Canton, Ohio -- Now that five new members have been enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, bringing the roll call of the game's greatest up to 221, it's not too early to look ahead to the Class of 2004… and beyond.
And there are some big names coming down the pike.
Broncos quarterback John Elway and Lions running back Barry Sanders will be eligible for next year's class, and their friends and relatives might as well book their hotel rooms in Canton now. In 2005, the new eligibles will be Dan Marino, Steve Young and Michael Irvin. In 2006, there will be a serious logjam with six worthy players who will be eligible for the first time: Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Andre Reed, Deion Sanders, Thurman Thomas and Reggie White.
One former player who will probably be seriously debated is the late Derrick Thomas, who will be eligible for the Class of 2005. One of the game's most feared pass rushers, Thomas died in February 2000, from injuries suffered in a tragic car accident.
Thomas played 11 seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs. He set team records with 126.5 career sacks, 3 safeties, 18 fumble recoveries and 45 forced fumbles. He had a team-record 20 sacks in 1990, including an NFL-record 7 sacks in one game.
"I think he'll make it," said Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, when asked who the next Chief to make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame might be. "I feel really sure that he will be there… He was a dominant player. I'm not a voter, but I would certainly think he would be a really good choice."
Happy anniversary: With the Pro Football Hall of Fame celebrating its 40th anniversary, 116 enshrinees made it back to Canton for an "NFL Homecoming." And perhaps the most impressionable fans were the new members.
"The jacket was great," said Elvin Bethea, talking about getting his gold Hall of Fame jacket for the first time at Saturday's civic dinner. "But what was even better was to shake hands with all those guys."
Joe DeLamielleure was thrilled to meet former Lions linebacker Joe Schmidt, who was inducted into the Hall when DeLamielleure was a kid growing up in Detroit. "To think that I'm part of this, I can't believe it. We're all lucky to be here."
Heisman hype: Marcus Allen is the seventh Heisman Trophy winner to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the first since Earl Campbell in 1991. The others: Tony Dorsett, O.J. Simpson, Roger Staubach, Paul Hornung and Doak Walker.
Huff-ing and puffing: A return to Canton brought back fond memories for the 115 Hall of Famers who were here this weekend. Enshrinement… parades… VIP treatment. But for former Giants and Redskins linebacker Sam Huff, there is also the distinction of starring in the first-ever Hall of Fame Game.
While this is the 40th anniversary of the Hall of Fame, it is actually the 41st year of the Hall of Fame Game. The first one, played on Aug. 11, 1962, was a 21-21 tie between the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals. Huff was quick to point out that he scored the game's first touchdown on an interception return and was named the game's MVP. Of course, back then players were busy working offseason jobs, so they were not in great shape when training camp started. What Huff remembers most about the touchdown was how winded he was after the play.
The digital age: Three hours before the ceremony began, the returning Hall of Famers all gathered in front of the steps of the Hall for a photo op of historic proportions. It was a logistic challenge, to be sure, but eventually everyone was in place -- with the exception of new enshrinee James Lofton, who was missing in action. "Just take the picture!" yelled Lynn Swann from the back "This is 2003. We can put him in digitally afterwards."
Worth the trip: It's less than a four-hour drive from Buffalo to Canton, but Bills fans haven't had much of a reason to make the trip for enshrinement weekend until recently. The first member of the Bills to be enshrined in Canton was O.J. Simpson in 1985. It was a long wait after that, but the floodgates have opened. Since 1999, four Bills have been elected into the Hall, and that doesn't include James Lofton, who played four years in Buffalo. The others: Billy Shaw (1999), Marv Levy (2001), Jim Kelly (2002) and Joe DeLamielleure (2003).
Extra points: With Hank Stram's enshrinement, there are only four coaches among the top 15 in all-time victories that are not in the Hall. Three of them are still active -- Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer and Bill Parcells. The only retired coach on the list who is not enshrined: Chuck Knox… Elvin Bethea is the fourth player from the draft class of 1968 to reach the Hall of Fame, joining Larry Csonka, Art Shell and Ron Yary… Not only did Joe DeLamielleure pay tribute to sports journalism by having long-time Buffalo sportswriter Larry Felser as his presenter, but he also paid tribute to Will McDonough, who passed away last winter, during his enshrinement speech… DeLamielleure would have been Bo Schembechler's first recruit when the legendary coach took over at Michigan, but DeLamielleure's dad wanted him to go to Michigan State instead.