CANTON, Ohio -- A massive Centennial Class had to wait an extra year for its moment in the sun, but after most of its membership bided many more years of time before finally receiving the call to Canton, the extra year was nothing.
The 12 living members of the 20-man Centennial Class received their due recognition on a humid evening at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in front of a crowd of 18,383. Here are the highlights from a special Saturday night honoring the largest group of inductees in the Hall's history.
Carmichael thanked his presenter, longtime friend and colleague James Solano, and Solano's wife for their support and friendship stretching back at least 25 years. He tipped his hat to the cowboy hat-wearing Mel Blount for the challenge the defensive back gave Carmichael in helping him adjust to the NFL early in his career, and gave thanks to Philadelphia-based longtime NFL journalist Sal Paolantonio for keeping Carmichael's name in the selection cycle.
After 31 years, Carmichael finally received his place in Canton -- and completed his speech as quickly as he'd raced past countless defensive backs, coming in at a tight six minutes and 14 seconds.
Nobody drafted Cliff Harris, but Canton spent a pick on him in the Centennial Class of 2020.
"The odds of me playing NFL football were much less than they were of me standing here before you tonight," Harris said. ... "Most of the coaches doubted I would play past the ninth grade, much less make it to the Hall of Fame."
Harris' odds were long for most of his playing career, landing second on his junior varsity team's quarterback depth chart and receiving just one collegiate scholarship offer (from the renowned Ouchita Baptist). He joined 120 other rookies in Cowboys camp, but eventually found his way into the starting lineup for Week 1 of his first season. That began a career that landed Harris in the Hall of Fame.
"I may be the only one who knows truly how slim that chance was," Harris said. "But if I can make it, anyone can achieve their goals. The key is to never quit, never give up.
... "You are the only one who drives your train."
Edgerrin James entered the NFL with a target on his back and the glint of gold teeth attracting those eager to see him fail. He'll forever prove them wrong with his place in football immortality in Canton.
James addressed his career-long fight against public perception during his speech, directing others to do their job as he always did his before turning the camera back on his outward appearance.
A sharp joke punctuated his place in history.
"Look at my Pro Football Hall of Fame bust, rocking the same dreads I wasn't supposed to," James said.
James spoke to those seen as criminals solely because of their appearance, saying he stood at the podium in Canton as a representative of them.
"I'm forever immortalized, locked up in the Canton Correctional Institution," James quipped before opening his gold jacket and pointing to his unique patch on the inside. "Inmate No. 336 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"My career started with gold teeth, and ended with this gold jacket."
Steve Atwater didn't take long to become known as someone who hit well above his weight class. Now, he packs a bronze punch with his gold jacket.
Atwater was presented by teammate Dennis Smith, who expressed gratitude that he wasn't the one who was let go to make room for the first-round pick before diving into a recollection of what made Atwater a legend. After taking the time to recognize and thank his family, it was Atwater who turned the spotlight on his teammates, running down a list of well over a dozen former Broncos who shared the field with him in Denver and beyond.
"It was truly an honor," Atwater said. ... "I appreciate you all. And finally, thank you Broncos Country! I love you all."
Paul Tagliabue oversaw the NFL's explosion in popularity into the new millennium, but he likely wouldn't have landed in Canton if he hadn't shifted from marketing man to peacemaker.
Tagliabue reflected on the labor negotiations in which he led the NFL, working with NFLPA president Gene Upshaw to strike a deal (and ensuing extensions) that ensured labor peace and allowed the NFL to grow into the league it is today. It wasn't just a growth in popularity, but in membership, leading to the arrival of expansion franchises in Jacksonville, Charlotte, Cleveland and Houston. From there, the league blossomed further, gaining a firm grasp of the top spot in American sports.
Along the way, Tagliabue worked with countless league employees whose contributions were essential to the NFL's greater goals. He didn't forget them Saturday night.
"I'm thrilled -- I cannot state it enough -- I'm thrilled that so many of these colleagues are here tonight," Tagliabue said. ... "All of you have my everlasting gratitude for everything we accomplished together during my 17 years as commissioner."
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Tagliabue turned the attention back to the game's main actors: the players. In an era of increased player expression, Tagliabue firmly directed people everywhere not to dismiss, but to open their ears to those they happily watch play football for nearly half of each year.
"In exploring what makes the NFL so compelling, I always return to the players who make the game what it is," Tagliabue said. ... "The voices of players need to be heard. They need to be debated. And they need to be criticized if they're not well grounded. But listen to the players."
Steve Hutchinson dropped a great line when David Baker knocked on his hotel room door in Miami back in Februrary 2020, asking the Hall's president and CEO why he waited until the end of his trip down the hallway to inform the lineman of his place in Canton. He produced an equally excellent, well-rounded speech Saturday.
Hutchinson played the hits, starting with a geographically proper joke recognizing the irony of his excitement to be in a state typically despised by his kind.
"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."
Hutchinson thanked his coaches, including former Michigan assistant and head man Brady Hoke for giving him the concrete to pour the base of his Hall of Fame career.
"Technique was the foundation of my game, and ultimately why I'm standing here today," Hutchinson said.
His bronze bust will stand in Canton for the entirety of its existence.
Donnie Shell's speech turned Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium into Heinz Field -- better yet, it turned back the clock and transformed the stands in Canton into the seats at Three Rivers Stadium.
Steelers fans rose in unison to wave their Terrible Towels and cheer Shell, especially when he acknowledged Steeler Nation during his speech. He then shifted to thanking those who were in charge during his time in the NFL, taking a moment to recognize both coach Chuck Noll and fellow Centennial Class member Bill Nunn, who identified Shell as a potential addition to the Steelers.
Nunn's foresight sent Shell to an organization that gave him a chance to compete. He turned his opportunity into an immortal place in Canton.
Shell closed by offering direction to countless others who admired him for his on-field achievements and could likely benefit from following his words of wisdom.
"We in the United States must become servant leaders," Shell said. ... "A servant leader is one who is motivated by love and humility, but demonstrates by example."
Isaac Bruce lost his prepared speech when his iPad was removed from the podium, but as he often did on the field in his illustrious NFL career, he adjusted on the fly.
Bruce ran down the list of those who deserved thanks, including the defensive backs "who baptized me, and the ones that I baptized," but it was a source of negativity for whom Bruce saved a moment of recognition.
"To the nameless voice," who Bruce said called him two weeks before the draft to tell him the NFL didn't like him, but other players, Bruce had a message that he hoped the source of the voice was still alive to hear.
"Rap legend Kool Moe Dee wanted me to ask you, 'how you like me now?'"
Jimbo Covert's presenter was a close friend and former teammate, Matt Suhey. Covert didn't waste much time before ribbing his pal.
"Matt, I'm proud to have you as my presenter," Covert began, "Even though you're from Penn State."
Covert's speech, like many others, was full of thanks for the most important people in his life. Covert acknowledged his mother, who worked part time at JC Penney -- "JC Penn-eh, to make it sound fancy" -- during his Saturday night enshrinement speech.
"The husky section, right mom?" the big-bodied Covert recalled.
It wasn't all jokes for Covert -- even if he landed a shot at Dan Marino after Covert viewed the long mane on his own bust -- and the newest member of the Hall took a moment to recognize University of Pittsburgh offensive line coach Joe Moore.
"As soon as I switched to offensive line, he said 'you're going to be an All-American one day.' He could have said anything, but after he said that, I would've ran through a brick wall for him," Covert said of Moore.
Covert ran through many on the way to a spot in Canton.
Troy Polamalu's entire moment on stage was enough to end the night better than any pyrotechnic grand finale. When Polamalu took the podium, the Steelers fans-laden crowd roared, and when he paused to let his hair down, the place erupted with joy.
Polamalu was eloquent, reflective and appreciative, touching on all of the key aspects of his legendary career: His mentors and coaches, his family, and his faith. He admitted that when looking at the scope of all circumstances surrounding his life, one might say he was destined for Canton, and he'd agree. But Polamalu made clear just how much he revered the franchise in Pittsburgh when talking about Steeler culture and how it played an important role in his rise to prominence.
"Mike Logan, the starting safety my rookie year, shared his full knowledge of the game, wholeheartedly showing a level of humility that helped shape my career," Polamalu recalled. "Like many other teammates, his selflessness paved a greater opportunity for others at his own expense. It is unnatural in the most competitive of environments to train your replacement, yet this is our culture, Steeler culture. These virtues I learned while playing for the Steelers is what makes the legacy of the black and gold timeless.
"They're passed down in the locker room from the steel curtain to anyone who valiantly wears the black and gold, creating a brotherhood that is deeper than money, business and winning. To be a Steeler is to consider others before you consider yourself, to protect your brother even from himself, to give support at your own expense. And when wearing the back and gold suit of armor, make sure nobody desecrates it, disrespects it, most importantly, we ourselves don't dishonor it. The only approval any Steeler should seek is to earn the approval from previous legends who have donned the black and gold. And if you've really earned their respect, they'll say, 'You could've played with us.'"
After 12 years in Pittsburgh and five years of waiting, Polamalu now lays claim to a jacket as regal as his mane.
Jimmy Johnson's exit from Dallas was, in hindsight, premature and fraught with conflict, but time heals all. Johnson opened his speech Saturday night by thanking Jerry Jones for the opportunity to turn the Cowboys into winners once again.
That was the only name Johnson felt he could list, because he knew there were too many others to thank for making his place in Canton possible.
"I said the hell with it! I can't make a list!" Johnson said. "There's too many!"
"I didn't dream about it, I believed that we were going to win a Super Bowl. When you believe it, it has something in the way you act and how you deal with people. ... I didn't dream, I believed we were gonna do it!"
Johnson advised everyone appreciate those who are important in their lives, "because one day, they're not going to be around." He reflected on a lesson he learned from late Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, who told Johnson about one of the most valuable aspects of his remaining reality, years after he'd won his last Super Bowl.
The acronym Huizenga used was QTL: Quality Time Left.
"Think about that," Johnson said. "I'm 78 years old and I think about QTL all the time."
Cowboys and Dolphins fans will have countless opportunities to spend quality time reflecting on the accomplishments of Johnson for years to come in Canton.
Cowher pointed out the advantages of going last in the order of speeches Saturday night: He won't infringe on the next enshrinee's time if he goes over his own limit, and he wouldn't be bothered if they tried to play him off.
"If the music starts playing, I'm used to talking while music is playing -- my wife is a musician," Cowher quipped.
Cowher thanked and congratulated his fellow enshrinees past and present, then turned to his past to acknowledge the "pockets of people" who have surrounded him in his football life. The former NFL special teamer expressed gratitude for his opportunities in Cleveland and Philadelphia, then recognized his college linebackers coach Chuck Amato, who rose from his seat to applaud his former player.
The most important coach of his life, the late Marty Schottenheimer, received special recognition and an endorsement from Cowher, who included him among those who made an essential impact on his life and path to the Hall of Fame before passing away.
"He was a master motivator, a stickler for detail," Cowher said of Schottenheimer. ... "And I speak on behalf of many: Thank you, coach. You did so much for so many for so long. One day you will be in the Hall of Fame."