Saturday, February 03, 2007

Long Overdue

On the eve of Super Bowl XLI, the NFL released this year's list of selectees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Suffice it to say that the list for 2007 is a bit controversial, as it always is. More than a few fans and media types (outside Dallas) expressed misgivings about the selection of former Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin, whose off-field problems sometimes overshadowed his accomplishments on the gridiron. Irvin will be enshrined at Canton with lesser numbers than former Redskins' wide receiver Art Monk or Buffalo's great Andre Reed, both of whom were rejected by the selection committee.

There is less controversy surrounding the rest of this year's inductees. Bruce Matthews, the Oilers and Titans lineman started games at all five offensive line positions during a stellar, 19-year career, became only the 60th player to be selected for the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. Other selectees for the Class of 2007 include: Thurman Thomas, the Bills running back who was the league's MVP in 1991, and is one of only three backs to finish with 10,000 yards rushing and over 400 receptions; Roger Wehrli, the St Louis Cardinals cornerback who picked off 40 passes in his career, and was named to the NFL's "All Decade" Team for the 1970s; Charley Sanders, the Detroit Lions tight end who helped redefine that position in a decade-long career that ended in 1977, and Gene Hickerson, the great Cleveland Browns pulling guard who blocked for three Hall of Fame running backs--Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly.

Among this year's inductees, Hickerson has waited the longest for elevation to the Hall of Fame --29 years. He played his last game with the Browns in 1973, capping a 15-year career with the club. During that tenure, he was named to the Pro Bowl six times, voted to the league's "All Decade" team for the 1960s, and played in four NFL championship games, the forerunner to the Super Bowl.

Such accolades were a testament to Hickerson's skill, in an era when the game was much different. In the run-oriented offenses of the 1960s, offensive guards were prized for their ability to "pull" and lead the sweep, blocking downfield for their running backs. For much of his career, Hickerson was lead blocker for Jim Brown, who still ranks (for my money) as the greatest running back every to play the game. Brown has long maintained that Hickerson belongs in the hall:

"He was one of the best pulling guards that ever played," said Brown, who led the league in rushing eight times. "He had unbelievable speed and mobility and was the best lineman we had. He blocked downfield, something guys today can't do. Nobody knows blockers better than the guys who ran behind him, and I for one am proud that he is in the Hall of Fame. He was the best blocker on a good blocking team."

Hickerson was a product of the University of Mississippi, back in the days when John Vaught's Rebels were a national football power. Vaught favored linemen who were fast and mobile, despite the fact that his teams were better known for their passing attacks, and produced only one thousand-yard rusher in 20 years. Hickerson played fullback at his high school in Tennessee, but switched to tackle at Ole Miss. When the Browns discovered his speed, they moved him to guard, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, almost. Browns fans and Hickerson's former teammates have long wondered why it took the Hall of Fame so long to recognize his achievements. Before Hickerson joined the Browns, there had been on seven 1,000-yard rushers in the history of the league; with #66 anchoring the Browns offensive line, Cleveland had nine 1,000-yard runners in Hickerson's first 10 years in the NFL. At the time of Hickerson's retirement, Brown was #1 on the NFL's career rushing list; Leroy Kelly was #4, and Mitchell was bound for Canton as well. But some argued that Brown, whose blend of speed and power revolutionized the running back position, didn't need much of an offensive line to be effective, and neither did Kelly.

The "other" knock against Hickerson and the Browns is that they never won a championship in the early Super Bowl era, dominated by Vince Lombardi's Packers. Green Bay's victories in Super Bowls I and II brought adulation to members of that team, including the Packers' star guard, Jerry Kramer, who wrote about his exploits in the best seller Instant Replay. Kramer's career numbers never matched Hickerson's, but those early championships, coupled with the book's success, led many to equate the "pulling guard" position with Jerry Kramer, and not Gene Hickerson. Asked to describe the difference between Kramer and Hickerson, one veteran NFL writer said: "Gene was a much better player; Jerry wrote a book."

While Hickerson was a finalist for the hall under the "regular" selection process in the early 1980s, the required votes proved elusive, and he reportedly grew bitter over the process. Notified earlier this year that a veteran's committee had again nominated him for Canton, Hickerson replied "I though that was supposed to happen about 20 years ago." Last Saturday, receiving word of his selection, Hickerson was more gracious, saying: "I am honored to be joining such an elite group of individuals and to be remembered as one of the best linemen of all time..It was such a relief to finally get the phone call."

Some would describe it as recognition that is long overdue.

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