With the Pro Football Hall of Fame's supersized 2021 Enshrinement Weekend in the books, Around the NFL's Nick Shook takes you behind the scenes at one of the most unique celebrations in NFL history.
Friday: Enshrinees' Gold Jacket Dinner
Who wore what? The gold jacket was the prime and prestigious piece of attire around which Friday night's event was built, but what became even more interesting is how the Hall of Famers chose to pair it with the rest of their outfits.
Thurman Thomas wore a white Hall of Fame polo shirt and paired it with white Vans. Orlando Pace complemented his jacket with a pair of Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2s in a striped, black-and-white color scheme known among sneakerheads as the "Zebra." Donnie Shell made sure to show his Steelers pride by wearing yellow, black and white Air Jordan 1 lows, which he showed off on stage after receiving his gold jacket. And Emmitt Smith arrived in sunglasses and a pair of white sneakers with black patent leather running along the side.
If there was a contest for the best-dressed Hall of Famer on Friday, Curtis Martin would've been the runaway winner. The five-time Pro Bowler was fit for the finest of events, wearing a black bowtie, black dress slacks, appropriately pristine footwear and a vest that matched his gold jacket.
Beverage stop for a former Buc. John Lynch was among the last of the 18 Hall of Famers on hand to receive their gold jackets, meaning he had a bit of time to retreat to the McKinley Room. Lynch jumped at the chance to ease his nerves, heading to the left of the stage and turning back to inform a concerned attendee of his destination with a simple message: "I need a beer!"
The man who represents football immortality. After receiving his gold jacket, Jimmy Johnson recalled the stunning moment in which he learned he was headed to Canton.
"As soon as you see (Hall of Fame President) Dave Baker, you know what's gonna happen," Johnson explained. "You can't miss him!"
Teammates reunite in Canton. A reunion of sorts began at Isaac Bruce's table, where former teammate Orlando Pace engaged him in conversation. Shortly thereafter, a player who spent a Hall of Fame career attempting to ruin many an offensive dream joined them: defensive end Charles Haley.
Pace had an ally in fellow Rams legend Jackie Slater for much of the cocktail hour (or hours, seeing as the event lasted well over 90 minutes), with the two former tackles sharing stories and laughs. They were later joined by another Hall of Fame lineman who spent part of his career in Los Angeles, but never with the Rams: Vikings and Broncos tackle Gary Zimmerman, who began his professional career in L.A. with the USFL's Los Angeles Express. Zimmerman spent a moment educating Pace on his own experiences in Los Angeles while NFL Network's Rich Eisen stood at stage right across the Civic Center preparing to emcee the night's proceedings.
Drinks on the house? A night of celebration shared by returning Hall of Famers and their new fraternity brothers began in the McKinley Room at the Canton Civic Center. A full spread of hors d'oeuvres covered a long table along one of the walls of the room, while a bar in the corner offered a selection of beer, wine and spirits for the attendees' enjoyment. Among the selections was a vodka brand partially owned by Hall of Famer Ty Law, who arrived wearing his gold jacket and a hat bearing the company's logo.
Law did not hide his ambition when conversing with attendees.
"If you get a vodka drink, that's me," Law said, selling the official vodka of the Pro Football Hall of Fame with nearly every interaction. "Forget Grey Goose. V-One."
Another Manning audibles. Peyton Manning's career spawned countless stories and a singular bronze statue outside of the Colts' home of Lucas Oil Stadium, but his son, Marshall Williams Manning, gave his dad a run for his money when it came to excellence in another department. While Peyton roamed about the event, Marshall worked his way through the large gathering collecting as many John Hancocks as he could on a white HOF football. A large signature featured prominently on the right side of the autograph-covered ball: Centennial Class enshrinee Cliff Harris.
The Immaculate Franco Harris. Roger Staubach camped out near the bar, sharing a prolonged conversation with Hall of Fame kicker Morten Andersen. Nearby, Franco Harris met and chatted with a host of attendees, claiming a space near a pillar as his own as a handful of guests, including 2021 enshrinee and fellow Steelers hero Alan Faneca, made their rounds and stopped to converse with the legendary Steelers back.
A member of late enshrinee George Young's party moseyed over near Harris and exclaimed at Harris' seemingly ageless appearance.
"He looks incredible!" said the man wearing a Hall of Fame hat bearing Young's name on the side. "He found the Fountain of Youth. I need to ask him where it's at."
Go Blue! The last of the enshrinees to receive his gold jacket on Friday was University of Michigan hero and Packers and Raiders legend Charles Woodson. NFL Network's Rich Eisen, a fellow Michigan man himself, leaned into the microphone to express his appreciation.
"I love you, Charles Woodson," Eisen said.
The beloved "Boomer." Longtime ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman greeted multiple Hall of Famers with the same line: "Hello, young man." Berman is clearly adored by the gold jacket-wearing men, with Ty Law best exemplifying the widespread admiration: "Chris Berman! What up, baby?!"
Bruce and Buck share a moment. Isaac Bruce received his gold jacket early in the Friday event, and a fellow St. Louis hero didn't wait long to personally celebrate him.
As Bruce stood on the Civic Center stage wearing his new gold jacket, top FOX broadcaster and 2020 Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award winner Joe Buck leapt from his front-row seat, strode up to the front of the stage and shook hands with Bruce, congratulating him on the achievement of a lifetime. Buck received his own recognition later in the program via a video narrated by actor Paul Rudd.
Rudd wasn't the only non-NFL celebrity honoring Buck's accomplishment -- renowned restauranteur and television presenter Guy Fieri was also in attendance. Fieri exited the seating area to the left of the stage, and when asked by fans to name his favorite individual from the event, Fieri replied with a grin, "I'm a Joe Buck fan."
Baker lends a helping hand. A beautiful moment occurred during a frenzy of sorts near the end of the Gold Jacket Dinner. Centennial Class enshrinee Tom Flores was helped from his wheelchair to accept his jacket, and when it came time to assist him back into his chair, a famously massive man was there to lend a hand. Hall of Fame President David Baker stepped toward Flores and graciously assisted him into his chair before lifting Flores' legs back onto the footrests. Known by many as a giant, the 6-foot-9 Baker added gentle to his title while embodying a couple of the Hall's core values: honoring the heroes of the game and protecting their legacies.
Saturday: Enshrinement of the Centennial Class of 2020
Steelers supporters storm Canton. Troy Polamalu was unable to attend Friday's Gold Jacket Dinner after testing positive for COVID-19, but the dynamic Steelers safety was medically cleared in time to make his speech Saturday night. It produced an incredible moment of television and football history. ESPN's Chris Berman aptly previewed the All-Pro's appearance with a simple directive.
"You brought 'em; it's time to use 'em!" he said of the Pittsburgh fans' Terrible Towels.
A Steelers diehard dressed in full uniform -- pants with pads, a No. 43 Polamalu jersey and a Steelers hat made to look like a helmet complete with a Polamalu-like mane -- stood among the field seats and waved a flag-sized Terrible Towel. Hundreds more in attendance rose from their seats to wave their own towels. Pittsburgh turned Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium into Heinz Field, and their portion of the night was about to begin.
Polamalu stepped to the podium to the roar of thousands of appreciative Steelers fans. In the midst of his speech, he paused to let his hair down. The crowd exploded with cheers, with NFL Network cameras capturing Polamalu's profile in the same shot as his lifelike bronze statue.
Gold Jacket trumps college bad blood. Michigan great and Centennial Class enshrinee Steve Hutchinson pointed to the irony in accepting his greatest achievement in enemy territory.
"If you would've told me prior to my graduation from the University of Michigan that I would be excited about standing in the middle of Ohio in August, I would've said you were crazy," Hutchinson said. "But that is exactly the case. My college coach, Lloyd Carr, used to ask us, 'Where would you rather be?' Well, coach, my answer is nowhere, because as far as I'm concerned, there's not a better place on Earth than Canton, Ohio, today."
Remembering Sweetness. Jimbo Covert couldn't mention the Bears without recalling the most legendary of them, the late Walter Payton. Covert did his best impression of Payton's voice when recalling one special game-day story: "He had that Michael Jackson voice, and he'd lean in and say 'Good morning, sunshine! Time to kick some ass!' "
Steeler legend shows love for a rival. During his acceptance speech, Bill Cowher thanked the teammates he played with in Cleveland, which unsurprisingly drew boos from the many Pittsburgh fans in attendance. Cowher reminded them of where they were, and the location's significance.
"No, no, no, don't go there -- I've got two kids who were born in Cleveland," the Super Bowl-winning coach said with a smile.
Sunday: Enshrinement of the Class of 2021
The Football Gods answer the call. Akron/Canton-area residents might remember 2021 Enshrinement Week most for its abnormally consistent stretch of good weather. In a region known for unpredictable climate, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and surrounding areas enjoyed picture-perfect -- albeit, humid -- weather for all of the festivities, with temperatures nearing 90 and nary a cloud in sight for much of the week.
Peyton leaves Sunday with another W. When approaching the stadium on the final day of Enshrinement Weekend, it became unmistakably clear that Sunday was Peyton Manning's day. Waves of Colts and Broncos jerseys descended from the parking lots to the Hall, replacing the sea of black and gold from the previous nights and partaking in a celebration greater than any that followed Manning's 539 career passing touchdowns.
"The wait is over!" Drew Pearson's long journey to the Hall was not lost on him when he began his speech Sunday evening.
"This confirms it, the wait is over! Over! How about that? The original No. 88 being presented for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame by my Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach. Wow!"
Pearson was incredibly appreciative and absolutely elated to finally be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He thanked many, including Hall of Fame coach and tight end Mike Ditka, his first receivers coach in Dallas.
"Mike was an All-Pro tight end, which meant he taught me nothing about running pass routes as a wide receiver!" Pearson joked, going on to thank Ditka for teaching him how to be a professional.
Time well spent. Tom Flores is another member of the 2021 class who waited quite some time for his Canton call, which means he had plenty of it to come up with a good joke to open his speech.
"The reason I'm second on the program is I'm 84 flippin' years old," Flores quipped. "I've got to go to bed at 9 o'clock. Where's my pillow?!"