"My story is America's story."
LaDainian Tomlinson, after thanking all those in the game of football who came before him and who helped guide him toward his rightful place in Canton, inspired the onlookers at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on Saturday with an anecdote of a man he never met and the promise of American courage.
The great Chargers running back spoke of how his great-great-great-grandfather had inherited L.T.'s family name from his slave owner in Texas and somehow reclaimed his identity and dignity, and how the running back was now privileged and dedicated to rewrite the cruel past of his last name.
"My name began with the man who owned my great-great-great-grandfather. Now, it's proudly carried by me, my children, my extended family. People stop me on the street because they know as L.T. the football player. But after football, people have begun to recognize me as LaDainian Tomlinson, not simply for what I did as a football player, but for who I am as a man. The family legacy that began in such a cruel way has given way to successful, caring Tomlinsons. I firmly believe that God chose me to bring two races together under one last name: Tomlinson."
From there, Tomlinson, who was always soft-spoken on the gridiron, deftly weaved together the strands of football, race, immigration and America.
"Football is a microcosm of America," Tomlinson said to a standing ovation and chants of "L.T." "All races, religions and creeds, living, playing, competing side by side. When you're a part of a team, you understand your teammates, their strengths and weakness, and work together toward the same goal, to win a championship. In this context, I wish we become Team America.
"In sports, we're evaluated on our desire, ability and given our chance to compete. America is the land of opportunity. Let's not slam the door on those who may look or sound different than us. Rather, let's open it wide for those for those who believe in themselves that anything is possible and are willing to compete and take whatever risk necessary to work hard, to succeed."
Tomlinson closed with a call of hope for the country, inspired by lessons he learned from his time in football.
"On America's team, let's not choose to be against one another. Let's choose to be for one another. My great-great-great-grandfather had no choice. We have one," Tomlinson told the crowd. "I pray we dedicate ourselves the best team we can be, working and living together, representing the highest ideals of mankind, leading the way for all nations to follow."
Tomlinson's oration was the most stirring of Saturday's speeches, not only because it touched on subjects greater than football, but because it came from such an earnest source.
The Chargers legend, who holds the record for most touchdowns in a single season, scored once again Saturday night, bringing an entire stadium to its feet, one last time.
Jerry Jones pays respect to 'the shoulders' he stood on
Usually one to brag and boast, Jones paid homage to those who made the Cowboys into the great franchise that he bought in 1989.
On the old, hemorrhaging Dallas regime he inherited and the great Tom Landry, who at the time had been the Cowboys' only coach in the franchise's 29-year history, Jones declared, "He is the Dallas Cowboys. I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for Tom Landry, [owner] Tex Schramm and [personnel executive] Gil Brandt. I couldn't have built the Cowboys today if it weren't for what they did. The shoulders I stood on. I'm deeply indebted to those three."
But Jones quickly turned to his most important acquisition, other than the franchise itself: coach Jimmy Johnson. As if he needed to, Jones fiercely defended the hire of the coach who won him two Super Bowls, lauding him to a cheering Canton crowd.
In front of his family and his entire team, Jones showed humility and perspective as he received the greatest honor in the game on Saturday night. For a man always looking toward the future, Jones' look back into his past was a welcome detour.
Despite setbacks, Terrell Davis earns respect from peers, family
It's remarkable how many times Terrell Davis was thisclose to never making it to the NFL, much less Canton.
Davis offered this anecdote from his first preseason game with the Broncos in Japan as proof: "I had one of my worst practices just a few days prior to the game. I thought I had blown my chances of making the team so I decided to quit. ... I called the front desk of the hotel and arranged for a flight home. But because I didn't speak Japanese, we couldn't communicate. So I couldn't leave."
From early setbacks due to migraines to his college football program shutting down, from his struggles in his first NFL training camp to the knee injuries that derailed his career, Davis was always fighting for respect. From teams, from opponents and from his father.
Davis' family was a major focus during his enshrinement speech. (His kids stole the show with some funny faces on the jumbotron.) Davis dedicated a good portion of his remarks to honoring his mother and his father.
"Dad, I hope you're looking down, smiling and uttering the words, 'Son, I'm proud of you.'"
Kurt Warner made the most of his 'moments'
Kurt Warner didn't miss his "moment." He never anticipated making his first NFL start at age 28 nor did he believe he'd be named NFL MVP just months later.
"I stand here tonight not because I accomplished as much or played as long as most of the players on this stage," Warner said. "I believe I stand here tonight because of what I did with the moments I was given. My enshrinement makes the statement that although impact is measured over a career, it is established in the moments -- regardless of how many or how few you are blessed with."
One of those defining moments came after Warner finally found that "someone" who would help connect him to his dream of playing in the NFL. He credited former Amsterdam Admirals (NFL Europe) head coach Al Luginbill for helping him get a foothold in the league.
Luginbill called 12 NFL teams trying to convince them to bring in Warner. The 13th team he called, the St. Louis Rams, were the first to give him a shot.
"It was the chance I had been waiting for," Warner recalled. "I showed up at Rams Park early with bells on. Then I proceeded to have the worst workout of my life. I called [my wife] Brenda from the hallway of the facility and told her, 'I blew it. I blew my last chance at the NFL.' But a few days later I'd get a call from the Rams offering me a contract. Now, to this day, I believe the signing must have just been a favor to Al. But all the same to me: One man's junk, another man's treasure. Al, thanks for calling back. For dusting me off and uncovering my value. Thanks for being my someone."
'If it were easy, there'd be no Jason Taylor'
That's how Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor closed his 30-minute-plus-long speech, leaving viewers with this message: "Ease is a greater threat to growth than hardship."
Taylor remarked on how he didn't have it easy growing up, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh and in need of a father figure.
The Hall of Famer got most emotional when he remembered his longtime agent, Gary Wichard, who he considered one of the most important people in his career:
"He was my agent, but he was so much more. He was a dear friend. He was an adviser. He was a mentor. He was truly the father I never had. No one believed in me the way Gary did, as a football player, as a person, even as a dancer [during] 'Dancing With the Stars.'
"For 14 years, not a day went by that I didn't talk to Gary Wichard or text, every day for 14 years, right up until the day that the evil, awful disease of cancer took his life."
Taylor's self-effacing humor showed through when he brought up his short stint with the Washington Redskins, where he didn't quite live up to his contract.
"Dan Snyder, thank you for the opportunity to come to Washington," Taylor said. "I know I didn't give you much, 2.5 sacks, stole a lot of money from you, but I appreciate it. Hey, I'm just being honest."
'I'm switching to water ... now'
As he tells it, Morten Andersen was on his couch drinking a cold one when he knew he had to get back into professional football. During a Falcons Week 2 game in 2006, Andersen understood that soon he'd receive a call to return to kicking in the Georgia Dome and to pursue the all-time scoring record.
"[The Falcons] kicker had a bad day," Andersen began. "I turned to my buddy Eric and I said, 'I'm switching to water ... now because the phone's going to ring soon.' I didn't get much of a reaction from him. 'I know,' I said. 'I know it hasn't rang in 20 months.' Shortly after the game finished, the phone did ring!
"There I was, guys. 46 years old in Flowery Branch facing four flat bellies half my age."
Andersen beat out those flat-bellied youths and went on to break the all-time scoring record as a member of the Falcons in December.
In his Hall of Fame speech, Andersen also expressed his love and admiration for another NFC South team and city, where he spent the bulk of his 25-year career.
"I have a deep love for the city of New Orleans and its football team," Andersen said. "Our connections together run deep and I believe the fans are the most loyal and passionate anywhere. I have great, great admiration for the spirit and attitude of the people of New Orleans. They taught me, even through hard times, to love life and stay positive. I will always be a part of new Orleans and always a Saint."
Andersen left the Canton crowd with this: "The lesson is simple. Bring your will and perseverance to everything worth doing. When the reward is sublime, the risks are higher and you must embrace the uncomfortable to go into that rarefied air of excellence."
Kenny Easley remarks on virtues of patience
"Some folks said I deserved to be in the Hall earlier. I don't believe that. Others said maybe he didn't play long enough. I don't believe that either. But my pastor, Tyrone Armstrong ... he said many times there is a season for everything, and while we sometimes try to figure it out, God has already worked it out."
The former Seahawks defensive back, who retired after the 1987 season, spoke often about patience and putting trust in a plan greater than one he could understand, and offered poignant advice to those like him who were awaiting their chance to enter Canton.
"I say to you, my brothers in waiting," Easley said. "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let you request be made known to God, and watch what God can do for you. He may not come when you want it, but he's an on-time guy. Thus I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.
"You see, this joy I have tonight, the world didn't give it to me and the world sure can't take it away."