CANTON, Ohio – Michael Irvin helped Dallas win three titles in four years. Thurman Thomas helped Buffalo to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Bruce Matthews played more games on the offensive line than anyone in the history of the game.
Charlie Sanders was a pioneer for pass-catching tight ends. Gene Hickerson led the way for two Hall of Fame running backs and led Cleveland to 15 straight non-losing seasons.
When it came to Roger Wehrli, the significance of his enshrinement among six men in the Class of 2007 was somewhat simpler.
He was the only defensive player, which also makes him part of an increasingly rare group. In short, while defenses may be the catalyst for titles, they are decreasingly successful in helping players arrive at these hallowed grounds.
As the Pro Football Hall of Fame celebrated its latest class of players on Saturday night, it did so in typical fashion. There were poignant moments, such as Hickerson being pushed across the stage in a wheelchair by former teammates Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell.
There was the tear-jerking moment when Sanders said "Hi Mom" to his mother who died when he was just two years old. There was the tearful testimonial of Irvin to his two sons as he pleaded with them not to repeat his mistakes.
But quietly overlooked in the glorification of the game is the fact that defensive players aren't getting their due.
Over the past seven years, only eight defensive players have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Almost as many coaches and old-timers (a combined six) have made it. By contrast, 23 offensive players have been added.
That's a lowly 22 percent, contributing to a trend that Dallas Morning News reporter and Hall of Fame selector Rick Gosselin pointed out earlier this week. Of the 249 men in the Hall, 85 were coaches, owners, commissioners or players from before 1950.
Of the remaining 164, only 58 played defense. That's 35 percent, well off the equal division of labor in the game. While those stats tell the story, it's also stats that create the story according to those involved.
"I think it has to do with the columnists and sports writers and what they see in the game," said Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson, who presented Wehrli. The two were teammates for four years with the St. Louis Cardinals. "They're more concerned about scoring and offense than they are about defense. I also think the writers of today don't have the feel that some of the older writers had for who is really contributing in the game."
Said Hall member and former linebacker Harry Carson: "So much of the criteria that goes into judging who gets into the Hall of Fame has to do with statistics, and statistics are much easier to examine for running backs, wide receiver and quarterbacks."
Carson is a prime example. He is the only inside linebacker who played primarily in a 3-4 defense to make the Hall of Fame. Middle linebackers such as Dick Butkus have made it, but inside linebackers are often overlooked because of how they must play.
"The style an inside linebacker has to play suppresses what he's able to do," Carson said. "You have to play with much more discipline. When you're a middle linebacker, you're allowed to run free and rove the field much more."
Even defensive positions that generate stats are getting overlooked. Gosselin pointed out Saturday that there's a backlog of pass-rushing defensive ends/linebackers on the Hall of Fame docket, including Derrick Thomas, Richard Dent, Charles Haley and Fred Dean. In three years, Bruce Smith will also come up for election.
Is there a solution?
Carson had one suggestion. He said adding former players to the selection committee would help provide perspective. There are currently 40 selectors, all of them members of the media.
"My point is that I'd love to lobby for some Hall of Fame guys to be on the committee that selects to give input to guys in the media that maybe don't know what it's like and what type of contributor a certain player really is," Carson said.
Perhaps all those defensive players can take heed from the advice Irvin gave as he summed up his speech. He was recalling the moment a year ago when his sons asked him if he thought he'd ever make it to the Hall after seeing teammate and good friend Troy Aikman get inducted.
Irvin was unsure, afraid that his many off-field transgressions would be held against him. But as he considered the moment, Irvin said he heard the voice of God talking to him.
"Look up, get up and never give up," Irvin recalled.
- Michael Irvin