JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s a long process to induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While the only eligibility for players is to be retired for five years, the qualifications are stiff.
But they’re not spelled out.
If you were a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro player, you’ll get on the initial ballot, but pretty much any player who’s been out of the game for five years can be placed on the list through a simple call to Canton.
And that’s where it starts to get tough.
This year just over 100 former players were nominated for the class of 2018. That list was sent to the 44 members of the selection committee. Those selectors represent the 32 NFL teams, the Pro Football Writers Association, at-large journalists who cover professional football, and two current members of the Hall. The list has grown with NFL expansion as well as the desire of the Hall’s Board of Directors to include more “national” broadcasters and writers who don’t necessarily cover one team.
I don’t remember if there were many “at-large” selectors when I was asked to join the committee in 1995 as the Jacksonville representative but I do remember the committee was much smaller. At the time, pro football coverage was still dominated by the “legacy” writers and broadcasters of the game. Jack Buck, Will McDonough, Edwin Pope, Tom McEwen, John Steadman and Furman Bisher were all regulars. They were a tight knit group who traveled together, drank together and had definite opinions about who was worthy of induction to the Hall.
There wasn’t really a hierarchy, but certain members provided a little more clout than others. It always helped a candidate if they spoke up on their behalf. And almost always sank their candidacy if a negative opinion was offered.
Two things were certain in the early years of my membership on the committee: As the new guy I’d get lobbied by some other members to be a part of their cause and Jack Buck would always end the meeting with a hilarious, profane joke.
I’m not sure if I was the youngest guy on the committee, but the average age was 56 in the late nineties. It relied on some statistical analysis, but mostly on the “eye” test: Either a guy was a Hall of Famer or he wasn’t.
Now, the committee is younger, more broadly informed about everything that goes along with pro football (the explosion of information has helped that) and while the “eye” test is still a good gauge, statistics have a larger role in a player’s career.
From the more than 100 on the original list this year, the 44 members of the committee were asked to cut that list to 25, and then to 15. The 15 are called “finalists” and in the vernacular of the committee, they get “into the room” to be discussed at our annual meeting, the day before the Super Bowl.
The meeting used to start around 7AM and ended at noon because that’s when the press conference was scheduled for the announcement. Over the years that time has been pushed back to accommodate the meeting, and television, the NFL network, and now the NFL Honors show that airs on Saturday night.
Each player is presented to the committee by the media member from the city where he played the majority of his career. Sometimes two selectors will speak if a player, like Cris Carter, spent his career predominantly in two different places. (Philadelphia and Minnesota). The presentations are supposed to last about 5 minutes and are generally positive, although a player’s career is laid out including the ups and the downs.
A comment, question and answer period follows each presentation, so with 18 presentations including the contributor and the senior categories, it’s a long day. When I first joined the committee, coffee and pastries were offered before we started. Now the Hall of Fame staff provides two full meals.
Once the presentations have ended, a vote is taken to cut from 15 to ten, and then the ten remaining are voted on to cut the list to five. Even after that arduous process of getting to the final five, an up or down vote is taken on each of the final five with an 80 percent approval of the committee necessary for election to the Hall.
I used to sit at the meetings between Furman Bisher of Atlanta and Edwin Pope of Miami. Kind of an amusing coincidence since Jacksonville is between those two cities. Furman loved to talk about golf in North Florida, which courses he liked and what tour players he had no use for. He joked that he talked about golf since he didn’t have any Falcons to present to the selectors for the Hall. I can remember Furman making presentations for Deion Sanders and Claude Humphrey as players who spent parts of their career in Atlanta. By contrast, it seemed that Edwin was up and down in every meeting presenting the numerous Miami Dolphins who had made it into the final fifteen.
So I felt more like Furman than anybody else last year when I made the presentation for Tony Boselli. It was the first time in 22 years I’d been asked to make a presentation, with Boselli being only Jaguars player to ever make it into the room.
This year I’ll also present Tony to the committee. Last year he made the first cut to 10 but was eliminated in the cut to five. Sometimes that means a player has the support of a big part of the committee, other times it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s carry-over, sometimes there isn’t.
Nobody denies Tony’s Hall of Fame ability as a player. It’s the perceived brevity of his career that is the only sticking point.
That’s where there’s one difference this year that plays in Boselli’s favor. Last year’s class included Kenny Easley and Terrell Davis. Easley played 95 games, Davis 86. So length of career didn’t’ keep either one of those players out of the Hall and both played fewer games than Tony.
Will that matter? No prediction here out of respect for the entire process but I do think Boselli belongs in the Hall based on the criteria presented. With fifteen worthy players, including five offensive linemen on the ballot, for only five spots, the competition, like every year, is very tough.