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Hall of Fame ready to receive Irvin despite off-field problems

CANTON, Ohio (AP) -Of the six players about to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Michael Irvin was the only one to make headlines off the field. Irvin knows that's not a good thing.

The Dallas Cowboys receiver recognizes that his troubles easily could have kept him from the shrine in Canton, where he will be inducted Saturday.

"Mistakes will cost you. That's the reality," Irvin said. "You have to pay the price for your mistakes, but, also, don't give up. Keep going and try to overcome that. That's the reality, too. I like that it worked out the way it worked out."

The way it worked out, Irvin was voted into the hall in his third year of eligibility, joining former "Triplet" Troy Aikman, his quarterback with the Cowboys. In a few years, the third part of that memorable offensive juggernaut, all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith will make it, too.

Irvin knows he made it difficult on himself, his teammates and NFL fans.

"I don't know if (his stats) gets overlooked, but sometimes the good stuff may get overshadowed," Irvin said. "Whether I like it or not, I made those bad decisions and you're going to take all those things into account when you're dealing with me."

A few weeks after the Cowboys won their third Super Bowl with the Triplets leading the way, police found Irvin, marijuana, cocaine and strippers in a hotel room for his 30th birthday party. He pleaded no contest to felony cocaine possession and was put on probation for four years.

It was one of several run-ins with police. And Irvin wondered if he'd burned his chance for making the hall.

"A few days before the vote, a current player called me and said, 'They're just trying to keep you out because once you go in, the rest of us player-boys will, too,' " Irvin said. "I never thought of it like that. I hope they don't think of it like that. I'm not trying to lead the way for bad boys to get in. I'm just trying to deal with my own issues."

The other inductees - Thurman Thomas, Bruce Matthews, Roger Wehrli, Charlie Sanders and Gene Hickerson - had no such issues. All were exemplary players for, in the most part, one franchise.

While Irvin had his problems, he also had enviable statistics worthy of enshrinement.

Irvin was the top receiver on those three championship teams, and he made the league's All-1990s team. As a rookie in 1988, he led the league with a 20.4-yards per catch average, and he had 11 100-yard receiving games in 1995, setting an NFL record.

"I never coached a player who had as much passion for the game as Michael Irvin," said Jimmy Johnson, his coach for much of Irvin's career. "He also was the guy who I knew at crunch time I could depend on to come through with a key play."

Just as Thomas did for the Buffalo Bills.

One of only three Hall of Fame running backs, with Walter Payton and Marcus Allen, to have more than 400 receptions and 10,000 yards rushing, Thomas also set playoff records for career points (126), touchdowns (21), and consecutive games with a TD (9). He was the 1991 league MVP and, helped Buffalo win four straight AFC titles, but no Super Bowl crowns.

"I wish I could've won a Super Bowl so I could feel what that felt like," Thomas said. "But if it's anything like this, I don't think there's anything you can compare it to."

Comparing Matthews to any other offensive lineman would be fruitless. No one was more versatile: In his 296 games, more than any full-time positional player in league history when he retired, Matthews spent 99 at left guard, 87 at center, 67 at right guard, 22 at right tackle and 17 at left tackle.

He excelled at all of them for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans.

"Whenever I was approached about a move, I took it as, 'Well, the coach has faith this is going to make the team better. The least I can do is believe the same thing,"' Matthews said. "It never felt like a sacrifice or like I was doing anything special."

Hickerson was so special that none other than Jim Brown, for whom Hickerson was the lead blocker with the Cleveland Browns, called him "the greatest downfield blocker in the history of pro football." As a 248-pound guard - about 100 pounds lighter than some guards today - Hickerson played 15 seasons and Cleveland never had a losing record in that time. He made five straight All-Pro teams (1966-70) and in 1964, he helped Cleveland to the NFL championship.

Like Hickerson, Sanders made the Hall of Fame thanks to a seniors committee vote. Sanders was a strong blocking tight end who became a pass-catching threat for the Lions. A three-time All-Pro in an era when quarterbacks rarely looked to their tight ends, Sanders made 30 or more receptions in a season seven times and had more than 500 yards receiving in six seasons.

"This is the icing on the cake for a guy that was slopping hogs not long ago," Sanders said.

Wehrli was one of the game's first shutdown cornerbacks and was a starter from his rookie season in 1969 through 1982 for the St. Louis Cardinals. He was elected in his final year of eligibility, even though he was a five-time All-Pro.

"It's really kind of beyond words or beyond explanation," Wehrli said. "It's just wonderful and you're proud to be able to call yourself a Hall of Famer, to know that you're in there with the guys that were heroes to you when you were growing up, heroes even when you're playing.

"It just makes you feel humble, thankful and proud all in the same sentence."

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