It’s a cold, wintry night in Detroit. Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker knocks on the door and waits – what happens next is the moment every athlete dreams of, but very few achieve.
“Calvin Johnson comes to the door and he’s barefoot,” Baker said. “He’s just overcome with this smile, you know, if Santa Claus was on his doorstep. All of a sudden you see — like all these guys — reflect on his journey in his life and what it means to him.”
The former wide receiver, who played his entire nine-year career with the Detroit Lions, had just been told he’s heading to Canton, Ohio, where he’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame and his legacy as one of the all-time greats will live on forever.
“So now we’re shutting down, it’s like 10 o’clock at night and he turns to me and he goes, ‘Are you going back to campus?’ And I said, well, no, Calvin, we got a couple of other doors to knock. His response was fascinating,” Baker told Fox News. “‘Ah, you’re going to go collect some more tears.’ And I said, yeah, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Johnson is just one of eight doors Baker “knocked” on, as he personally delivered the news to each member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021. The other newly elected members are Peyton Manning, Alan Faneca, Tom Flores, John Lynch, Bill Nunn, Drew Pearson and Charles Woodson.
“We’ve tried to capture that experience, so that all of the fans understand the reverence that these guys have for the game, for their journey, and for the adversity that they overcome [and] the people that help them get there,” Baker said, referring to the “Knock on the Door” video series showcasing the moment each player finds out they’ve been selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Last year’s Centennial Celebration, which was going to commemorate the National Football League’s 100th birthday and induct 20 special enshrinees into the Hall of Fame, was canceled due to COVID-19. Instead, this weekend will kick off what Baker calls the “greatest gathering in football ever,” honoring both the Centennial class and the class of 2021.
“We’ve got 28 guys that are going into the Hall of Fame this year, we kind of took care of nine posthumous enshrinees the last night of the draft, so we’ve got 19 — this is the biggest class ever,” Baker told Fox News. Not to mention the 140 other Hall of Famers who will be in attendance, along with friends, family and players that come with them.
“We’re going to have the first full stadium for football in 18 months,” Baker said. “That energy is going to be electric.”
While each player has their own unique skill set that makes them special, Baker said every athlete that makes it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame shares a handful of common traits.
“We all think of these guys, as guys who fell out of bed great. We think they make it because they’re bigger, stronger, faster, quicker. But I’ll tell you from getting to know them, they have more commitment, more perseverance, more discipline, they’ve endured and overcome more adversity, and that’s why they’re in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Baker told Fox News. “The humility with which they receive this news is incredible because again, I think they understand the shoulders of those that they stand upon that came before them.”
To be in the Hall of Fame is to be great – the best of the best — but what about a player’s characteristics off the field?
Each induction ceremony represents a new slate of remarkable athletes from all different backgrounds and experiences that add another seam in the history of football – but, while the list of Hall of Famers continues to grow, there is a handful of players and contributors whose legacy off the field begs the question of whether the prestigious honor should be a lifetime award.
There is nothing in the current Pro Football Hall of Fame bylaws that allow for a Hall of Famer to be removed, and once a player is elected into the Hall of Fame, they are forever a Hall of Famer, according to Pro Football Talk.
“I don’t think there are any plans right now that I see from our board of taking it away from someone, quite honestly,” Baker told Fox News, adding that “while it only focuses on on-field performance, I would say there’s enormous character involved in on-field performance — in the locker room on the practice field, what those guys do in their community.”
The current rules evaluate a player based on their on-field performance but over time the chalk lines between the end zones have blurred and the game is no longer solely played within the confines of a football field. Some might argue a player like O.J. Simpson, who undoubtedly had a Hall of Fame career as a running back, might no longer be worthy of the prestigious status that is supposed to embolden the legacy of the game, not tarnish it.
Or as Pro Football Talk points out, George Preston Marshall, a former owner of Washington’s NFL team, whose statue was removed last year for his role as a segregationist preventing Black players from being on his team but whose bust still remains in Canton.
“These guys aren’t perfect. And certainly, you and I aren’t perfect either, but the values that they rely upon, the commitment, the integrity, the courage, the respect, the love, frankly, that they have felt for their teammates, the guys in the locker room, and how over a long time they persevere, and they overcome adversity,” Baker said. “Every one of them had to use those values to survive at the hardest of times and thrive at the best of times.”
This year’s induction ceremony will take place Aug. 7–8 and highlight perhaps “one of the best classes we’ve ever had,” said Baker, but it will also resurface the idea of what defines a Hall of Fame athlete and if it should be more than just the performance on the field.