CANTON, Ohio — They blocked and tackled and got lost in those scrums at the line of scrimmage, overshadowed by the guys who handled the ball and soaked in the moments of glory.
It all changes in Canton this weekend, when a group of linemen become the stars of the NFL’s most prestigious event.
Four linemen will be among the six players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame today – Chris Doleman, Cortez Kennedy, Willie Roaf and Dermontti Dawson. Running back Curtis Martin and cornerback Jack Butler will join them.
In several ways, it’s fitting that the ones who protected the quarterbacks and tried to get them to the ground are the ones getting top billing.
“Any coach will tell you the backbone of your team is the offensive line and the defensive line, and it is appropriate that these guys go in together,” former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher said.
For this group, it’s about time.
“These guys like Willie Roaf and Jack Butler and Cortez Kennedy and Dermontti Dawson, how often do you hear their names called unless they’re doing something that they shouldn’t be doing?” said Doleman, who had 150½ sacks. “These guys are awesome players who are so deserving of the Hall of Fame, and I’m so proud to be going in with them.”
The six inductees are the centerpiece of a special weekend in Canton, which had to do without one of its main events last year. The Hall of Fame Game was called off because of the NFL lockout, costing the hall and the city a lot of money.
The game returns on Sunday night, with more than a little intrigue of its own. The New Orleans Saints, hit hard by their bounty scandal in the off-season, will open the preseason against the Arizona Cardinals. Labor issues still play a role, though – replacement officials will be used because the refs’ union has been locked out.
The weekend started with a big moment for the hall itself. A 10,000-square-foot center named for Bills founder Ralph Wilson, Jr., was dedicated, a major expansion that will provide more space for documents, photographs and artifacts.
Then, those big guys were ready to get the big moments, the ones usually saved for someone else.
“Every quarterback who wins the Super Bowl, he goes into the Hall of Fame,” said Doleman, who played for the Atlanta Falcons in 1994-95. “It’s like, ‘Come on!’ That position probably deserves more scrutiny than any other position on the field because you can have an average quarterback with a great offensive line, and he gets all the glory. They’re enabling him to throw the ball and do what he needs to do.”
Some of those passers will be in the audience applauding a group of players known for their years of excellence at the game’s basics.
“A very down-to-earth class, not a lot of egos involved,” Roaf said. “We all are happy about what we achieved, but (they’re) good guys and good players to go in with.”
Making it even more special is the fact that the linemen haven’t had much chance experience in those confetti-spray celebrations on Super Bowl Sundays.
“The fact we have four linemen going in is real special,” Roaf said. “Also, none of us have rings. We all had real good careers, but none of us played in the Super Bowl other than Dermontti.”
The only “skill position” player going into the hall this weekend is Martin, who finished as the fourth-leading rusher in NFL history. He has chosen former coach Bill Parcells — who has been nominated but not elected to the hall — to present him for induction.
“My career wouldn’t have been half of what it was if it wasn’t for Bill Parcells,” Martin said. “He helped me be a better running back, but also to be a better professional and be a better man. He is still a huge part of my life.”
A couple of others will be honored as well.
Len Dawson, already in the Hall of Fame as a quarterback, will receive the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television award for his work with the Kansas City Chiefs’ radio network, NBC and HBO. He was inducted in 1987.
Tom Kowalski will be honored posthumously with the 2012 Dick McCann Award from the Professional Football Writers of America. The Detroit Lions beat writer covered the team for 32 years. He died in August at age 51.
“Well, I’ll say this: they don’t give that award out lightly,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “You mention some of the guys who have won it in the past, they don’t give it away to just anybody that doesn’t know football. Tom always made it his business not just to write articles, but to write accurate articles and he worked very hard to get it right and understand the game.”