CANTON, Ohio — After some waited decades to get the call from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they waited an additional twelve months for the ceremony because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Class of 2020 and the Centennial class both got their moment Saturday night.
Fifteen were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020 as part of its Centennial Class. The group was selected to honor the NFL’s 100th anniversary. The Class of 2020 included former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, former Broncos safety Steve Atwater, former Vikings and Seahawks guard Steve Hutchinson, former Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce and former Colts running back Edgerrin James.
Called “the best teammate I ever played with” by Peyton Manning, James led the league in rushing his first two seasons. He then overcame a severe knee injury to remain a major force in Indy before finishing his career with three seasons in Arizona and one in Seattle.
James immediately paid tribute to his mother during his speech. “To my mama, we’re here,” he said with a chuckle. “No blueprint, no manual, and most importantly no man. I’m your man.”
He also delivered a message to society: “Just do your job. If everyone would do their job, the whole world would be a better place.”
Bruce starred at Memphis, was a second-round draft choice by the Rams in 1994, and broke through the next season with 119 catches for 1,781 yards. Bruce had eight 1,000-yard receiving seasons and 91 touchdowns. His most famous score came on the winning touchdown in the 2000 Super Bowl, a 73-yarder from Kurt Warner.
“Coming from the heart tonight,” Bruce said before saluting his 14 siblings. He then recognized “the defensive backs that baptized me — and the ones I baptized.”
Atwater, a mainstay in Denver for 10 seasons, including two Super Bowl victories, and a final year with the Jets, was at his best in big games. In the Broncos’ Super Bowl victory against Green Bay, he had six tackles, a sack and two pass breakups. With a stunning 1,357 tackles, Atwater made the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team, and might be best remembered for leveling Chiefs running back Christian Okoye, who outweighed Atwater by 40 pounds.
“I am humbled and honored to wear this gold jacket,” Atwater said before looking around at the other Hall of Famers on the stage. “What a group we have up here.”
Twelve inductees are scheduled to participate in the ceremony in person. Polamalu has been at home since late last month, and his status for the enshrinement ceremony had been in doubt after testing positive for COVID-19. He was cleared medically to travel to Canton and took part in the Hall of Fame parade in the morning. He was to be the 10th speaker to the podium Saturday night.
Polamalu, who didn’t get his gold jacket with the rest of the class on Friday, was officially awarded a gold jacket to open the ceremony.
Five members of the Class of 2020 and seven members of the Centennial class took part Saturday night. Eight additional members of the Centennial class were honored posthumously during the ceremony.
Two members of the Centennial class — Harold Carmichael and Cliff Harris — opened the evening. The final two speakers of the evening scheduled to speak were also each from the Centennial class — Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher.
Carmichael, a Philadelphia Eagles star receiver from 1971-83 who finished his career with one year in Dallas, had three 1,000-yard seasons in an era when the passing game was not as prominent as it is today. He averaged a touchdown every 7 1-2 catches and made the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team.
Carmichael was the league’s Man of the Year in 1980. “Whew, Baby,” Carmichael said when his bust was revealed. “I am so, so honored to be a part of this brotherhood, this fraternity, with love. What a journey.”
Harris was a standout tackler and cover man for the Dallas Cowboys from 1970-79.
“We were the Doomsday Defense.” Harris recalled. “The odds of me playing in the NFL, much less me standing here tonight, were incredibly long. I may be the only one who knows how truly slim that chance was, but if I could make it, anyone can achieve their goals. The key is to never quit.”
The other Centennial class enshrinees to speak at Saturday’s ceremony were former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, former safety Donnie Shell and former tackle Jimbo Covert. There were video tributes scheduled throughout the ceremony to honor the eight members of the Centennial class who were enshrined posthumously — Bobby Dillon, Winston Hill, Alex Karras, Steve Sabol, Duke Slater, Mac Speedie, Ed Sprinkle and George Young.
“This is like a dream come true,” Tagliabue said. “The centennial class spans pro football history.”
Tagliabue noted that he took Pete Rozelle’s advice to “think league first.”
“I wanted to keep his bedrock principle in mind,” Tagliabue said.
Because of the size of the class and the trend of some of the enshrinees’ speeches topping 20 or 30 minutes in recent years, the Hall of Fame has told each of them that their remarks were not to exceed six minutes and that an Academy Awards-style musical cue would be used at eight minutes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.