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Rookies learning valuable lessons of NFL's history

CANTON, Ohio -- The six-member 2008 class will be inducted here on Aug. 3 in this venerable building known as the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Fred Dean, Darrell Green, Art Monk, Emmitt Thomas, Andre Tippett and Gary Zimmerman will push the Hall's total number of players to 214. It will increase the total number in the Hall to 247.

Rookies from the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys listened to this here on Friday. They were told that since the NFL began in 1920, more than 20,000 players have played at least one regular season game.

Inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame:[internal-link-placeholder-1]
Located in the birthplace of the NFL, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is celebrating 45 years of excellence in honoring the legends and preserving the history of professional football.

One rookie equated that to pushing a thread through a needle. Another said it reminded him of filling a thimble with tiny rocks -- and setting it in a bucket of sand.

"I'm struck by the fact that all of these great players once battled and played against each other," said Eagles rookie defensive end Bryan Smith. "But now they are all on the same, special team."

Cowboys rookie tight end Drew Atchison added: "This is amazing. What a great opportunity for us. We get to see a great past. We get to be a part of a great future."

Lessons learned.

In recent years the NFL has sought ways to better educate its players on everything from finances to continuing education to post-season careers and beyond. But thanks to an ingenious idea by Hall of Famer and former Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin, the league has made it mandatory that each team's rookie class visit the Hall of Fame to gain a better understanding of the league's legacy. To better prepare them for the careers that they pursue.

The Eagles and Cowboys were the 19th and 20th teams to visit the Hall since the draft. All will have visited before training camp. Each group of rookies is accompanied by representatives from their respective clubs. Former Eagles Troy Vincent and Harold Carmichael led their group.

Irvin led the Cowboys.

And his impact on others -- and the impact on him -- was evident.

"Well, this is quite a feeling," said Irvin, who recently discussed this idea with Commissioner Roger Goodell and, to Irvin's surprise, found the concept a reality in a matter of months. Irvin was inducted into the Hall in 2007.

"Many young men in today's NFL play the game to escape their history," Irvin said. "They are running from some tough stuff, some tough neighborhoods. And how many times do we hear when players get in trouble that they 'don't respect the game' or know the history and prior sacrifices in the game? How can you respect something you don't know? Well, they are walking the Hall now and learning it. Now they know.

"I should have come here before I played my first down in the NFL. If I had, I really believe I would not have made some of the mistakes I made as a player. Roger has gotten this group out ahead of it. I think we're blowing some minds here today."

The players were led throughout their tour by Hall officials Joe Horrigan and Pete Fierle. The tour began with a statue of Jim Thorpe and ended with a showcase of 41 Super Bowl rings (the Giants' 2008 championship ring, which makes 42, is on the way).

Kyle Arrington, an Eagles cornerback from Hofstra, was mesmerized by a Terrell Davis exhibit: "I used to do his Mile-High salute in Little League," Arrington said.

Eagles linebacker Andy Studebaker from Wheaton College said he was impressed by the equipment that older players once wore compared with today's modern versions. Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson from California studied the Barry Sanders exhibit and bronze bust: "He was the man when I was growing up. He was a killer of defenses."

Several players gawked at the 1912 Olympics jacket of Jim Thorpe that is in an exhibit stating that Thorpe traded his jacket for a pro football uniform. They were especially attentive when told that the Hall includes 13 free agents and 13 players who were drafted in Round 10 or higher.

Cowboys running back Felix Jones from Arkansas was full of excitement when he said: "It is a joy to be here. I am listening and learning a lot. I'm glad this happened. It stressed to us our part in taking care of the game."

And passing it on.

That is the greatest lesson that this new program offers. That these young rookies realize that the NFL game is bigger than any one of them. That the success of the game relies on their individual and collective respect. And that they each have a role to play that moves beyond simply strong player conduct.

Vincent was especially encouraged with the visit.

"Talking to the young men, I can see it in their eyes that they will walk way from here with a sense of purpose," Vincent said. "Not just a sense of purpose in playing the game but in carrying on the tradition. They now have a glimpse of that tradition.

"This rookie class of 2008 is now unlike any other rookie class in the 89-year history of the NFL. They came and saw the heroes of their grandfathers and fathers before embarking on their careers. They just touched the game in a special way."

And, clearly, it touched them.

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