Before the first ball is kicked in the 2021/22 NFL season traditionally there is first the Hall of Fame Game, played at the birthplace of professional football in Canton, Ohio. The Tom Benson Hall of Fame stadium will play host to not only this fixture but the much wider celebrations that annually see legends of the sport inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This year's is slightly different to most with the effects of Covid-19 leading to the cancellation of last year's ceremony, the 2020 Hall of Fame inductees will share their weekend with the class of 2021, however one tradition that will not change is the fixture and this game sees the Dallas Cowboys take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday August 5 (1am kickoff on Friday August 6 in the UK). It will kick off a weekend that will live long in the memory of those about to enter the Hall.
Team selections for this game tend to centre around who is being inducted into the Hall of Fame and which fan base is most likely to be in attendance in Ohio. With the festivities cancelled in 2020 due to Covid 19, Saturday August 7 will see three Steelers legends enshrined in the Class of 2020 in head coach Bill Cowher and defensive backs Donnie Shell and Troy Polamalu. A day later, offensive lineman Alan Faneca and personnel guru Bill Nunn will be enshrined as the Class of 2021. Dallas fans can also celebrate the 2021 induction of legendary wide receiver Drew Pearson
What to look out for in the 2021 Hall of Fame Game
Sightings of veteran stars would be brief and extremely rare this early in the preseason. But it would be nice to see Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott get a few snaps under his belt as he works back from the devastating foot and leg injury that ruined his 2020 season. And how will Ben Roethlisberger look at quarterback for the Steelers after a rocky end to last year?
Preseason games are traditionally a time to shine and I am keen to see what Pittsburgh rookie rusher Najee Harris can do in his potential NFL debut. We can only hope he battles with Cowboys first-round pick, linebacker Micah Parsons, even for just a few plays early in the game.
Even if the stars don't come out to play in this one, it will be fascinating to see the early attitudes of these two teams who are NFL royalty when it comes to tradition, standing and fan support. Will Pittsburgh look more like the team that opened 2020 with 11 straight wins or like the strugglers who limped to the finish line? And what about the Cowboys and their new-look defense being put together by Dan Quinn and our very own Aden Durde?
Once the final whistle is blown, hands are shaken and jerseys swapped to be hung on the walls, celebrations can really begin with the rest of the weekend being all about the legends heading for pro football immortality…
Who is in The Class of 2021
Peyton Manning, Quarterback
The Sheriff gets into the Hall of Fame at the first attempt and that's no surprise after putting together one of the greatest careers in NFL history. In 18 seasons with Indianapolis and Denver, Peyton threw for 71,940 yards and 539 touchdowns. He was named NFL Most Valuable Player an incredible five times and won two Super Bowls, once with the Colts in the 2006 season and in his final year in Denver in 2015.
Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver
Megatron was simply impossible to cover, even when shadowed by three defenders, was the most dominant receiver of his generation and one of the very best in NFL history. Johnson played in six consecutive Pro Bowls in his prime and twice led the NFL in receiving yards. He played all nine seasons with the Detroit Lions, catching 731 passes for 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns.
Charles Woodson, Defensive Back
Woodson put together two Hall of Fame-worthy careers in one, serving as one of the best cornerbacks and one of the best safeties of his generation. The nine-time Pro Bowler and 2009 Defensive Player of the Year won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers in the 2010 season in the middle of two stints with his beloved Raiders. Woodson was named to the All-Decade Team for the 2000s.
John Lynch, Safety
San Francisco's current general manager was a beastly safety who intimidated receivers during his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. The nine-time Pro Bowler won a Super Bowl with the Bucs during the 2002 season and is in the team's Ring of Honor. His accolades continue as he is also in Denver's Ring of Fame. He completes the hat-trick of post career highlights with this induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Drew Pearson, Wide Receiver
A long shot to even make it in the NFL, Pearson has gone from an undrafted rookie to a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Playing all 11 seasons in Dallas – where he won one Super Bowl – Pearson put up numbers that don't look that amazing in todays game (489 catches for 7,822 yards and 48 touchdowns) however he dominated an era when the run was king and was rightly named to the NFL All-Decade Team for the 1970s.
Bill Nunn, Scout
The Pittsburgh Steelers won six Super Bowls during the time Bill Nunn was scouting for players. He may have worked away behind the scenes from 1970 to 2014, but Nunn was one of the most influential personnel men in the game's history. The former sportswriter was especially skilled at finding talent from historically black universities across America, discovering Steelers legends who would go on to be Hall of Famers themselves in receiver John Stallworth, and defensive backs Mel Blount and Donnie Shell.
Alan Faneca, Guard
Faneca was one of the most dominant linemen in the NFL from 1998 to 2010 as he played 10 years with the Steelers, two with the New York Jets and one with the Arizona Cardinals. The nine-time Pro Bowler was a powerful run blocker who loved to mix it up with opposing defenders. But he rarely missed time, being sidelined for just two starts from a possible 206 during his career - an impeccable record in a sport so dependent on contact. Faneca went on to win a Super Bowl with the Steelers in 2005 and was named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 2000s. Final stop, the Pro Football Hall of Fame!
Tom Flores, Quarterback and Coach
After a decade playing quarterback with Oakland, Kansas City and Buffalo from 1960 to 1969, Flores used his in-depth knowledge of the game and took his skills into the coaching set up and won a Super Bowl with the Raiders as an assistant during the 1976 season. With his unrivalled promise as a coach the Raiders promoted him to replace the legendary John Madden as head coach in 1979 and led the Silver and Black to glory a year later, becoming the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl. Flores has stats that speak for themselves as in 12 seasons in charge of the Raiders and Seattle Seahawks, he won 105 games with a win percentage of 72.7 percent of all his postseason matchups.