By Craig Ellenport
No matter how cool it is to be here in Canton, Ohio, and meet living legends of the game who are here as returning membears of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the NFL’s Youth Summit always seems to provide the most inspiring moments of the weekend.
For me, that inspiration came during Saturday night’s lavish banquet at the Glenmoor Country Club. The food was inspiring, and so was NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s message to the youth coaches in attendance – a message of appreciation for all these coaches do to help mold the kids they are coaching, both on and off the field.
NFL.com’s Mikko Simon and I sat at a table with two former NFL players who are both coaching high school football here in Ohio. Between them, former Cardinals, Bengals and Redskins defensive lineman Keith Rucker and former Bears and Giants linebacker Maurice Douglass have a combined 16 seasons of NFL experience. But sitting together at dinner, they had no interest in reminiscing about their days in pro football.
Instead, they shared notes about youth coaching – some x’s and o’s, but mostly stories about how to best handle the kids they have taken under their wings.
Rucker told a story about a sophomore who was one of the best players on his team, a kid who had been home-schooled up until high school and just never felt comfortable on the football team. Coach Rucker talked to the kid’s mom. All he said was that her son was good enough to earn a college scholarship playing football. “I’m going to be coaching this team whether your son plays or not,” he said. “This isn’t about me or about winning football. This is about giving your son a chance to go to college.”
No happy ending here, as the kid never went back to the team. And sometimes he hangs out with a questionable group of kids at school. But Coach Rucker stays on top of him, looking out for him even though it’s got nothing to do with winning or losing football games.
“I like to coach life,” he said. Listening to Rucker and Douglass talking about how much they learned at the Youth Summit, and how inspired they were to be around all these high school coaches from around the country, is what this weekend is all about. These guys, who played football at the highest level, have virtually nothing in common with others at the Summit – small-school coaches from Maine to New Mexico. Nothing, that is, except a love of football and a passion to teach.
Meanwhile, the common bond between those returning Hall of Famers is never as strong as it is on Saturday afternoon of enshrinement weekend, when they gather behind closed doors for the Nitschke Luncheon. Named for Packers Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke, who was the most passionate speaker at this annual luncheon before he died, this is an opportunity for returning Hall of Famers to address the incoming class. So Dan Marino and Steve Young would listen to the veteran members of this great fraternity tell them how special it is, how sacred it is. But with Nitschke gone and the loquacious Deacon Jones not around this year, the question arose: Who among the returning legends would step up?
“Not me,” said Art Shell when I asked him. “Maybe Upshaw,” he said, referring to Gene Upshaw his Raiders linemate. I saw Shell after the luncheon, and he said Upshaw stayed quiet. I guess the laid-back nature of Marino and Young rubbed off on the old guard.
Some other highlights on Saturday, which took place at the NFL Auctions signing room at the Marriott:
I spoke at length with Hall of Fame running back Jim Taylor, who was there with Vince Lombardi and the Packers as they won all those championships in the ‘60s, including the first Super Bowl – before it was called the Super Bowl. More importantly, he talked about having a stroke less than two months ago, and it was amazing to see how physically fit he was. Not bad for a guy who will turn 70 in September.
NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt held court with two of his better draft picks with the Dallas Cowboys – Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett. A few hours after signing for us, Staubach came back to our room and threw passes to NFL Auctions chief Anthony Stewart. “Admit it Gil,” said Stewart, “I’ve got good hands!” Sure enough, Stewart didn’t drop a pass, even when Staubach started zipping ‘em in.
This Canton Journal is getting me in trouble. Two days ago I said that Jim Zorn was the best lefty quarterback in NFL history. Well, today I got an e-mail from lefty quarterback – and NFL.com analyst -- Boomer Esiason. “You must have forgot because I played in the Bermuda Triangle (Jets, Bengals and Cardinals),” Esiason wrote, finishing with two words: “Jim Zorn?” Boomer, you know I love ya. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.
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