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Hall of Fame 'Knocks': Even Peyton Got Surprised

Hall of Fame 'Knocks': Even Peyton Got Surprised

02/10/2021
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By George Veras
Executive Producer, Pro Football Hall of Fame


First-person on-site accounts of the Class of 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame “Knocks on the Door.”

During the summer of 2020, it became evident COVID-19 would impact the NFL schedule all the way through the Super Bowl. The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021 final vote was supposed to take place on Super Bowl Saturday – Feb. 6 – and just like the NFL had to call many audibles during the season, the Hall called an audible with its 2021 Class selection process.

The 48 Selectors would vote virtually Jan. 19 – three weeks ahead of the standard Super Bowl Saturday vote in Tampa. Knowing this, the early vote for the Class of 2021 would trigger speculation about how and where David Baker would travel to knock the doors of the new class. This became a great opportunity to top last’s year live walk-ons with CBS and Fox, by working with our NFL Network partner to figure out how to surprise the new Class with “Knocks on the Door.”

In December, the Hall’s staff began work on many scenarios from the list of 15 Finalists, carefully cultivating information from them, their friends and family. Enter NFL Network, which came aboard to figure out a way to record the knocks in a tight time frame, keep it secret and reveal the knocks and the new Class during the “NFL Honors” show at 9 p.m. Feb. 6.

The knocks were to begin Jan, 22, with all eight done within a five-day window to limit the exposure risk that a “leak” would occur. Audacious and ambitious to say the least.

With no suspense around first-year candidate Peyton Manning, it was decided to focus on him being the first to get “stung” and stunned. But everyone was pretty certain Peyton had figured that out as well, so creating that suspense and intrigue around David Baker’s entrance had to be something more than a knock on a door. The surprise needed a genuine feel, as Peyton has done in surprising others and reportedly does like done to him.

A week before the vote, the Hall reached out to a trusted confidant at the Broncos, who knew the Manning family, with the plan to start the knocks three days after the vote. Would the family collaborate with the Hall, keep it a secret and work to create a memorable and respectful “sting”?

They were in, and as luck would have it, the family discovered that the NFL Films producer of “Peyton’s Places” revealed that Peyton would be filming some standups for an episode at a Denver studio on … Jan. 22.

We now had the “football” on offense. What kind of play could we call? A sort of double reverse with a wide receiver about to throw a pass when the eligible offensive line comes around and grabs the ball out of the wide receiver’s hands for a “hook and lateral” touchdown play.

The team players were the Denver Broncos, NFL Films, the Honors show, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Manning family.

The family knew Peyton would really be honored if all his coaches from high school to college to the NFL could participate. The Broncos facilitated all the travel and logistics so that five great ones flew to Denver: Tony Dungy, Phillip Fulmer, Gary Kubiak, Jim Caldwell and David Cutcliffe. Others, like his dad, Archie; offensive coordinator Tom Moore; and Broncos head coach John Fox sent taped messages to play on the stadium scoreboard. It would be a great first “sting.”

While coaches would be hidden in the media room, Peyton would walk on the field to tape another set of standups in the end zone with his back to the scoreboard.  The coaches then would be staged in the tunnel leading to the back end zone and walk out to surprise Peyton with well wishes for him going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And now for Hall President & CEO David Baker. The coaches’ job would be to engage Peyton, giving Baker a clear walk from the 50 yard line entrance to move toward Peyton, whose back was turned on Baker.

But not so fast.

As the coaches left the tunnel to start to walk to the back of the end zone, they barely got into position when Peyton, feeling that something was going on behind him, turned around and saw the coaches. “I knew that there was something going on today.” He knew that too much time was being spent on a minor production of standups, and his antenna was up.

So Peyton sniffed out Round One. He really appreciated having his coaches there, was slightly embarrassed but now a sense of relief that he, Peyton Manning, had not been the victim of a big surprise.

The coaches had been well “coached” for their roles to engage Peyton one at a time so that Baker could sneak up behind Peyton. When the last coach, Kubiak finished, the plan was for Dungy to announce, “Peyton, we have one more special guest for you today.”

Baker emerged from the 50 yard line tunnel, resplendent in his electric blue suit, carefully and quietly walking across the field, hoping the coaches’ conversation with Peyton would keep him from suspecting the “second” sting and not turn around.

Baker keep getting closer and seemed in the clear – except for one moment when a video of Moore appeared on the scoreboard. Peyton, ever so slightly, made a half-turn to his right. By that time, Baker was almost directly behind him.

As Baker spoke, Peyton Manning, the coolest of the cool under any circumstance, always in control and command, did not relinquish that command of his body language or his head moving too much side to side. But when Baker, the English literature major, intoned his soliloquy: “You will be with those you admired … Unitas ... Staubach … this is the day that takes you back to your childhood love of the game … for as much as you have led a great and wonderful career and life, this is now your legacy forever in Canton on the team you can never be cut from or released.”

Yes there was mist in his eyes. Not a tear fell, but for enough time, the glisten stayed. He had let go, a moment real and unrehearsed. He was humble and kind. It was a day to stand above so many that drove him to this moment as his children ran out to greet him. And, yes, they had told him they had school that day.

Well done, Manning family!

To see more video footage from the Knocks, tune into NFL Network at 8 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 11) for “The Hall of Fame Knocks.” At 8:30 p.m., the network will broadcast “The Gold Jacket Class of 2021.”

Watch Peyton Manning's "Knock"

Extra: Tony Dungy on Peyton Manning

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