Enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn’t hold the same mystique and aura to me, as being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. However, I understand the magnitude of the honor and this week salute those that were inducted on Saturday.
I suppose the Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn’t excite me as much as the baseball hall because, well, I never worked in pro football, nor have I ever been really close or friends with many pro football players. Sure I’ve known a few former football players over the years, many of whom live right here in Tulsa, but it’s not the same.
Football wasn’t the first sport that I got interested in as a child; baseball was. I began collecting baseball cards; I snuck in through the fence to watch the minor league team in my hometown play (the Jamestown Falcons as they were known then), my uncle and cousin worked for that team years before I did, and eventually I spent 11 years working for the Jamestown Expos.
I’ve been to Cooperstown, New York, and the Baseball Hall of Fame five times. I’ve been to Canton, Ohio, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame once.
All of that may be why I love baseball more than football. With that being said, I did watch some of the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony and I was especially interested in former Buffalo Bills General Manager Bill Polian’s induction.
Growing up just 60 miles south of Rich Stadium, now called Ralph Wilson Stadium, I grew up a Bills fan. The greatest success the Bills had was during the years that Polian was the general manager. He put together a team that included Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Steve Tasker and Tulsa resident Jerry Ostroski, to name a few.
“Buffalo’s boys of autumn,” he said during his speech, referring to the Bills of the late eighties and early nineties. “They brought a team, a town and a dream together like few others in NFL history.”
That team won a record four straight AFC titles and went to a record four straight Super Bowls (albeit losing all four). That’s unheard of and certainly unprecedented in the NFL today.
Polian’s first job in the NFL was as a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs. He then became a scout with the Montreal Alouettes and director of player personnel with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League. He built Grey Cup Champions with both CFL teams. Polian then became the personnel director with the Chicago Blitz of the USFL, before taking the job as general manager in Buffalo.
Polian worked with Marv Levy in Kansas City (1978-82) and in Chicago (1984), and hired Levy to be head coach of the Bills (1986-1997).
“Bill was very loyal to people who work hard, who are dedicated,” Levy said. “Tremendously loyal, and that’s why he used to erupt sometimes with members of the media, when some guy was criticized, Bill came to his defense.”
Polian gave a lot of credit to Levy for the success he had as a football executive.
“But for Marv, I would not have a career in pro football, let alone be standing here,” Polian said. “He is my mentor, my role model, my friend. I have very often failed to live up to his example, but I never failed to continue to try. Because for me, he represents all I ever aspired to be when I was a young man dreaming impossible dreams. I am thrilled, that on this great day, I can take another walk, side by side, into these hallowed halls, with the man who did so much to put me here. Thank you, Marv.”
Polian had great success everywhere he went. Winning Grey Cups in the CFL, four AFC titles in Buffalo, he was hired as the first general manager of the expansion Carolina Panthers (1995-97), and he won a Super Bowl as G.M. of the Indianapolis Colts (Feb. 2007).
Also enshrined last weekend were Junior Seau (Chargers 1990-2002, Dolphins 2003-2005, Patriots 2006-2009), Jerome Bettis (Rams 1993-95, Steelers 1996-2005), Charles Haley (49ers 1986-1991; 1998-99, Cowboys 1992-96), former Packers executive Ron Wolf, Tim Brown (Raiders 1988-2003, Buccaneers 2004), Will Shields (Chiefs 1993-2006) and Mick Tingelhoff (Vikings 1962-78).
Seau committed suicide with a gunshot wound to the chest in 2012 at the age of 43. Later studies by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of chronic brain damage that has also been found in other deceased former NFL players.
Tingelhoff, who suffers from memory loss, didn’t deliver his own speech. Instead, longtime friend and teammate with the Vikings, Fran Tarkenton gave a very emotional speech while Tingelhoff stood at his side.
Tingelhoff’s health issues, coupled with the exhaustion of a busy week in Canton, led his family to decide against having him read even a brief speech. However, he smiled and posed with his Hall of Fame bust.
“Mick’s a man of little words, but a lot of action,” Tarkenton said in his brief comments. “He’s so proud to be in this class of 2015. He waited 37 years to get to the Hall of Fame. He wanted me to tell all of his teammates who are here and thank them for being here. Our great coach and fellow Hall of Famer Bud Grant. All the Viking fans who came from all over the country. And all the rest of you fans, and even you Steelers fans who beat us in that Super Bowl. Thank you.”