By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Ah, there’s nothing like a road trip with a couple of old friends: good tunes, the open road, relentless ribbing, reflections on good times and an unspoken certainty of new memories about to be created (I’ll touch more on this later). This week’s “view” headed west to the bleachers of Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio to celebrate the induction of Washington Redskins greats Darrell Green and Art Monk into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (HOF). Sharing the honors were fellow 2008 HOF inductees Andre Tippett, Fred Dean, Gary Zimmerman and former Kansas City Chiefs defensive back and Redskins coach Emmitt Thomas. The reported attendance was just shy of 17,000 and from my perch in the stadium about 16,000 were Redskins fans. To be sure, there were a few large contingents from “The County” in attendance, a couple of which we ran in to before and after the enshrinement ceremony.
To a man, the 2008 HOF inductees possessed uncommon talent and unquestioned character. They were throwbacks to a previous generation of team-first individuals who played the game with love, passion, and a deep respect for fans and their opponents. They were class acts that represented themselves, their team and their profession well. Their resumes lack selfish acts, brushes with the law and shameless self-promotion so common with today’s players. These six men are now HOF players, but after listening intently to their speeches, their stories, I was struck by their HOF credentials as people. None of the speeches contained significant content about football. Instead, each man reflected on their personal journey, thanked friends and family for support and various coaches for opportunities. Despite their talent and success, these men recognized they stood on foundations laid by others.
These were men grounded in family. They spoke of the support of their parents and grandparents, the love of their spouses and their commitment to their children. In fact, it was in reflecting on these relationships, not when recalling their football careers, that they were moved to tears. Three of the more poignant and emotional moments of the ceremony were when the son’s of Thomas, Green and Monk presented their fathers for induction. The relationship between these three fathers and their sons was both inspiring and challenging (at least for this son and dad).
They all shared stories of personal struggles and loss. Thomas lost his mother at age 8. Green lost two childhood friends early in life and both of his parents are deceased. And Monk shared that he lost his biggest fan, his father, just a couple of years ago. Through their stories these great, powerful and graceful men of the gridiron seemed very real. It added a human element to their extraordinary lives that was unexpected yet welcomed and very moving. I was also struck by the fragility of their football careers. Each had particular moments when his HOF career, if not his football career, hung in the balance. Fred Dean shared that he was an undersized kid with a penchant for trouble and for scrapping and fighting schoolyard bullies. A teacher suggested he channel his aggressions through the game of football. Darrell Green played football on and off in high school, wasn’t offered a college scholarship but got into tiny Texas A&I on a grant after some assistance from a coach. He got homesick, quit for a while but returned a year later. Gary Zimmerman went to the University of Oregon intent on playing middle linebacker. He thought it a bit odd when he was issued #75 (a common number for lineman) before his first practice. He was informed he was better equipped to play offensive line. Instead of pouting and complaining, he proved his coach’s instincts correct by becoming one of the best offensive linemen in NFL history.
Like the thousands in attendance at the enshrinement, I thought I was going to Canton simply to celebrate the accomplishments of a select group of football players. Boy do I feel naïve and a bit foolish now. After all, I started this column with a belief that sports often reflect on our daily lives. So you think I might have had a clue what a HOF induction had to offer. Not even close. What I, and the others in attendance, stumbled on was something much more significant than a football party. Collectively these gentlemen painted a portrait of success in the game of life. These were men that overcame their share of adversity, got a little lucky and took advantage of the opportunities life, and specifically football, presented to them. They are proof that adversity is no match for perseverance and the human spirit. They are reminders that opportunity often arrives in disguise, is recognized only with an open mind and is seized by tireless effort and dedication. Even at the apex of their professional lives, they all remain grounded in and devoted to their families. Not one of them forgot the origin of their journeys and the people that steered them with good advice at each fork in the road. Nor should we let the wisdom of our elders go unheard. Rather we must heed their advice, harness our own experiences and offer our knowledge on the next generation. Lastly, the 2008 HOF class reminds us to believe in our abilities and stay focused on our dreams. Emmitt Thomas summed it up best when he said, “through faith, hard work and determination…(we) have a chance to rise from the most modest of circumstances and become a Hall of Famer…just like this old, un-drafted free agent country boy from Angleton, Texas.” That could have just as easily ended with, “from St. Mary’s County, MD.” You just never know.
Extra Innings: As my friends and I have aged, dispersed, multiplied and acquired greater responsibilities, it has become challenging to get together and indulge in the shared interests and hobbies that bound us as children or young adults. We often find ourselves swimming constantly upstream, barely keeping pace with the frenetic pace of life. This past weekend was a reminder of the importance of making time for good friends and family. To be sure, Redskins fans traveled to Canton, Ohio this past weekend to celebrate the accomplishments of Art Monk and Darrell Green; immortals in Redskins lure. But I observed friends and family using this opportunity to celebrate two men, a game and a franchise that has provided countless binding experiences over their lives. Thousands of football fans took the time to travel to the HOF to decompress, rewind, party and re-connect. I recommend the same. So take time to do what you enjoy doing. Call up a good friend and plan a trip or some quality time away. What are you waiting for? Do it.
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