Stram's Hall presence a 'perfect gift'

Stram's Hall presence a 'perfect gift'

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by Vic Carucci,

CANTON, Ohio -- He is 80 and his health isn't so good. He doesn't walk so well, needing a wheelchair or the sturdy arm of a relative or friend to help him get around. He doesn't see so well, either.

But Hank Stram had waited 25 years for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he wasn't going to miss his moment in the sun, even if it was hiding behind a thick layer of clouds.

Hank Stram

He isn't the Hank Stram we remember at his feistiest best, but that's OK. Just having him here was satisfying enough. Besides, on a day like this, we rely much more on our memories than our eyes. We only really need to hear a name to trigger the play switch on the replay machine in our mind.

And when we hear Hank Stram, we think of that round, beefy face; those natty suit jackets, vests and ties; the energetic way he stalked the sidelines as coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. We think of the rolled up playsheet he clutched during each game.

We think of those NFL Films clips in which he encourages his quarterback, Len Dawson, to "keep matriculating the ball down the field" and accurately predicts that "Sixty-five Toss Power Trap" would break wide open with Mike Garrett's five-yard touchdown run against Minnesota in Super Bowl IV and poses a question to an official that every coach (and probably a few fans) can relate: "How in the world can all six of you miss a play like that?"

We also think of innovation. As master of ceremonies Chris Berman pointed out, Stram was "way, way, way ahead of his time." He was the first to come up with the moving pocket, which helped keep his quarterback in one piece. He was the first to use the two-tight end formation. He was the first to employ the stack defense. He was the first to have offseason minicamps. He was the first to hire a year-round strength-and-conditioning coordinator.

Stram wasn't up to giving a live speech during Sunday's induction ceremonies, so he taped one ahead of time. Another first.

Dawson served as Stram's presenter, which was a natural choice because they have known each other for 50 years. Stram had recruited Dawson out of high school to attend Purdue, where Stram was an assistant coach. Then Stram signed him to play for the Chiefs.

"I don't ever recall any game I ever played I didn't think we were going to win, because I had great confidence that we had the plan," Dawson said. "And that was Hank. Coaches today have, what, about 18 assistants? Hank had four. Hank was the quarterbacks coach. He was the offensive coordinator. He was involved in a lot of the defense. He was involved in special teams.

"And I do mean involved. He was teaching, he was coaching. He didn't give a speech before practice and then go over and stand some place and watch the guys go to work and watch somebody else teach them. Henry Stram was the teacher, because he knew all the techniques and fundamentals of every position on the football team."

Lamar Hunt, the Chiefs' owner, calls Stram "the essence of the American Football League from a coaching standpoint." Hunt, the AFL founder, isn't merely referring to the fact that Stram is the winningest coach in AFL history with 87 victories. He is talking about his flamboyance and dynamic personality, qualities that defined the wide-open style of play for which was AFL was famous.

"Hank was a master salesman," Hunt said. "First of all, he sold players on coming to play for us. He helped sell the fans on our product. He helped sell the team on the concepts of offense or defense that he wanted to do."

Stram's prerecorded speech was, for him, remarkably brief. His gift of gab, along with tremendous insights, resulted a highly successful post-coaching career as an analyst for CBS Radio's coverage of the NFL. Had Stram been in better health, he might still be talking.

However, he didn't have to say much to express what the honor and the day meant to him. During Saturday night's Enshrinees Dinner, where he and the rest of the Hall's Class of 2003 received their yellow jackets, he broke into tears. Perhaps the most touching moment of the weekend came at the end of the night when Stram managed to stand in the middle of the stage in the Canton Memorial Civic Center while his four other classmates -- Marcus Allen, James Lofton, Joe DeLamielleure and Elvin Bethea -- formed a circle around him for a group hug.

"As I matriculate my way down the field of life, I will never forget this moment and you wonderful people who helped make this day possible," Stram said in his speech. "The 'good book' says all good and perfect gifts come from above, and this is truly a perfect gift."

Actually, the "perfect gift" was that Stram was here to receive it.

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