By Craig Ellenport, NFL.com
Special to Profootballhof.com
Pioneers and trailblazers. The four newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, two from the sport’s infancy and two from its most modern of eras, bring special legacies to the already unique fraternity they have entered.
Benny Friedman, Fritz Pollard, Dan Marino and Steve Young were enshrined in the Hall this afternoon, bringing pro football’s list of immortals to 229. The near-record crowd of 21,766 at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio, was awash in Dolphins orange and blue, and Marino was clearly the star attraction of the day.
Marino rewrote the NFL passing records and still owns the career marks for career yards and touchdowns. But the Class of 2005 enshrinement proved to be as much about history as records.
Marino, and Young - who made history as the first lefty quarterback to enter the Hall - both acknowledged the lessons learned in being part of an enshrinement class with two of the league’s pioneers.
Friedman was the first true passing quarterback and Pollard was a great running back who also became the first African-American coach in pro football history.
“He had the speed of Tony Dorsett, the elusiveness of Barry Sanders and the tenacity of Walter Payton,” said Steven Towns, Pollard’s grandson, who made the acceptance speech.
Of course, Pollard’s greatness on the field was matched by his will to overcome the discrimination and hardships that came with being a black athlete in the 1920s. For a time, Pollard was the highest-paid player in football – yet he still had to dress in a car outside the stadium.
Many among the Pollard family thought this honor was long overdue, but it didn’t make the day any less enjoyable. Towns admitted he had a “strange range of emotions” about the path to his grandfather’s enshrinement, but added it was a “dream come true.”
He also noted how proud Pollard would be to see the advancements that African-Americans have made since his day.
“It would literally have knocked his socks off,” said Towns. “He would have been thrilled to death about the progress the league has made.”
Towns was also glad to see that Pollard’s enshrinement has educated today’s players. “A lot of younger players are finally starting to get a sense of who he was and what he meant to the history of African-Americans in football. Until we really understand our history, we’re never going to appreciate the gains we’ve made.”
Chicago Tribune football writer Don Pierson, who championed Friedman’s selection and presented him, admitted to the crowd that, “We know why most of you are here, but if you are a true fan of the sport, then you need to first know about Benny Friedman and Fritz Pollard.”
Pierson elaborated on the accomplishments of Friedman, how his passing numbers were unheard of in an era when rules discouraged teams from passing. He shattered the single-season record with 20 touchdown passes for the New York Giants in 1929. That number may pale in comparison to the modern era numbers, but Pierson was quick to note: 20 TDs in a season is more than any Chicago Bears quarterback has thrown in 38 of the last 39 seasons.
“Dan and Steve,” Pierson said, “you have a special reason today to thank Benny Friedman.”
Meanwhile, Marino and Young both had a sense of football history at a very young age. Both visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame as kids, only to see their busts take a place in the museum alongside their heroes.
Marino, a kid from western Pennsylvania, recognized the rich history of quarterbacks his region had produced. Immortals such as Johnny Unitas, Joe Mantana and Joe Namath. “No doubt, when I was younger I thought about being Joe Namath,” said Marino, who ironically threw some of his most memorable touchdown passes against Namath’s Jets.
Not that Marino dealt with the same hardships that Pollard did with racism or Friedman with an awkward-sized football and archaic rules, but the NFL’s all-time leading passer did have to sweat out the 1983 draft, in which he saw five quarterbacks taken ahead of him.
“I will say it was an interesting day,” Marino said. “I’ve always been asked the question: ‘Did it bother me that 26 teams passed on me in the first round?’ and I would always answer no. Well, I lied. Today I want to thank those 26 teams for passing on me. It gave me an opportunity to play for one of the greatest franchises in the NFL, the Miami Dolphins, to be coached by the greatest coach, Don Shula.”
Steve Young also had some hardships to deal with, as he toiled with the USFL’s Los Angeles Express, the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then under the shadow of Joe Montana before reaching his pinnacle with the San Francisco 49ers.
“In between was a lot of failure and a lot of success,” said Young, who led the NFL in passing four straight seasons (1991-94) and still owns the highest career passer rating. “I know the road to greatness is not a smooth path. Learning from our failures… is as important as learning from our success.”
History lessons were on display in Canton from start to finish on Sunday, and now the stories of Friedman, Pollard, Marino and Young will be immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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