CANTON, Ohio — As he so often did on the field, LaDainian Tomlinson stole the show.
With a powerful speech calling for “Team America” to be a place for inclusion and opportunity, the great running back of the San Diego Chargers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night.
The 2017 roster of entrants into the shrine was deeply impressive: fellow running back Terrell Davis; quarterback Kurt Warner; defensive end Jason Taylor; safety Kenny Easley; placekicker Morten Andersen; and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
All spoke eloquently, with bursts of humor and heartwarming stories. But Tomlinson’s words resonated so strongly that he drew several standing ovations not only from the crowd of 13,400, but from his now-fellow Gold Jackets.
“Football is a microcosm of America,” Tomlinson said. “All races, religions and creeds, living, playing, competing side by side. When you’re part of a team, you understand your teammates — their strengths and weaknesses — and work together toward the same goal, to win a championship.
“Let’s not choose to be against one another. Let’s choose to be for one another. … I pray we dedicate ourselves to being the best team we can be, working and living together, representing the highest ideals of mankind. Leading the way for all nations to follow.”
Tomlinson and Taylor were elected in their first year of eligibility. Taylor’s emotional speech during which he had to pause several times to compose himself was another highlight.
A third-round draft pick from Akron — just down the road from the Hall of Fame — Taylor’s 139 1/2 career sacks helped him make the All-Decade Team of the 2000s. He also was the NFL’s Man of the Year in 2007.
“I honestly can’t believe I am here,” said Taylor, who kissed the shaved head atop his bust when it was unveiled. “In 1992 I was at the University of Akron, just 20 miles away. It took 20 years to travel 20 miles to put on this jacket. It was worth every step.”
The longest wait, 24 years, was by Easley, chosen for enshrinement by the seniors committee. The hard-hitting safety for the Seahawks and a member of the 1980s All-Decade Team played only seven seasons and 89 games. But what an impact he made as an intimidator and ballhawk.
The 1981 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Easley was the league’s top overall defender in 1984 when he had a league-leading 10 interceptions, a career high.
“I thank you for welcoming me into your exclusive club,” he said.
Andersen, the league’s career scoring leader, joined Jan Stenerud as the only placekickers in Canton.
A native of Denmark who knew nothing of American football when he came to this country as a teenager, Andersen played an incredible 25 pro seasons, a league record. A member of the NFL’s 1980s and ’90s All-Decade Teams, he played 382 total games, scored 2,544 points (565 field goals, 849 extra points) and is the all-time scoring leader for both New Orleans and Atlanta.
“Good evening, Canton, Ohio,” he began. “Good morning Denmark.
“My story isn’t only about my love for my country of Denmark and its people, but also my deep appreciation and respect for what I discovered here in the United States of America.”
It took Warner years to get discovered by the NFL. By way of the Arena Football League, NFL Europe — and stocking shelves at a grocery store in between football jobs — Warner stepped in when Trent Green tore up his knee in a 1999 preseason game.
He went on to win two NFL MVP awards and one league title, reinvigorating moribund Rams and then Cardinals franchises along the way.
“People say Hollywood couldn’t have written it any better,” Warner noted. “After this, they don’t have a chance.”
Davis had a similar story. A sixth-round draft pick after a nondescript career at Long Beach State and Georgia, his mercurial NFL stay (seven years, five of them spectacular) had been something of a hindrance for entry into the hall. But he was the catalyst for the NFL titles Denver won in 1997 and ’98 with another Hall of Famer, John Elway, at quarterback.
The 1996 and ’98 Offensive Player of the Year, 1997 Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and ’98 NFL MVP, Davis’ meteoric stint came to an ugly end with a devastating knee injury in 1999. That in great part kept him out of the hall for more than a decade.
Now, he is in, having overcome migraines that plagued him since he was a teenager — and overcome the questions over the longevity of his NFL stint.
“The overwhelming feeling running through my body is gratitude,” he said.
The current Cowboys showed their gratitude to Jones by sticking around the area after winning the Hall of Fame game on Thursday night. They were in the stadium for his induction, which Jones earned not only for winning three Super Bowls within six years of buying the team, but for being a power broker within the NFL.
Jones has been a key figure as the league grew to a multi-billion dollar business, having a hand in many important decisions, from TV contracts to sponsorships to labor issues.
“As someone who owned a team, I was always thinking how we could go to the next level,” Jones said.
That next level for “America’s Team” is a value of $4.2 billion, the most for any sports franchise.
“Buying the Dallas Cowboys frankly was that kind of risk, even exaggerated in my mind,” Jones said of the 1989 purchase. “But I knew it was now or never. Football kicked in.”