CANTON, Ohio – Willie Roaf was in an unfamiliar role – the center of attention in front of a large crowd, being singled out for something good.
No, make that: Something great.
With current Saints players standing and cheering, the former New Orleans offensive tackle led a charge of linemen into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, a six-man induction that tilted toward those who relish the less-than-glorious role.
Four linemen were included – Roaf, Chris Doleman, Cortez Kennedy and Dermontti Dawson, along with running back Curtis Martin and 1950s cornerback Jack Butler.
Roaf led it off with a speech short and humble, fitting someone who played a stellar career appreciating the scrums rather than the spotlight.
“You know, it’s an offensive lineman,” said Roaf, who was hard to get around on the field. “I didn’t get singled out in front of a large audience very often, and when I did, it was usually by a referee who was singling me out by saying, ‘Holding No. 77.’
“That’s not going to happen today. And it wasn’t too often when I played.”
Roaf was one of the greatest players in Saints history, so good that he regularly made the Pro Bowl even though New Orleans had only one winning season in his nine years there.
After Roaf left the podium, the rest of the enshrinement acquired a strong Pittsburgh flavor.
And, in the end, Martin brought the audience to tears.
The Patriots and Jets running back described his life growing up in a rough Pittsburgh neighborhood – in a household where his father tortured his mother by setting her hair on fire and burning her legs with cigarettes.
His mother was tough on him, urging him to play football to stay out of trouble. It helped him survive and thrive.
“My greatest achievement in my life was helping my mother and nurturing my mother,” he said.
Martin started 119 consecutive games with the Patriots and Jets, ending his career as the league’s fourth all-time rusher. He joined Barry Sanders as the only runners to start their careers with 10 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Hundreds of Steelers fans filled the field and stands, waving yellow “Terrible Towels” to celebrate the city’s starring role in the evening. Two of the new Hall of Famers played for the Steelers – Butler and Dawson. Like Martin, Doleman played at Pitt.
No one is more popular in Pittsburgh than Dawson, who succeeded Mike Webster as the Steelers’ center, then followed him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He played in 170 consecutive games, reached the Pro Bowl seven straight seasons, and led the way for Jerome Bettis to become one of the NFL’s top rushers.
In many ways, Dawson followed Webster’s lead.
“Mike was a leader whether he wanted to (be) or not because he led by example, and I tried to emulate everything Mike did,” Dawson said. “Mike had a profound impact on my life and even today, I try to lead by example and be like Mike.”
Dawson chose high school football coach Steve Parker to present him.
“I came across this person who I thought was a man,” Parker said. “I said to him, ‘Sir, may I help you?’ He said he goes to school here, and I said, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ ”
Doleman also traces his football roots to Pennsylvania, where he grew up and went to college. He recalled that his father had one rule: Finish what you start.
“Thank you for teaching me the importance of finishing what you started,” Doleman said. “And if it’s any indication today, I finished the game I signed up for.”
Kennedy has something of a bond with Roaf. Like the offensive tackle from New Orleans, the defensive tackle from Seattle excelled on bad teams. It was his sustained excellence – not his team’s success – that got him into the hall.
Kennedy grew into the game’s top defensive tackle during his 11 seasons with Seattle, able to stop the run or rush the quarterback. Even though Seattle went 2-14 in 1992 and Kennedy got double-teamed, he was so good that he was chosen the league’s best defensive player.
“That’s bad when you go to the game and the defensive coordinator says, ‘Guys, we’re not going to win the game. Let’s don’t embarrass ourselves.’ You know we’re in for a long year then,” he said.
Butler, inducted second, took the most unexpected path to the hall. He didn’t play football in high school, picked the game in college at St. Bonaventure and entered the NFL as an undrafted player in 1951, just another player filling out the Steelers roster.
Said Butler, now 84, “Heck, I’m thankful I’m here. I thank you all.”