Brooks into his office and told them he expected them to be the "Mean" Joe Greene and Jack Ham of his defense. Less than a decade later, that mission was accomplished.
Chris Berman's introduction cited three separate "Man of the Year" awards for Brooks. That seems fitting for a legend who closed out his 24-minute acceptance speech with an emphasis on being a "servant-leader."
"Because humility, as I once learned, is not thinking less of yourself, but it's thinking of yourself less," Brooks explained. "And someone also taught me that most people will forgive what you say, some will forgive what you do, but no one will ever forget how you made them feel. And guys that played with me, ladies and gentlemen, as I go into this Hall of Fame, I want you guys to know that I will do my best to make the Hall of Fame better because God has blessed me to be a part of it."
Humphrey waited long enough
Former Atlanta Falcons pass rusher Claude Humphrey won the crowd over with a mix of humor and homespun charm.
"I waited 30 years for this moment," Humphrey started his speech. "So don't rush me guys, I'm gonna be here for a minute."
What followed could have passed for an afternoon on the porch with a beloved uncle or grandfather. Humphrey was purely himself, with no pretensions or airs.
On Humphrey's youngest daugher: "My baby girl, she came purely by accident. My wife and I ... We knew where babies come from!"
On his "wingman," grandson Archie Robinson, Jr.: "He is something to be admired. Every Sunday, we get up and go to early church service, so we can go back and get some chicken wings and go back to sleep."
On a college recruiter appearing at his doorstep: "We had a shotgun house. You can stand on the front porch and look out the back window. ... Our house was not the best. When it rained, we got out the buckets."
Humphrey meandered for 20 minutes before even mentioning his days with the Falcons and coach Jerry Glanville, whom he praised as "the best thing that happened to my career."
"Here's a guy who's leaving tickets for Elvis Presley, and Elvis is dead!" Humphrey exclaimed. "How much do I trust this guy?"
Humphrey and Glanville teamed up to lead the 1977 "Grits Blitz," the NFL's stingiest defense of the Super Bowl era.
Aeneas' intentional journey
Half-preacher, half-motivational speaker, Aeneas Williams' message was what you might expect from a Hall of Famer who began his football career as a walk-on at Southern University.
After concentrating on accounting for two years, Williams had a change of heart about football the week before his junior year started. As he put it, his career was "an intentional journey."
"And I wanted to address, because I've been hearing a whole lot of parents and even our beloved president, who I love and pray for, say that if he had boys, he doesn't know if heâd let them play football," Williams said. "But I want to say ... there are some things I learned (from) the game of football that I wouldn't change for the world. And, yes, there are some inherent dangers to playing football, but there are some distasteful elements in every assignment or every job that anybody tries to do."
After hearing one of his coaches cast doubt upon his NFL future due to 4.6 speed, Williams sought out a friend on the track team and clocked in at 4.3 by the time he left college.
"I didn't get bitter," Williams explained. "Some people build their whole life to prove people wrong. The goal is not to prove people wrong -- the goal is to reach your potential."
Drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the third round, Williams' career took off when Buddy Ryan allowed him to shadow top receivers around the field. "Much love to Revis Island," Williams quipped, "but it started with Aeneas Island."
The laughs continued when Williams tweaked Michael Irvin and the Cowboys. "You guys wouldn't have that beautiful stadium if we hadn't upset you in 1998, where I had to cover Michael Irvin -- if he went to the restroom, I had to go flush it!"
Williams saved his most meaningful thoughts for last, telling the crowd that "most people go to the grave full instead of empty." By the time he was finished, half the crowd was chanting, "Begin with the end in mind!" and the other half was responding, "Die empty!"
Jones honors Munoz
Of the 2014 inductees, Seattle Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones was the most dominant at the peak of his career.
Until he thanked backup Sean Locklear for holding down left tackle during August every year, it was easy to forget that Jones often skipped training camp under the franchise tag and still spent the season erasing all of the best pass rushers from Matt Hasselbeck's blindside.
Jones was a phenom from the outset. When he asked his high school coach what to think about his future prospects, the coach responded, "I think you're a million dollars walking around broke."
The first pure punter in Canton
"It's been long, long overdue," Ray Guy said. "But now the Hall of Fame has a complete team."
Presenter and former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden made it clear that Guy was "a football player that was a punter."
A college safety with 18 interceptions, Guy could play anything with a ball.
"I was a good athlete and could have been a Major League Baseball pitcher or an NBA basketball player," Guy said. "But I knew God had something special for me, and, eventually, one sport would stand out beyond the rest -- and it did. Playing in the NFL with the Raiders was my destiny."
It was refreshing to see that 19 punters made the trip to Canton to offer support for Guy, the first pure punter to be honored with a Hall of Fame bust.
Guy offered an anecdote of a lady who explained the biblical meaning of the No. 8 on his jersey as a "new beginning."
"If that's true, then I'd like my enshrinement and my No. 8 to represent a new beginning for punters into the Hall of Fame," Guy continued. "I hope I inspire young punters to achieve their dreams to one day play in the NFL, and, maybe even be elected into the Hall of Fame."
12 + 83 always equals six
Jim Kelly grabbed a pigskin and threw a pass to Andre Reed at the end of the former Buffalo Bills wide receiver's speech.
It was certainly fitting.
The thread running through Reed's speech was toughness. He acknowledged his fans in Allentown, Kutztown, Buffalo, Canton -- those "blue-collar towns that dot the road-map of an amazing journey."
"I saw things growing up no child should see," Reed said. "So sports became my safe haven, my shield, my guard ... Invincible, I felt. Indestructible, you know it. Fearful of nothing ... Any sport -- basketball, football, baseball -- it didn't matter. And they were important in my life. Not only for my development as a football player, but as a person."
If there was a spine-tingling moment Saturday night, it was Reed's tribute to his Bills teammates, highlighted by the importance of his "K-Gun" quarterback who was on hand despite battling cancer.
"The toughest individual I've ever met in my life is Jim Kelly, No. 12," No. 83 told the audience. "You're the reason why I'm standing here today. ... Every time I looked into your eyes in the huddle, I knew we could get it done. I knew we had a chance to win. Leadership, beyond reasonable doubt."
Reed offered one last promise for his Western New York fans: "Oh, yeah. And the Bills will stay in Buffalo, too."
The improbable Hall of Famer
Former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan was a natural in front of the Canton crowd and fellow Hall of Famers, much as one would expect from a television star. As NFL Media's Kimberly Jones pointed out, Strahan's speech was stirring enough to make Tom Coughlin laugh and Eli Manning cringe.
Nicknamed "BOB" by his brothers because he had "Booty-On-Back," Strahan went from a husky 13-year-old to setting the NFL's single-season sack record.
"My life is improbable. I am an absolutely improbable Hall of Famer," Strahan insisted. "I'm an improbable football player because I didn't grow up saying I'm going to do this."
Of all the improbable events, the one with the most lasting legacy might have been Super Bowl XLII -- or as Strahan called it, "David Tyree and his helmet."
"Again, it was improbable," Strahan said. "We couldn't beat an 18-0 team. We barely made it to the playoffs. It was improbable, but it wasn't impossible. So, not only did we win, we stomped them out!
"So life is about improbability."
On a night when the average speech went over the 30-minute mark, that was a sentiment shared by all seven Hall of Famers.