CANTON, Ohio — As he so often did on the field, LaDainian Tomlinson stole the show.
With a powerful speech calling for “Team America” to be a place for inclusion and opportunity, the great running back of the San Diego Chargers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night.
The 2017 roster of entrants into the shrine was deeply impressive: quarterback Kurt Warner, defensive end Jason Taylor, fellow running back Terrell Davis, safety Kenny Easley, place-kicker Morten Andersen and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
LaDainian Tomlinson honors fans, mother in Hall of Fame speech
LaDainian Tomlinson heaped the praise on everyone who helped him to the Hall of Fame, from his mother to his teammates to the fans who cheered him on.
Kurt Warnerâs storybook path ends in fitting fashion
Kurt Warner’s story of going from stocking groceries to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is something that Hollywood would be hard-pressed to make up.
Jerry Jones’ legacy is secure, but he’s not done thinking big
He’s now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Jones won’t be truly content until his Cowboys win a fourth Super Bowl in his tenure.
All spoke eloquently, with bursts of humor and heartwarming stories. But Tomlinson’s words resonated so strongly that he drew several standing ovations not only from the crowd of 13,400 but also from his now-fellow Gold Jackets.
“Football is a microcosm of America,” Tomlinson said. “All races, religions and creeds, living, playing, competing side by side. When you’re part of a team, you understand your teammates — their strengths and weaknesses — and work together toward the same goal: to win a championship.
“Let’s not choose to be against one another. Let’s choose to be for one another. … I pray we dedicate ourselves to being the best team we can be, working and living together, representing the highest ideals of mankind, leading the way for all nations to follow.”
The fifth overall selection in the 2001 draft, Tomlinson won rushing titles in 2006-07 and took league MVP honors in ’06, when he set a record with 31 touchdowns. Also a strong receiver, he added 4,772 yards and 17 touchdown receptions to his career numbers for 13,684 yards rushing and 145 scores. Tomlinson even threw seven touchdown passes.
From 2004 to ’05, he set a league mark with 18 straight games with a rushing TD. The 2006 NFL Man of the Year, Tomlinson was voted to the 2000s All-Decade Team. In his speech, he paid tribute to his predecessors.
“I grew up dreaming about running the ball like the great Jim Brown, the late Walter Payton and the NFL all-time rusher, Emmitt Smith,” he said. “Tonight I stand on the shoulders of you.”
He spoke of two brief meetings with Smith at a football camp when he was 12 and how that gave him the confidence to pursue his football dreams.
It took Warner years to be discovered by the NFL. But the quarterback who went from working at a grocery store to winning two NFL MVP awards and one league title while reinvigorating two moribund franchises along the way was inducted into the shrine Saturday night.
“People say Hollywood couldn’t have written it any better,” Warner said. “After this, they don’t have a chance.”
Warner was an afterthought with the Rams, an obscure backup. But after starter Trent Green tore up his knee in a preseason game, coach Dick Vermeil turned to the untested Warner. A few months later, both were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, and Warner was the Super Bowl MVP.
Warner led the Rams to an NFC championship in 2001 and took the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl in the 2008 season, barely losing to Pittsburgh in the final seconds.
Undrafted by the NFL and a veteran of the Arena Football League and NFL Europe, Warner also played briefly with the New York Giants in his 12 pro seasons.
“The road to our dreams has many detours,” he said. He mentioned how a Wheaties box with Dan Marino on the cover inspired him to find a way back into football.
Warner was presented for induction by his wife, Brenda.
Tomlinson and Taylor were elected in their first years of eligibility. A star mostly with Miami, Taylor also spent one season with the Redskins and one with the Jets. In his 15 NFL seasons, the versatile end was a three-time All-Pro and the 2006 Defensive Player of the Year. He had 13½ sacks, two interceptions returned for touchdowns, 11 passes defensed, 10 forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 62 tackles that season.
Taylor’s 139½ career sacks helped him make the All-Decade Team of the 2000s. He also was the NFL’s Man of the Year in 2007.
A third-round draft pick from Akron — just down the road from the Hall of Fame — Taylor was presented for induction by Jimmy Johnson, who coached him for several years with the Dolphins.
“I honestly can’t believe I am here,” said Taylor, who kissed the shaved head atop his bust when it was unveiled. “In 1992, I was at the University of Akron, just 20 miles away. It took 20 years to travel 20 miles to put on this jacket. It was worth every step.”
Taylor choked up several times, especially when talking about the late Gary Wichard, who was his agent and, Taylor said, “truly the father I never had.”
Terrell Davis had one of the most spectacular short careers in NFL history. His seven seasons were brilliant enough to get him to Canton.
The former Broncos running back went from an obscure sixth-round draft pick from Georgia to a league MVP and two-time Super Bowl winner. Davis was the catalyst for the NFL titles Denver won in 1997 and ’98 with another Hall of Famer, John Elway, at quarterback.
The 1996 and ’98 Offensive Player of the Year, 1997 Super Bowl MVP and ’98 NFL MVP, Davis’ meteoric stint came to an ugly end with a devastating knee injury in 1999. That in great part kept him out of the Hall for more than a decade.
Now he’s in, with a résumé that includes one of the greatest seasons in NFL annals. In 1998, Davis became the fourth runner to rush for 2,000 yards in a season (2,008), and he led the NFL with 21 rushing touchdowns. In the 1998 playoffs, he rushed for a franchise-postseason-record 199 yards against the Dolphins, then for 167 yards against the Jets and 102 yards in the 1999 Super Bowl victory over the Falcons.
A member of the 1990s All-Decade Team, Davis was presented for induction by his agent, Neil Schwartz.
During his speech, delivered in a burst of rain that temporarily thinned the crowd, Davis talked about once “staring down the barrel of a shotgun” as a troubled teenager.
“Thank God someone talked the guy out of pulling the trigger,” said Davis, who then determined to turn his life around.
Davis also suffered from migraines through his high school, college and pro careers.
He campaigned Saturday night for Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to be enshrined in the Hall before saying of those who helped him get to Canton: “I salute every single one of you.”
The longest wait, 24 years, was by Easley, who was chosen for enshrinement by the seniors committee. The hard-hitting safety for the Seahawks and a member of the 1980s All-Decade Team played only seven seasons and 89 games.
But what an impact he made as an intimidator and ballhawk. The 1981 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Easley was the league’s top overall defender in 1984, when he had a league-leading 10 interceptions, a career high.
Current Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson tweeted congratulations to Easley on his induction.
— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) August 6, 2017
Easley, who was presented for induction by his high school coach, Tommy Rhodes, retired after the 1987 season. He had to wait 24 years before being voted into the Hall.
“I was first nominated for the Hall in 1997,” Easley said. “Twenty years later — be anxious for nothing — the Hall of Fame was dropped on the shoulders of Kenny Easley like a pair of shoulder pads. Some folks said I deserved to be in the Hall earlier. I don’t believe that. Others say he didn’t play long enough. I don’t believe that.”
Easley concluded a politically and religiously toned speech by saying: “I thank you for welcoming me into your exclusive club.”
Andersen, the league’s career scoring leader, joined Jan Stenerud — whom he paid tribute to as a trail blazer — as the only place-kickers in Canton.
Andersen played an incredible 25 pro seasons, a league record, mostly for the Saints. He also was with the Falcons, Giants, Chiefs and Vikings, playing 382 total games.
The left-footed kicker from Denmark — his selection in February set off celebrations back home, where American football hardly is a sports staple — scored 2,544 points (565 field goals, 849 extra points). He is the all-time scoring leader for both New Orleans and Atlanta and was a five-time All-Pro.
A member of the NFL’s 1980s and ’90s All-Decade Teams, Andersen retired in 2004 with 40 field goals of 50 yards or longer, then an NFL mark.
He was presented for induction by his son, Sebastian. A soccer and team handball player back home, Andersen delivered an often hilarious speech emphasizing how strange the adjustment to kicking a ball that was not round could be. He also paid homage to his two homes.
“Good evening, Canton, Ohio,” he began. “Good morning, Denmark. My story isn’t only about my love for my country of Denmark and its people but also my deep appreciation and respect for what I discovered here in the United States of America.”
Jerry Jones joined the likes of George Halas, Art Rooney and Al Davis, owners in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The current Cowboys showed their gratitude to Jones by sticking around the area after winning the Hall of Fame game on Thursday night. They were in the stadium for his induction, which Jones earned not only for winning three Super Bowls within six years of buying the team but also for being a power broker within the NFL.
Jones took the NFL by storm when he bought the Dallas Cowboys and, within three years, won the Super Bowl. He added two more rings in the next three seasons.
A key figure as the league grew to a multi-billion-dollar business, Jones has had a hand in many important decisions, from TV contracts to sponsorships to labor issues. Yet he admitted in his speech that before buying the franchise, he had “become afraid of business heights” after several failed enterprises. But he also learned, “Don’t let anyone know you are scared, and just keep on keeping on.”
He swallowed hard and bought the team that was losing $1 million a month. Now, his Cowboys are valued at $4.2 billion by Forbes, which makes them the most valuable franchise in the world.
“As someone who owned a team, I was always thinking how we could go to the next level,” Jones said.
Jones wore a pair of custom-made shoes gifted to him by Nike chairman Phil Knight. He was presented for induction by his wife, Gene, who has never missed a Cowboys game since the Jones family bought the team in 1989.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.