One of the reasons to like the 2011 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame is that the seven men being inducted today encapsulate every aspect of NFL greatness: Flashy offensive playmakers and hard-hitting defenders. Players who entered the league as stars and players who had to fight just to make a roster. Old-school veterans who have been largely forgotten by today’s fans, and modern players who ushered in a new era of NFL stardom.
Plus the man who did more than anyone to document the NFL’s history.
Here’s our primer on the seven men whose Hall of Fame busts will be unveiled this evening in Canton, Ohio:
Richard Dent was a key member of the great 1985 Bears team, recording a league-leading 17 sacks that season and turning in a three-sack performance in Super Bowl XX, earning him the game’s MVP award. Few players in all of football caused opposing teams as much concern as Dent, who was a major threat to every quarterback he faced. Dent had more than 10 sacks in eight different seasons with the Bears.
Marshall Faulk was a unique offensive threat in NFL history: There may never have been a player who could be so productive as a runner while simultaneously being a serious deep threat as a receiver. Everyone remembers that Faulk was a great player on a great team when he got to the Rams in 1999, but it’s often overlooked that he was also a great player on a bad team with the Colts before that: Sports Illustrated proclaimed him the best player in football when he led the league in scrimmage yards with the 3-13 Colts in 1998. Faulk is one of only two players ever to have 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season, and the only player ever to have more than 12,000 rushing yards and more than 6,000 receiving yards in his career.
Chris Hanburger was an 18th round pick of the Redskins in the 1965 NFL Draft, and he didn’t just make the team: He quickly became a team leader and the defensive signal caller. Hall of Fame offensive lineman John Hannah once called Hanburger “the smartest player in the league,” but he wasn’t just a cerebral player. He was also a vicious hitter who earned the nickname The Hangman.
Les Richter was a star guard and linebacker at Cal in the early 1950s and the Dallas Texans selected him second overall pick in the 1952 NFL draft. He served in the Army for two years before heading to the NFL, and the Los Angeles Rams thought so highly of him that they traded 11 players to acquire him. Richter played nine seasons with the Rams as a linebacker and kicker and was chosen to eight Pro Bowls. Richter died last year at the age of 79.
Ed Sabol created something extraordinary with NFL Films. Until Sabol came along, no one ever dreamed that you could take highlights of a football game, add an operatic musical score and booming-voiced narration, and actually make it feel more exciting than the experience of watching the game live. NFL Films’ style wonderfully captures the drama of football, and Sabol had a stroke of genius when he decided to put microphones on players and coaches, showing the fans far more about what goes on at field level than they ever could have known. And don’t overlook just how much fun Sabol had with football: Before NFL Films introduced Football Follies, the concept of a blooper reel was viewed as an insult to the players whose mistakes were chronicled. But the way NFL Films presented the bloopers had everyone laughing too hard to take offense.
Deion Sanders was a star unlike anything the NFL had seen before. On the day the Falcons drafted him fifth overall he was wearing more gold around his neck than Mr. T, and he talked more about what he would do with his signing bonus than what he would do on the field. But Sanders was more substance than style: He quickly emerged as a dominant shutdown cornerback and game-changing kick returner for the Falcons, then left for the 49ers and helped them win a Super Bowl, then left for the Cowboys and helped them win a Super Bowl, too. Sanders retired after playing the 2000 season with the Redskins, then came back for two more years with the Ravens in 2004 and 2005, before finally walking away for good at the age of 38.
Shannon Sharpe was a big part of the offense on three Super Bowl-winning teams, two with the Broncos and one with the Ravens. No one could have predicted that when Sharpe entered the league as a seventh-round draft pick out of Savannah State, known mostly as the little brother of then-Packers receiver Sterling Sharpe. (Shannon said this week that he thinks he’s the only Hall of Famer who isn’t the best football player in his family.) But Sharpe quickly established himself as a great player in his own right, a powerful blocker and major receiving threat. He retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in catches (815), receiving yards (10,060) and receiving touchdowns (62) by a tight end.
That’s the class of 2011, a great cross section of NFL greatness.