CANTON, Ohio (WFAN/AP) — The linemen led the way as they always do, accepting their inductions into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with an abundance of humility.
New York Jets’ icon Curtis Martin finished the evening by supplying plenty of tears.
The last of the six players to have their bronze busts unveiled Saturday night, Martin used the big stage to recall his rough life, his mother’s pain and his life-long indifference to the game that allowed him to become famous.
“I don’t necessarily have notes, so I’m going to just bare my soul,” Martin cautioned. “So bear with me.”
His moving story was the longest of the six and had the audience of 12,100 cheering supportively whenever one of the NFL’s greatest running backs got choked up or lost for words. It was quite a way to end a three-hour induction that celebrated some of the game’s best blockers and tacklers.
Linemen Willie Roaf, Chris Doleman, Cortez Kennedy and Dermontti Dawson and 1950s cornerback Jack Butler were the first inducted, accepting their honor with simple thanks and generally short stories.
All the way through, the evening had a strong Pittsburgh flavor.
Hundreds of Steelers fans sat on the field and in the stands, waving yellow “Terrible Towels” to celebrate the city’s starring role. Two of the new Hall of Famers played for the Steelers — Butler and Dawson. Doleman and Martin played for the University of Pittsburgh after growing up in Pennsylvania.
When it was time for Martin, a former Jets star, to finish the evening, Broadway Joe Namath couldn’t help but notice the “J-E-T-S! J-E-T-S!” chants were getting overwhelmed.
“I hear a lot of big mouths from Pittsburgh out there,” he told the crowd. “And justifiably — yes, yes!”
Martin soon had them dabbing their eyes.
He described growing up in a rough neighborhood in Pittsburgh, the son of an alcoholic father who would beat and torture his mother by setting her hair on fire or pressing burning cigarettes to her legs. His mother, Rochella, wiped tears from her eyes as he shared his story, occasionally pausing to collect himself.
“My greatest achievement in my life was healing my mother and nurturing my mother,” Martin said.
She urged him to play football to stay out of trouble. Even when New England coach Bill Parcells decided to draft him out of Pitt, Martin wasn’t sure he wanted to play. His pastor told him he could use football as a platform to do greater things.
“I played for a purpose bigger than the game because I knew that the love for the game just wasn’t in my heart,” Martin said.
He followed Parcells to the Jets and finished his career and the fourth-leading rusher in NFL history. Parcells became one of his biggest influences, and Martin chose him for the introduction on Saturday.
“He has tremendous compassion for his fellow man,” Parcells said. “He is, I think, the poster child for what the NFL is supposed to be. You come into the league, maximize your abilities, you save your money, you make a smooth transition into society and then you pass all those things on to other people. That’s what this guy has done.”
The night that belonged to those who didn’t have it easy.
Roaf was inducted first and set the tone. Standing in front of the large crowd in an unfamiliar role — getting attention for something good — he acknowledged feeling out of place.
“You know, it’s an offensive lineman,” Roaf said. “I didn’t get singled out in front of a large audience very often, and when I did, it was usually by a referee who was singling me out by saying, ‘Holding No. 77.’
“That’s not going to happen today. And it wasn’t too often when I played.”
Roaf was one of the greatest players in Saints history, so good that he regularly made the Pro Bowl even though New Orleans had only one winning season in his nine years there. His induction gave the franchise something to celebrate after an offseason clouded by its bounty scandal.
Saints players sat in the last three rows of seats on the field, wearing black t-shirts with Roaf’s No. 77 on the back. They’re in town to play Arizona in the Hall of Fame preseason game on Sunday night.
Kennedy has something in common with Roaf. Like the offensive tackle from New Orleans, the defensive tackle from Seattle excelled on bad teams. It was his sustained excellence — not his team’s success — that got him into the hall.
Kennedy grew into the game’s top defensive tackle during his 11 seasons with Seattle. Even though Seattle went 2-14 in 1992 and Kennedy got double-teamed, he was so good that he was chosen the league’s best defensive player.
“That’s bad when you go to the game and the defensive coordinator says, ‘Guys, we’re not going to win the game. Let’s don’t embarrass ourselves.’ You know we’re in for a long year then,” he said.
Dawson got the Steelers fans revved with his induction speech honoring the town and the franchise. Dawson succeeded Mike Webster as the Steelers’ center, then followed him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Mike was a leader whether he wanted to (be) or not because he led by example, and I tried to emulate everything Mike did,” Dawson said. “Mike had a profound impact on my life and even today, I try to lead by example and be like Mike.”
Dawson chose high school football coach Steve Parker to present him. If not for Parker, he might not have played the game. Dawson had a bad experience playing the sport in middle school and quit.
Parker met him in a hallway of their high school during his junior year and made him rethink.
“I came across this person who I thought was a man,” Parker said. “I said to him, ‘Sir, may I help you?’ He said he goes to school here, and I said, ‘Where have you been all my life?'”
Doleman also traces his football roots to Pennsylvania, where he grew up and went to college. He recalled that his father had one rule: Finish what you start.
“Thank you for teaching me the importance of finishing what you started,” Doleman said. “And if it’s any indication today, I finished the game I signed up for.”
Butler, inducted second, took the most unexpected path to the hall. He didn’t play football in high school, picked the game in college at St. Bonaventure and entered the NFL as an undrafted player in 1951, just another player filling out the Steelers roster.
Butler, now 84, thanked his family and friends for being in Canton for his long-awaited moment.
“Heck, I’m thankful I’m here,” he said. “I thank you all.”
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