Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
The days are getting shorter, and there’s a crisp coolness in the evening air. That means football season is around the corner. The 2020 version of the National Football League’s schedule already looks and feels different amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Right now, fans would be watching preseason games intently to see which players might make their favorite team’s roster. This year, however, the NFL’s preseason was canceled. With no preseason games, the chances of an undrafted rookie free agent making the final 53-man roster of a team will be tougher than ever.
And that is truly a shame.
Surprisingly, 20 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame began their careers as undrafted rookie free agents. Drew Pearson, the standout receiver from the University of Tulsa who signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 1973, could become No. 21. Nominated in the Senior category this past week, the Hall’s full Selection Committee will consider him for enshrinement when it meets in February.
John Randle was one of those long shots who took advantage of an opportunity and turned it into a Gold Jacket.
Randle was an extremely versatile athlete, earning all-district and all-state honors as an offensive and defensive lineman at Hearne (Texas) High School, where he also ran track. He began his college football career at Trinity Valley Community College before he transferred to Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M-Kingsville). As such, he only played two varsity seasons for the Javelinas but managed to earn Little All-America acclaim.
Unlike his older brother, Ervin, five years earlier, the phone never rang for Randle on Draft Day. Tampa Bay selected Ervin, a linebacker, in the fifth round of the 1985 draft.
Disappointed but not undetermined, Randle never gave up his dream to play professional football.
“If I didn’t give it a try to come into the NFL, I would regret it for the rest of my life,” he shared.
The knock on Randle was his size. At 6-feet-2 and 247 pounds, most pro scouts doubted he could play defensive line in the NFL. Most teams projected him converting to linebacker.
A change in position didn’t interest Randle at all, so he took matters into his own hands. He began to research each NFL team and their schemes to see where he would fit best as a free agent signee. A short time later, he began pursuing the Minnesota Vikings.
Randle learned the Vikings’ roster included several defensive linemen considered “undersized” by NFL standards. He felt he was the perfect match as a situational pass rusher in the scheme defensive coordinator Floyd Peters was running at the time.
“I don't know if I've ever seen a kid work that hard to make a team. And he's so fast off the line,” Vikings head coach Jerry Burns said during the summer of 1990.
Although he didn’t earn a start, Randle played in all 16 games during his rookie campaign.
The tenacious Randle entered his second NFL season with the same sense of urgency that earned him a roster spot during his rookie campaign. He flourished that season and worked his way into a starting role on the Vikings’ defensive line.
By Year 3, he was one of the preeminent interior pass rushers in the league and reached the double-digit mark (11.5) in sacks for the first of eight consecutive seasons.
Randle would go on to earn spots on the All-Decade Team of the 1990s and the NFL100 All-Time Team.
Perhaps the sting felt after not being selected in the drafted is dulled just a little knowing his legacy is molded in bronze forever in Canton.
Undrafted Free Agents Enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio (Year designates first pro season)
Ed Sprinkle – E, Chicago Bears
Frank Gatski – C, Cleveland Browns (AAFC)
Lou Groza – T/K, Cleveland Browns (AAFC)
Marion Motley – FB, Cleveland Browns (AAFC)
Bill Willis – MG, Cleveland Browns (AAFC)
Joe Perry – FB, San Francisco 49ers (AAFC)
Emlen Tunnell – S, New York Giants
Jack Butler – CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Dick “Night Train” Lane – CB, Los Angeles Rams
Willie Wood – S, Green Bay Packers
Mick Tingelhoff – C, Minnesota Vikings
Willie Brown – CB, Houston Oilers*
Emmitt Thomas – CB, Kansas City Chiefs
Larry Little – G, San Diego Chargers
Cliff Harris – S, Dallas Cowboys
Jim Langer – C, Cleveland Browns**
Donnie Shell – S, Pittsburgh Steelers
Warren Moon – QB, Houston Oilers
John Randle – DT, Minnesota Vikings
Kurt Warner – QB, St. Louis Rams
* Cut during training camp by Oilers, then signed with Denver Broncos.
** Cut during training camp by Browns, then signed with Miami Dolphins.