On an unseasonably cool summer night in the birthplace of professional football, seven more immortals swelled the ranks of the Pro Football of Fame to 310.
The group included an owner, a quarterback, two running backs, a pass rusher, a hard-hitting safety and a kicker.
As the safety, Kenny Easley said, “To my fellow 2017 Hall of Fame classmates — (kicker) Morten Andersen, (running back) Terrell Davis, (owner) Jerry Jones, (defensive end) Jason Taylor, (running back) LaDainian Tomlinson and (quarterback) Kurt Warner, could be the start of a pretty good team, wouldn’t you say, Jerry?”
Similar to Davis, Easley, elected as a Seniors candidate 24 years after he first became eligible, had an outstanding career cut short by injury. He played seven seasons and 89 games and was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1981 when he had three interceptions for 155 yards, including an 82-yard touchdown. Easley was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1984 when he had 10 interceptions with two touchdowns.
Easley noted, “Some folks said, ‘I deserved to be in the Hall of Fame earlier.’ I don’t believe that. Others said, ‘Maybe he didn’t play long enough.’ I don’t believe that either.
“But my pastor, Tyrone Armstrong, (who is) here tonight … has said many times: ‘There is a season for everything and while we sometimes try to figure it out, God has already worked it out.”
Davis played only seven seasons and 78 regular-season games but surely made them count, especially the 1998 season. That year, Davis became the fourth player in history to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a season (2,008) while scoring a league-leading 21 rushing touchdowns and leading the Denver Broncos to their second straight Super Bowl championship.
During the 1997-98 postseasons, Davis set an NFL record with seven consecutive games with 100 yards or more. In his 78 games, Davis rushed for 7,607 yards and 65 touchdowns, including five as a receiver.
Two players were inducted in their first year of eligibility, bringing that total to 80 of the 310 players, coaches and contributors enshrined: Tomlinson and Taylor.
An accomplished runner and receiver, Tomlinson totaled 13,684 yards and 145 touchdowns rushing while adding 624 receptions for 4,772 yards and another 17 touchdowns. Just for good measure he also had seven touchdown passes.
In 2006, he was named the league’s Most Valuable player with 2,323 combined yards from scrimmage (1,815 rushing and 508 receiving on 56 receptions). He scored 28 rushing and three receiving touchdowns for an NFL season record of 31 touchdowns and 186 points.
Taylor had 139.5 career sacks and more than any other player from 2000 to 2011. Like Tomlinson, he had an award-winning year in 2006 when he was named Defensive Player of the Year. That season, he had 13.5 sacks, two interceptions returned for touchdowns, 11 passes defensed, 10 forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 62 tackles.
What stands out Taylor’s big-play ability. In his career, Taylor had eight interceptions for 100 yards and three touchdowns to go with a league record-tying 29 opponents’ fumbles recovered, NFL record six touchdowns on fumble recoveries and three safeties.
Taylor attended college at Akron, just up the road from Canton. Taylor said, “Twenty miles away. Might as well have been a million. Back then, I couldn’t fathom that over the next two decades, step by step, I’d travel those 20 miles to be on this stage, wearing this jacket, 20 years to travel 20 miles, but it was worth every bit of it.”
He recalled how difficult his first camp was with then-head coach Jimmy Johnson when he wanted to quit after five days and called his mom saying this NFL thing might not be for him.
“She said, ‘OK, come home, get a job, join the military or get your butt ready for practice.'”
Taylor concluded by imploring everyone “to enjoy the journey” and “appreciate those around you and articulate that appreciation.
“Ease is a greater threat to growth than hardship. So keep moving, growing, learning, loving. I couldn’t have made it these 20 miles over 20 years if I hadn’t had you at my back, my side and out front. My football career ends right here, tonight. My gratitude is eternal.”
Andersen, enshrined in his fourth year as a finalist, kicked for an astounding 25 seasons until he was 47 years old, played 382 games and established records for games, points (2,544) and field goals (565). He was the career scoring leader for both the Saints and Falcons, and was named to two All-Decade teams for the 1980s and 1990s.
Andersen becomes only the second kicker-only to be enshrined, 26 years after Jan Stenerud’s induction in 1991. Stenerud is from Norway and Andersen from Denmark.
Andersen said, “I’m honored to join my new Hall-of-Fame brother Jan Stenerud tonight along with all these great legends of the game. Jan, you set the standard and it was high. All specialists owe you a debt of gratitude for your unselfish trailblazing. You’ve always carried yourself with dignity and grace and have been a tremendous friend and adviser through this process.”
Jones, also president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, bought the team in 1989 for $140 million. It is now worth an estimated $4 billion. His aggressive style brought the league to a new level of marketing and promotion, and contributed to revenue growing to nearly $10 billion a year. Jones also had the vision to build AT&T Stadium, affectionately known as “Jerry’s World.”
The Cowboys won three Super Bowls in his first seven years of ownership, but haven’t won once since. He has said the biggest lesson he learned about being an owner is how difficult it is to win.
Perhaps the most unlikely path of any player that ended in Canton was Warner. Cut by the Green Bay Packers in 1994 after being signed as an undrafted free agent, Warner was a standout in the Arena Football League for the Iowa Barnstormers and didn’t get another opportunity until 1998 with the St. Louis Rams.
Nearly cut that training camp, Warner made the team and the rags to riches story materialized the following year after Trent Green tore an ACL in the team’s third preseason game. Then-head coach Dick Vermeil uttered the famous words, “We will rally around Kurt Warner and play good football.”
Did they ever.
He passed for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns in a season that culminated with a Super Bowl victory over the Tennessee Titans when he passed for a record 414 yards and was named Super Bowl MVP. He led the Rams to another Super Bowl two seasons later and to the Super Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals in the 2008 season.