Woodson, Smith, Thomas Highlight Pro Football's 2009 HOF Class

By: AP Email
By: AP Email

CANTON, Ohio (AP) -- Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson loosened up the crowd with a couple of anecdotes at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and Bruce Smith finished them off with a passionate tribute to Western New York.

All that was missing were the chicken wings, because the ceremony on Saturday night had a distinct Buffalo flavor to it.

"This certainly feels like a home game," said Smith, acknowledging the chants of "BRUUUCE!" which resounded through Fawcett Stadium long before former Bills defensive end and NFL's career sacks leader took the podium as the sixth and final inductee.

Though, he played the final four years of his career in Washington, Smith's best memories came in Buffalo, where he was two-time NFL defensive player of the year and part of a Bills team that won four straight AFC titles in the early 1990s.

"In the annals of NFL history, the sum total of my career will forever be defined by the 15 years I spent playing for the Buffalo Bills. And what a ride it was," Smith said. "Now I've come full circle, by the grace of God I stand before you today, humbled and honored."

Wilson, entering the Hall 50 years since founding the Bills, also paid tribute to his team's fans for their support despite the economic troubles that have had hit the rustbelt region for the past two decades.

"I picked Buffalo and it was a lucky pick," said Wilson, who makes his home in Detroit. "Over the years, the fans have supported the team in Buffalo beyond our fondest dreams. And without that support, I wouldn't be on this platform tonight."

Also inducted were Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, defensive back Rod Woodson, offensive guard Randall McDaniel and receiver Bob Hayes. Thomas, whose career was cut short in 2000 when he died following a car accident, and Hayes, who died in 2002 at age 59, were inducted posthumously.

Their inductions provided the most poignant moments of the 4-hour ceremony.

"For all Derrick Thomas fans, the light has gone back on," former Chiefs president Carl Peterson. "Today does culminate the life of a great NFL player, who did so much both on and off the field, a life that ended too young."

Despite playing only 11 seasons, Thomas had the most sacks of any NFL player through the 1990s. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and still holds the NFL record for most sacks in a game, seven. His 126 1/2 sacks rank fourth among linebackers.

"Derrick, you're in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and no one can ever take that away from you," Peterson said.

Hayes was introduced by his son, Bob Hayes Jr., who noted his father always wondered why it took so long for this achievement to happen.

"It hurts, because he should have been here to witness this special occasion. But unfortunately, he didn't make it to see it," Hayes said. "I know wherever he is, he's smiling down. He's happy. He knows what's going on."

Nicknamed "Bullet Bob," Hayes helped revolutionize the receiver position during an 11-year career -- the first 10 in Dallas, and one in San Francisco -- that ended in 1975. A star track athlete who won two gold medals at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Hayes' 71 career touchdown catches remain a Cowboys' record.

Woodson described himself as humbled, letting his numbers speak for themselves as during his playing days. Woodson was a triple threat during a 17-year career, in which he excelled at cornerback, safety and returning kickoffs.

The NFL's defensive player of the year in 1993, Woodson was an 11-time Pro Bowl pick and was selected to the NFL's 75th anniversary team while still playing. He appeared in three Super Bowls with three different teams -- Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Oakland -- and won one with the Ravens in 2001.

McDaniel was nearly lost for words, and jokingly suggested he didn't feel comfortable being up on stage alone without four other linemen next to him.

McDaniel was a 12-time Pro Bowl selection during a 14-year career, most of it spent with Minnesota. He was part of an offensive line that helped the Vikings score a then league-record 556 points in 1998, and blocked for six 1,000-yard rushers.

As expected, there was a huge turnout of Bills fans among the announced crowd of 12,695. Bills jerseys dotted the stadium, and provided the loudest roars any mention of Buffalo. Making the weekend complete is the Bills will play Tennessee in the Hall of Fame game on Sunday.

Perhaps one of the more inventive outfits was worn by Scott Snyder of Rochester, N.Y., who affixed four toy horse-drawn wagons to a Bills' hard hat and had them spinning around his head. The getup was in honor of ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman, who introduced Wilson, and is known for his catch phrase of, "No one circles the wagons better than the Buffalo Bills."

Many fans stopped to get Snyder's picture. He didn't mind the attention, though Snyder noted, with a laugh, "Now I know how Jessica Simpson feels."

Wilson's induction came as the NFL prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the American Football League. He was a member of the so-dubbed "Foolish Club," headed by late Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt.

Wilson provided a big laugh when recalling the first time he went to address his players in the locker room at halftime, during a game which the Bills trailed 21-7. The Bills then went on to lose 51-7, which led to coach Buster Ramsey approaching Wilson after the game.

"Buster said to me, 'Hey, Ralph, next time, talk to the other team," Wilson said with a laugh.

"It has been a grand ride for me, and tonight is the high point," said Wilson, who paid tribute to his daughter, Linda Bogdan, who died last spring. "My luck prevails, and closing in on 91, I still feel that I have youth on my side."


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