A month ago, Jan Stenerud fielded an inquiry from a man named Todd Tobias, an AFL historian who was trying to help one of Stenerud’s old teammates, Johnny Robinson, reach football immortality.
Stenerud, a kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs who was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame himself in 1991, was all ears. He had long felt that Robinson, one of the greatest safeties of the 1960s, had been forgotten to the passage of time, and agreed to do what he could to help support Robinson’s candidacy. That included making a few calls to Hall of Fame voters on Robinson’s behalf while Tobias spent the last few months gathering signatures for a petition and testimonials from former players and coaches.
“He’s been said, many times, to be the best player in the AFL not to be in the Hall of Fame,” Stenerud said. “And from what I remember, he was the coach on the field. He was the guy that directed on the Chiefs’ defense in those days. That doesn’t show up in stats, but that was very valuable.”
As Stenerud said, Robinson’s resume is legitimate. He was a champion, a man who won three AFL titles and Super Bowl IV with the Chiefs (his first AFL title was in 1962 when the franchise was the Dallas Texans). He earned the respect of his peers, earning seven Pro Bowl nods — back then, only coaches and players voted — and most important, was a first-team All-Pro selection seven times and second-team All-Pro selection twice. When he retired after the 1971 season he was the all-time interception leader among active players and third on the all-time list (he’s now tied for the 13th).
These are big numbers, better in nearly several categories than the likes of more recent players that you’ve probably heard of, like Seattle’s Kenny Easley, St. Louis’ Larry Wilson, Arizona’s Aeneas Williams and Dallas’ Mel Renfro, yet Robinson — a finalist six times — still remains on the outside looking in, likely because of an NFL bias that existed back then. When the two leagues merged in 1970, there were 14 NFL voters and eight AFL voters on the Hall of Fame committee, and a lot of AFL guys ended up getting the short end of the stick.
Fortunately for players like Robinson, there’s a mechanism for them to still get in if they fail to get elected to the Hall of Fame within 25 years of their retirement: the nine-man seniors committee, which is comprised of members of the primary Hall of Fame selection committee, all of whom are charged with narrowing an initial list of 100 candidates down to 15 by early August. The committee will then take those 15 guys, and discuss them — and only them — during a meeting in August to select a single nominee for induction into the Hall, which will be voted on by the entire 48-person committee at the annual meeting next February.
Robinson is among the 100 players currently under consideration, and one of the people Stenerud knew he should reach out to was Rick Gosselin, a longtime Dallas Morning News columnist who has been on the 48-man Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee for 20-plus years. Gosselin, who also serves on the seniors committee, says Robinson is one of several strong senior candidates this year, someone who could reach the 15-man cutoff and be in the mix for induction.
“He should have been in long ago,” Gosselin said. “But there are a lot of great players that slip through the cracks.”
Only one of those players will make it for the Hall’s class of 2019, and if that doesn’t sound like enough to you, you’re not alone. Gosselin, who keeps copious notes on potential seniors candidates and runs a Hall of Fame-oriented website called Talk of Fame Network, is often overwhelmed at the volume of players with strong cases.
“I’ve got a list of 98 names of seniors in front of me that I think deserve to be discussed, and we get to bring one out this year and next year we get to bring two out,” Gosselin said. “So every year, the abyss — which we call it — grows. Because every year, we’re getting more and more people whose 25 years expire and they get in here.”
Gosselin estimates every franchise has at least two, and sometimes three or four, former players they believe has been screwed over in the process. The Chiefs, for example, have a number of players with Hall of Fame cases, including Robinson, Otis Taylor, Ed Budde, Fred Arbanas and Jim Tyrer, and so do the Dallas Cowboys, who currently have the likes of Cliff Harris, Drew Pearson and Everson Walls on the outside looking in.
“If you multiply that by all the franchises, that gives you a list of 80 names right there,” Gosselin said.
So with the growing backlog, it’s not hard to understand why that leads to fans to take up the mantle for their favorite players, as Tobias has for Robinson.
Gosselin, of course, has heard from Tobias too, but this isn’t out of the ordinary for Gosselin, who regularly fields calls from people stumping for seniors committee candidates.
“I got two calls today, and I get emails and calls all the time,” Gosselin said with a laugh. “In the last 14 or 15 years, I’ve heard it all. I hear from people whose candidates I already know have no shot at getting in, and I’ve heard from people whose candidates should be in.”
The last time Gosselin has seen a campaign like Tobias’ for Robinson is with Green Bay Packers guard Jerry Kramer, who was finally put in by the seniors committee earlier this year after a 40-plus year wait.
But the unfortunate truth is, campaigns like the one happening for Robinson help only so much. Voters like Gosselin on the seniors committee know Robinson inside and out, but with the number of players who need to get in — and only three spots available every two years — this process will always be a numbers game until the Hall of Fame decides to add an additional slot for seniors, something the Hall has declined to do because the current setup retains the exclusivity that is so important to the institution.
“I know Johnny Robinson belongs in the HOF, and there’s nothing no one can show me or tell me that is gonna sway my thinking,” Gosselin said. “I’ve done the homework on it, and that’s the thing — they assume we’re not doing the homework on it. But we are.
“I wish we could get five every year,” Gosselin added with a laugh.
In the meantime, Gosselin and the other eight members of the seniors committee will do what they can to make the best of a tough job, with the knowledge that while one player will be thrilled with their decision in late August, far more will be devastated.
“Going to the Hall of Fame is a life-changing event — you’re changing people’s lives, and there’s a lot of guys that should be in the Hall of Fame and aren’t there,” Gosselin said. “So when you walk in that meeting every year, you end up feeling worse for the 14 we don’t elect than we do feeling good for the one or two we do, because you’re telling guys that have been waiting 25, 30, 40 years — and that’s how long Jerry Kramer waited — they got to wait another year. It’s tough. It’s gut-wrenching.”
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