Hall Homecoming is a special occasion

08/02/2003

As many times as I've been to Canton for the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend, it gets better every time. And to be here for the 40th anniversary "Homecoming" is really special. This event to me is like Christmas -- and the presents come in the form of a lot of great stories.

We set up shop in the Jackson Room of the downtown Marriott (see photos from the event), headquarters for the 115 returning Hall of Famers, and it gave us the opportunity to have some one-on-one access with some players I have had great respect and admiration for.

Former Giant and Redskin linebacker Sam Huff spent almost two hours chatting with us, and it was great to share some memories of his relationship with Tom Landry, who was his defensive coordinator with the Giants.

Huff told us about a game when the Cardinals lined up in a Split-T offense and ran the Giants out of town. The next time the Giants played the Cardinals, Huff gave Landry some coaching advice. He told Landry about the Wide Tackle Six defense they used at West Virginia. When Cardinals quarterback Lamar McCann lined up to take his first snap of the game, he was so confused by the defensive alignment Huff was calling that he had to call timeout! It was downhill for the Cards from there.

George Blanda explained to us how he ended up playing college football at Kentucky… even after he had committed to go to Penn. Some high school coach dropped off a train ticket to Lexington, and Blanda's dad, a coal miner, said, "You take that ticket and go to Kentucky." Now, Blanda played basketball as well as football, so going to Kentucky was an easy decision once legendary basketball coach Adolph Rupp told him he could play for them.

I also reminded Blanda of the time he killed our long streak of playoff appearances. It was actually the last game of Blanda's career. The Cowboys needed to win the final game of the season to make the playoffs. We went up to Oakland and Blanda threw the TD pass that sent us home.

Blanda is still in great shape… but he does need to wear his glasses. Without them, we were told, he walked right past former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw in the hotel lobby!

Deacon Jones demonstrates his head slap move to NFL.com's Anthony StewartPerhaps the highlight of our weekend was the chance to spend some time with the great Deacon Jones. When NFL.com's Anthony Stewart asked the Rams' fearsome pass rusher about his patented head slap technique, Jones was more than happy to demonstrate… using Stewart as his victim!

We also laughed when Jones told us the story of how he was bragging to a bunch of basketball players. "I can take care of any basketball player!" he taunted. Right on cue, the great Bill Russell walks into the room. "What did you say?" Russell asked.

"I didn't say anything," said Jones. That, of course, would have been a first.

These days, NFL teams pay their players so much money just to sign a contract. So it was also funny to here Jones recall how he had to pay his own way from Ita Bena, Miss., to New Orleans to sign his first deal with the Rams. And after he signed the deal, he still had to pay his way back home!

It was great to catch up with all these gridiron greats, and it was equally nice to meet with their wives and family. Hugh McElhenny's grandsons hung around with us while their grandfather signed helmets and footballs for NFL Auctions. And we were able to help the wife of Packers fullback Jim Taylor operate her new digital camera, as Jim posed with the likes of Steve Van Buren and Ace Parker.

As much fun as we had downtown at the Marriott, no visit to Canton is complete with a visit to the Hall of Fame itself -- and this year's trip was extra special. That's because the Hall just completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of the room where the busts are on display. And it is spectacular. The busts are now set up in a modern rotunda, surrounding state-of-the-art interactive kiosks that tell you everything you need to know about the greatest football players, coaches and executives of all time.

(And here's a tip: If you get a chance to visit, watch the video of Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm. That is yours truly standing next to Tex in a sideline shot.)

This is the second time in the last four years that the Hall has had one of these big reunions. It's not the kind of undertaking they can do that often. But the next time they try, I will have to make sure to return.

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