CANTON, Ohio — A combined 55 Pro Bowl selections, one of the league’s most successful owners and one of its formative personnel executives were represented among the eight newest enshrinees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 on Saturday night at Tom Benson Stadium.
Almost everyone who stepped to the podium battled, unsuccessfully and happily, to fight back tears, and all struggled mightily to thank those who had significant impacts on their lives, on and off the field, as each feared leaving someone out.
This year’s ceremony formally enshrined former Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, New England Patriots cornerback Ty Law, New York Jets center Kevin Mawae, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt and Chiefs safety Johnny Robinson.
Tony Gonzalez thanks his mother, Judy, for everything she did to help him be successful and reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gonzalez, a 14-time Pro Bowl selection who played for the Chiefs and Falcons, led the league in receptions (102) in 2004 and finished among its top 10 in receptions five times. He is the first tight end to be enshrined in his first year of eligibility and is second all time in receptions for a tight end with 1,325.
From a man who blocked for Curtis Martin to one of the defensive anchors of the Patriots’ first Super Bowl team, we celebrate the Pro Football HOF Class of 2019. | 7 p.m. ET, Saturday (ESPN).
Gonzalez had perhaps the toughest task Saturday as he stepped to the podium more than four hours after the start of the ceremony. But he joked to the crowd, “Thanks for sticking around.”
Gonzalez talked of the importance of his time at the University of California, including his time with the Golden Bears basketball team, and said he actually was “afraid” of the contact when he started playing youth football. He also recounted how a run-in with a school bully, and his refusal to fight, shaped him. He said he eventually decided, “I will never be afraid again.”
Gonzalez held his notes, written on stationery with the words “Think Big” printed across the top of the page.
“It’s not about the touchdowns, it’s not about the catches, it’s not about the glory,” Gonzalez said. “The most learning you’ll do comes through the bad times.”
Gonzalez joked that his 101-year-old grandmother, who was in the crowd, gave him the best advice: “When you catch that ball, run like hell.”
Gonzalez also read a letter he had written to his children and left for them Saturday morning, including the line “comparison is the thief of joy” as they carve out their own lives and take on their own fears along the way.
“See the greatest version of yourself,” Gonzalez said.
During his speech at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Champ Bailey pleads for everyone to listen when African Americans discuss race in America.
Bailey, a cornerback for the Redskins and Broncos, was a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, a three-time first-team All-Pro selection and an all-decade pick for the 2000s. He finished his career with 52 interceptions.
Bailey fought back tears as he opened his presentation, before joking, “OK, I’ll remove my sunglasses so you can see my joy and because my wife said so.” He added, “I want to start by thanking God for Broncos Country.”
Bailey explained that his mother gave him the nickname Champ, saying, “Thank you, Mom, for all that pressure.” Bailey, whose given first name is Roland, thanked his father, his siblings, his children, his family and a host of friends and teammates.
Bailey explained how football brought so much good to his life, but also emotionally acknowledged that he “missed or dismissed” other things, including some of his children’s events, because he wasn’t mature enough to “prioritize” things as he attempted to succeed in the NFL.
Bailey acknowledged the impact Hall of Famers Darrell Green and Deion Sanders had on him during his time with the Redskins. “Then,” Bailey said, “the best thing to happen in my career happened in 2004: I was traded to the Denver Broncos.” He went on to talk about fellow 2019 enshrinee Bowlen, and acknowledged the Bowlen family in the crowd.
He closed his presentation with a call for a dialogue on race relations in the United States, speaking of the importance of strong voices among black men. He also urged white men to seek to gain a better understanding of the challenges black men face.
“You want to create change, you better start with your friends and your family,” Bailey said. “On behalf of all the black men that I have mentioned tonight and many more out there, who have had most of the same experiences that I’ve had in my lifetime, we say this to all our white friends: When we tell you about our fears, please listen. When we tell you we are afraid for our kids, please listen. When we tell you there are many challenges we face because of the color of our skin, please listen and please do not get caught up in how the message is delivered.
“I believe if we start listening, there’s no telling the progress we can make. All of us are dads, sons, bothers, your friends. All of us understand if we can’t get our friends to listen, then no one will. And to my black brothers, if you do not have anything positive to say about our social challenges, please keep your mouth shut.”
Ed Reed reflects back on his Ravens career that earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Reed was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection who led the league in interceptions three times and finished as the all-time leader in interception-return yardage (1,590). He spent the bulk of his career in Baltimore but also played for the Jets and Texans. He had seven seasons in which he had more than 100 yards worth of interception returns, four with more than 150 yards of interception returns and two seasons with more than 200.
Reed’s father, Edward Reed Sr., was his presenter Saturday night, and choked back the tears to close the video that was played to the crowd.
Ed Reed stepped to the podium in a gold hat that matched his newly minted jacket, cigar in hand, as he recited the “Athlete’s Prayer” to open his presentation. He said he’d read the poem before every game.
Reed took a moment to thanks fans and Hall of Fame volunteers as he went through his football life and he shouted to the crowd, “There’s no place like Baltimore, no place like Baltimore.”
“There’s no GOAT in this game, because none of us can do this without our teammates,” Reed said. “You’ll have to excuse me, I just wrote this sitting right there in that chair.”
An emotional Reed, as he thanked many of his former teammates as well as his family, said, “This is tough, man, this is tough.” Reed also talked of his aunt, who was in a hospital and could not travel to the ceremony.
Reed took a few moments to address mental illness as well as victims of recent mass shootings.
“America, what is our standard?” Reed said. “That’s what we need to do, help each other, lift each other up.”
Reed told a story of a police officer in his Louisiana hometown who once took him home when he was young, saying that he told the officer, “Don’t do that. Take me to jail, because my mama’s at home.”
He also joked that he had 30 combined interceptions against the Browns and Bengals: “It’s not my fault y’all kept changing quarterbacks.”
In addition to his family, teammates and coaches, Reed also thanked a vast assortment of people, including trainers, equipment staff and even “my two barbers.”
Patriots great Ty Law speaks highly of his parents and their impact on a career that took him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Law, the former Patriots, Jets, Chiefs and Broncos cornerback, was a three-time Super Bowl winner who did some of his best work in the postseason. He had six interceptions in 13 career playoff games, including three in New England’s run to close out the 2003 season with a Lombardi trophy; he finished with 53 career interceptions, including a league-leading 10 in 2005 as a 31-year-old.
Longtime friend Byron Washington, who was Law’s presenter Saturday night, said, “He wasn’t cocky, he was confident.”
Law said he brought notes to the podium because he had “forgot a couple things” when he spoke at a ceremony for the Patriots Hall of Fame.
“I had to believe in myself, I had to believe in myself a lot,” Law said as he offered memories of growing up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, “even if we were competing at being knuckleheads. … It wasn’t all fun and games,” but, “I knew I wanted to be different.”
Law asked those from Aliquippa in attendance to stand as he tearfully thanked his mother: “We bent, we never broke, and we came out the other side. … Nobody can ever take that away from us, nobody can take that from you — I love you.”
He also thanked his father and explained why two seats were left empty next to his mother as he acknowledged his grandparents, who are deceased: “I would not be here without my grandparents. They did everything for me.”
Law also had his former Patriots teammates stand in recognition of their role with the now six-time Super Bowl champion franchise, saying, “Let’s keep it real, we started this s—.”
Jets legend Kevin Mawae gets emotional as he talks about his brother John, who died in a car accident early on in Kevin’s NFL career.
In addition to the Jets, Mawae played center for the Seahawks and Titans. Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells said Mawae was unlike any other player at the position. In his career, Mawae blocked for five running backs, including Hall of Famer Curtis Martin, who combined for 13 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Mawae’s presenter was his wife, Tracy, who referenced the death of Mawae’s older brother, John, in a car accident two years after Mawae’s NFL career began. Tracy Mawae also recounted each stop in Mawae’s career and said, “Kevin was loyal to every team he was on, loyal to his teammates, loyal to his family.”
Mawae said he was proud to be the first Hawai’ian enshrined in the Hall of Fame and gave a nod to several Hall of Fame offensive linemen, including Dwight Stephenson and Anthony Munoz. Mawae also acknowledged his parents as well as his two brothers in the audience as he wiped away tears.
Mawae recounted starting football as an 8-year-old when his father was stationed with the military in Germany, as well as a junior varsity game in Louisiana when he didn’t get to play and he vowed it would never happen again: “I would never step off the bus and not step on the grass.”
He thanked all of his former head coaches, offensive line coaches and others who had influenced him in his career, as well as one opposing coach — the Patriots’ Bill Belichick, for challenging him in every game: “Holding your defense to zero sacks and having a big rushing day was a big accomplishment.”
Mawae also had his former teammates, at all levels, stand to be acknowledged.
The 86-year-old Brandt led off the evening. His career in football began with the Los Angeles Rams in 1955, and continues today in his variety of radio and television duties. In his 28-year run with the Cowboys, the team had 20 consecutive winning seasons, won 13 division titles and had two Super Bowl victories.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who once fired Brandt, called him “a once-in-a-lifetime man.” Brandt chose Jones as his presenter and thanked the owner Saturday.
Brandt gave some of his speech while briefly seated in a chair just behind the podium before standing, and he even referenced the Canton Bulldogs, NFL champions in 1922-23, as he opened his remarks, saying, “No, I didn’t scout for the Canton Bulldogs.”
“The lifeblood of every team is the players,” he said.
Brandt added a list of former Cowboys whom he said “should be in the Hall of Fame,” including safety Cliff Harris, cornerback Everson Walls and wide receiver Drew Pearson. Brandt also outlined the Cowboys’ early use of computers and acknowledged all of the “scouts in the audience and watching on TV.”
Brandt has often been credited with aiding the movement of scouting and player evaluation into the computer age. During his tenure, the Cowboys also mined smaller schools for talent — such as Hall of Famer Bob Hayes — as well as scouting players in other sports, becoming regulars at the NCAA track championships as well as early scouting forays into Europe and Canada.
Johnny Robinson, who was the Seniors Committee selection, followed Brandt. Robinson was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, as well as a six-time first-team All-Pro selection as a defensive player. He started his career on offense, rushing for 458 yards as a rookie and had two 600-yard receiving seasons in the earliest days of the AFL.
He led the AFL in interceptions with 10 in 1966, and then led the NFL in interceptions with 10 in 1970 — the year of the NFL/AFL merger — at age 32.
Robinson’s toughness was lauded, as was his playmaking abilities as he was presented by his stepson, Bob Thompson.
“I never dreamed I would become a professional football player … to my surprise I was selected the No. 3 player [in the draft],” Robinson, 80, said.
Robinson recounted the advice from his father about winning and losing, about working harder and to “always respect your mother,” and he closed his presentation with, “God gave me the ability to play the game of football and I played it with all my heart.”
Pat Bowlen is represented by his family as the late Broncos owner is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Bowlen, who died in June after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease, is the only owner in NFL history whose team tallied 300 wins in the first 30 years of his tenure, and he also served as an important voice in league affairs during his time on several committees, including the management council executive committee and broadcasting committee. During his tenure, the Broncos had the same number of Super Bowl appearances as losing seasons: seven.
Broncos trainer Steve Antonopulos, known as “Greek” to everyone with the team, including Bowlen, was Bowlen’s presenter and said Bowlen was about “football first, business second.”
Bowlen’s children appeared in a video played for the crowd as Antonopulos said, “Mr. B, this one’s for you.” Six of Bowlen’s children then took the stage as Bowlen’s bust was unveiled, and they each hugged and kissed the bust.
Former Broncos stars Shannon Sharpe, John Elway, Terrell Davis and Bailey, all among the Hall of Famers on stage, got up after the video to hug the family members as well.