The special Centennial Class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame was announced Wednesday morning on NFL Network, sending 15 individuals to football immortality in Canton: Harold Carmichael, Jim Covert, Bill Cowher, Bobby Dillon, Cliff Harris, Winston Hill, Jimmy Johnson, Alex Karras, Steve Sabol, Donnie Shell, Duke Slater, Mac Speedie, Ed Sprinkle, Paul Tagliabue, George Young. Judy Battista explores a group of men whose impact essentially spans the entire history of the league.
When the concept of a Centennial Class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame was hatched, the idea was to create 15 additional spots for some of the players, coaches and contributors who had been part of the NFL in its earliest days, or whose candidacies looked better with the passage of time.
Super Bowl winners Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson were announced this past weekend as the two coaches who made the Centennial Class, which was chosen by a special 25-member panel that included a handful of journalists who are Hall of Fame voters and, among others, Bill Belichick, John Madden, Ozzie Newsome and Bill Polian.
The rest of the class announced Wednesday morning covered even more ground, with a group that includes 10 players whose careers spanned every decade from the founding of the league in the 1920s to the 1980s, and three contributors who reshaped the NFL, one of its flagship teams and how we view the game.
It’s hard to argue with the class of players, who go as far back as Duke Slater, the tackle whose career began even before the NFL was formed. In 1922, he played for the Milwaukee Badgers and later was a member of the Rock Island Independents. When he signed in 1926 with the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals, he was one of just five African-American players in the league.
Among others on the list are Alex Karras, a star defensive tackle for 12 seasons during the 1960s with the Detroit Lions. He was famously suspended for a year — along with fellow Hall of Famer Paul Hornung — for gambling, but he may have become even more renowned after he retired from the game for his successful acting career. Winston Hill, a tackle for the New York Jets during the 1960s and 1970s (before spending his last season with the Los Angeles Rams), protected Joe Namath’s blind side in Super Bowl III and helped power the Jets‘ 142-yard rushing attack that day. He is the most decorated Jets player in history, receiving accolades at both left and right tackle. Another member of the “Steel Curtain” defense, Donnie Shell, is also in. Shell, who played safety in Pittsburgh from 1974 to 1987, owns four Super Bowl rings, and had 51 interceptions and 19 fumble recoveries. He was a three-time first-team All-Pro and likely had to wait this long because so many of his former teammates — legends like Joe Greene and Jack Lambert — went in before him. Shell is now the 10th member of the great Steelers dynasty to be in the Hall of Fame.
Shell is one of three players in the Centennial Class who played in the 1980s. Harold Carmichael played for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1970s and 1980s, before spending one year with the Dallas Cowboys. He caught passes in 127 games and caught more than 40 passes in nine consecutive seasons. When he retired, he ranked in the top 10 in several career categories. He made the cut in this Centennial Class over other receiver nominees Cliff Branch and Drew Pearson.
The headliner of the class, though, is likely to be former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Tagliabue succeeded Pete Rozelle in 1989 and served for 17 years. His most critical accomplishment was crafting, with players union chief Gene Upshaw, a collective bargaining agreement that gave the NFL an extended period of labor peace, which in turn helped produce record television contracts. The league expanded from 28 to 32 teams during his tenure, he helped return a team to Cleveland after Art Modell moved to Baltimore and he was a prime figure in keeping the Saints from leaving New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He was a champion of diversity, including the creation of the Rooney Rule. But questions over how the league handled the burgeoning issue of concussions made Tagliabue a divisive figure among Hall of Fame voters. This was the fifth time he was considered for election.
Former New York Giants general manager George Young resurrected the Giants from one of the franchise’s bleakest periods of futility, which culminated in 1978 with Joe Pisarcik’s famous fumble. He was hired in 1979 and his first draft pick was quarterback Phil Simms. Two years later, he drafted Lawrence Taylor. Later, he added Carl Banks and Jeff Hostetler. And he promoted Bill Parcells from defensive coordinator to head coach. The Giants won two Super Bowls under Young, and men he hired (Ernie Accorsi and Jerry Reese) constructed the rosters that won New York’s most recent two Super Bowls.
Steve Sabol created NFL Films with his father, Ed. His artistic vision changed how football was watched and elevated sports highlights to art. NFL Films has won more than 100 Emmy Awards and Steve won 35 himself for writing, editing, directing, producing and cinematography. Steve had long said that if NFL Films were to be honored by the Hall of Fame, it should be his father who goes in first. Now, they are both in.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.