Two first-year-eligible nominees -- Deion Sanders and Marshall Faulk -- were among the seven players elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
The other five chosen by the 44-member committee were defensive end Richard Dent, tight end Shannon Sharpe, NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, and linebackers Chris Hanburger and Les Richter. To be elected, a finalist must receive a minimum vote of 80 percent.
Sanders, now an NFL Network analyst, burst on to the scene as the fifth overall draft pick in 1989, returning a punt 68 yards for a touchdown in his first game for the Atlanta Falcons, and he didn't stop entertaining during his highlight-filled 14-year career. A dynamic kick and punt returner, shutdown cornerback and later a wide receiver, Sanders scored six touchdowns on punt returns, three on kick returns, nine off interceptions and one on a fumble recovery.
Sanders added 60 receptions for 784 yards and three touchdowns during his career with the Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens. He finished his career with 53 interceptions, including five after coming out of a three-year retirement to play two seasons for the Ravens in 2004 and 2005.
Sanders won two Super Bowls during his career, starting at cornerback in the 49ers' victory over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX and in the Cowboys' win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX. His 1,331 interception return-yards are second all-time, as are his nine interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Sanders was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1994 after he recorded six interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns, and that season became the first player ever to have two 90-yard interception returns for touchdowns in the same campaign.
Sanders reacted to his Hall of Fame election with typical Neon Deion bravado. He said he's grateful but then made sure to explain, "What you feel about me has nothing to do with how I feel about me."
Then he broke into the open field.
"Next to the Bible, my favorite book was 'The Little Engine That Could.' I read that story so many times, I know it by heart," he said. "And a couple trains passed that engine until he started saying to himself: 'I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.' And that's what I modeled my career after. I mean, it sounds arrogant, it sounds brash, it sounds cocky. But it was real."
Sanders also played major league baseball. But football clearly was his calling.
"He was an electrifying performer who put fans on the edge of their seats every time he manned his cornerback position or dropped back to receive a kickoff or field a punt," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in a statement released by the team. "Deion is, without question, one of the greatest players in the history of the NFL."
Faulk's career got off to a strong start, as the second overall draft pick by the Indianapolis Colts recorded 143 yards and three touchdowns in his NFL debut against the Houston Oilers in 1994. The running back out of San Diego State went on to receive Rookie of the Year honors after finishing his first season with 1,282 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 52 passes for 522 yards and one touchdown.
After topping 1,000 rushing yards in four of five seasons with the Colts and totaling 2,804 yards on 297 receptions, Faulk was traded to the St. Louis Rams in 1999. That season, he helped the Rams to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV while becoming the second player to ever go over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a season. He set the then-NFL record for yards from scrimmage with 2,429.
That year, Faulk was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year for the first of three consecutive seasons. The following season, Faulk received league MVP honors after scoring 26 total touchdowns, including 18 on the ground.
Faulk, also an NFL Network analyst, was asked Saturday how it felt to join an elite group.
"Disbelief," Faulk said. "When you grow up as a kid -- the dream is to just watch a football game. Then you get to play a football game ... There are guys in this Hall of Fame that I look so far up to, I never thought I'd be in that room with them. It's special."
An eighth-round draft pick, Dent started three games at defensive end for the Chicago Bears as a rookie in 1983. The following season, he started every game and recorded a team-record 17.5 sacks, beginning a 10-year stretch in which he posted at least 10 sacks eight times, including 17 in 1985. His only non double-digit sack total in that time was 9 in 1989 and 8.5 in 1992.
"It feels great," Dent said of being elected to the Hall. "It's very appreciated, and I'm very happy. It's a long time coming."
When Sharpe retired in 2001 after 14 seasons, he was the NFL's all-time leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns by a tight end. He received the first of eight Pro Bowl selections in 1992, his third season. That year, he caught 53 passes for 640 yards and two touchdowns.
Other than during an injury-shortened season in 1999, Sharpe recorded at least 60 receptions in every season for the rest of his career. A three-time Super Bowl winner, Sharpe was the starting tight end for the Denver Broncos' back-to-back victories in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII and the Ravens' win in Super Bowl XXXV.
Sharpe was emotional in describing the feeling of joining football's highest fraternity.
"I'm just a skinny kid from Glennville, Georgia -- 3,500 people, two traffic lights -- going to the Hall of Fame," Sharpe said. "Trust me, I don't get lost for words very often, but this has got me baffled."
As the founder of NFL Films, Sabol played a major role in the NFL's growth in popularity in the 1960s and changed the way fans viewed the game of football. As an aspiring filmmaker, he founded Blair Productions at the age of 45 and later paid $3,000 for the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.
Sabol's use of sideline cameras effectively captured the intensity and drama of the NFL. Two years later, Sabol began NFL Films after convincing commissioner Pete Rozelle that the NFL required its own production company. Sabol served as president of NFL Films until 1985, a period in which the company garnered 52 Emmy Awards.
Among the techniques made popular by NFL Films under Sabol's direction was the use of microphones on coaches, players and referees, adding popular music to football footage and creating the ever-popular blooper reels.
"His love was making movies and football," said Steve Sabol, Ed's son and successor to his 95-year-old father as president of NFL Films. "He combined those two in a business to celebrate the game of football, and at this moment, we're all here to celebrate my dad."
Richter was drafted second overall by the New York Yanks in 1952, but had to wait through two year of military service before he could begin his nine-year career. The Yanks folded two days after Richter was drafted. Their assets were later granted to the expansion Dallas Texans, who traded Richter's rights to the Los Angeles Rams for 11 players.
When he finally hit the field, Richter quickly became one of the most punishing linebackers of his generation. Selected to eight consecutive Pro Bowls, Richter recorded 16 interceptions and never missed a game during his 112-game NFL career.
Richter passed away on June 12, 2010 at the age of 79.
"Les was a tough, hard-nosed football player who gave it his all on every play and in every practice," Hall of Famer Deacon Jones recalled of Richter. "He knocked the hell out of people. I mean, he'd really hit you. Les Richter was a great teammate."
Hanburger, an 18th-round pick by the Redskins in 1965, was one of the most consistent linebackers of his era. He was voted to nine Pro Bowls in his 14-year career. His performance in the 1972 season gained him perhaps his greatest notoriety as he helped lead the Redskins to its first Super Bowl berth, a 14-7 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII.
Hanburger totaled three fumble recoveries for touchdowns, which stood as an NFL record at the time of his retirement following the 1978 season. He also had 19 career interceptions for 347 yards and two touchdowns.
"It's wonderful. I am just overwhelmed. It's such a tremendous honor to be nominated, let alone get in," Hanburger said of his election. "Have to think of all the men who played before me and all the men I played with."
The other 12 finalists for induction into the Hall of Fame were running back Jerome Bettis, wide receiver Tim Brown, wide receiver Cris Carter, center Dermonti Dawson, defensive end/linebacker Chris Doleman, defensive end/linebacker Charles Haley, linebacker Chris Hanburger, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, running back Curtis Martin, wide receiver Andre Reed, linebacker Les Richter and offensive tackle Willie Roaf.
The 17 finalists were first narrowed to 10, including Sanders, Faulk, Sabol, Dent, Sharpe, Kennedy, Reed, Dawson, Roaf and Brown.
Bettis, Martin and Roaf also were first-year eligible nominees.
"I think the voting committee did a great job selecting the 2011 class," the statement read. "If I were a part of the committee I can't say that I would have voted any differently. I'm not being modest at all, but I truly don't feel that there's anyone in this year's class that I should have bested in the voting process. Of course I would have loved to get in this year but, number one the inductees truly deserved it, number two there's always next year! I thank you all for the recognition and congratulations to this year's inductees!"
On his Twitter account, Martin said that if he ends up being inducted next year along with Bill Parcells, it will have worked out better for him anyway. Martin called the legendary coach his "mentor."
"From what I'm being told, this could (be) a long long process," the former Oakland Raiders wideout wrote. "Cris (Carter), Andre (Reed) and myself keep canceling each other out so that won't change anytime soon unless one or two of us (rescue) ourselves. My head is still up and I'm moving forward."
Induction ceremonies are scheduled for Aug. 6 in Canton, Ohio.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.