NEW ORLEANS – The responsibility hit me as Dick LeBeau politely refused my request.
"I would really love to help you," LeBeau said as I showed him a list of the men eligible for induction this year to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "But I can't."
LeBeau said the experience of making the Hall as the Steelers defensive guru was simply too hard and too fulfilling to contemplate depriving from someone else. Understandable, but not helpful in my time of need.
For the first time in my 22 years of covering the NFL, I get the honor of voting for the Hall of Fame. As luck would have it, I come in during a year where separating the candidates is akin to staring into the sun for hours on end. The longer you look, the more painful it gets.
Let me clearly state that this task is really important, but it doesn't make me important. I'm merely one of 46 fortunate voters who gets a chance to discuss some of the greatest people to play, coach and/or otherwise contribute to the game.
In the 12 days since I have found out, I have talked to more than 60 former players, coaches, owners, executives and personnel men to gauge this group. Up for consideration are veterans committee nominees Dave Robinson and Curley Culp. Aside from them, there are 15 modern-day candidates: Charles Haley, Michael Strahan, Warren Sapp, Kevin Greene, Larry Allen, Jonathan Ogden, Will Shields, Andre Reed, Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Jerome Bettis, Aeneas Williams, Art Modell, Eddie DeBartolo and Bill Parcells.
The way it works is slightly complicated. Robinson and Culp are simple yes or no for the 46 selectors. Both can get in, but their election has nothing to do with the modern-age candidates.
Of the 15 modern-age candidates, up to five can get in.
My plan, as of this moment, is to vote for one of the three among Modell, DeBartolo and Parcells. I believe they're all deserving, but I want to limit it to one because I believe that players should go first. To take two of those three would subtract a spot from one of the 12 players.
Thus, my survey for the 60-plus men I talked to was simple: Pick four of the 12 players. I promised them all that their selections and opinions would be private. With the exception of LeBeau, the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator who got inducted in 2010, everyone participated in my survey. Only two of those surveyed didn't name a full list of four, but all of them spent a pretty serious time considering the list.
While I have previously written which five I would select, that column came before I was asked to serve as a voter. Armed with that responsibility, I wanted to be as thorough as possible. It's one thing to write a column about your gut reaction to a group of candidates. It's another one to know that you're doing something as serious as …
"Life changing, absolutely," said general manager and Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome, whose Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday. "When you stand next to the men in that group, it's an extraordinary feeling."
Thus, I put it to the men who have played, coached and researched the game.
"Man, that's hard," most of them said. Some started naming players in rapid fashion. Once they got to six, I gently reminded them that they only get to vote for four.
Yeah, that's right. Welcome to my world.
Of course, I know from watching the process over the years what's coming when Saturday ends and the results are announced. The second-guessing will start from all over the country.
How could you keep that guy out? What are you possibly thinking, that guy is an obvious Hall of Famer? Is your head wedged so far up your rear that you can't see the truth?
And that's just what my wife will say.
[Winners/losers: Departing Ray Lewis leaves behind complicated legacy]
The reality is that this is hard. In doing the survey, I would be hard pressed to say that more than four or five ballots were the same. Everybody was all over the place in their opinions. Yeah, there were some obvious leaders, but nobody who was a unanimous selection.
Just consider the exchange between myself and former NFL quarterback and personnel man James Harris, who spent a long time examining the names.
As Harris finished, I looked at him and said, "I know it's hard, they're all good."
"No," Harris said, turning to me and speaking in a polite and firm tone. "They're all great."
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