By Howard Balzer
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – It’s been a little more than 24 hours since 48 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors submitted their votes Saturday to determine the five modern-day players that will be enshrined in August as part of Canton’s Centennial Celebration of the birth of the National Football League in that Ohio city.
It seems surreal sitting in the press box at Hard Rock Stadium for my 40th Super Bowl after experiencing the absolute exhilaration of helping former Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce be elected in his sixth year of eligibility and fourth time as a finalist.
It was about time, but as I often tell those that ask, earning a Gold Jacket is a process, although it can be an excruciating one for finalists and their families.
They are holed up in a hotel room for hours waiting and wondering if they will get a phone call telling them this isn’t their year or whether the famous knock on the door by Hall president David Baker will deliver the extraordinary news that will be life-changing.
Of course, when the moment came for Bruce, he decided to have a little fun. Prior to that, he was well, being Isaac, by knocking on the wall of his hotel room when no one was looking. Everyone would, of course, react and then Isaac would just smile his devilish grin.
Then, he went into another room when the actual knock on the door came. But it was like the story of the boy that cried wolf. No one believed the knock on the door was “real.”
Until Isaac came running out of the bathroom, exclaiming, “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!”
At that point, though, he decided to have a little more “fun.” He waited until Baker knocked again. When he finally opened the door, Isaac said, “You’ve made me wait for a while, so I figured I could make you wait!”
But, as many enshrinees say, once that knock comes, it quickly washes away the frustrations of the past.
It’s usually a rule that media shouldn’t become part of the story. But the Hall of Fame process makes that an impossible standard to uphold. Each finalist has someone from the city or cities where they played, speaking for anywhere from five to eight minutes. Open discussion follows.
I have had the humbling honor of being on the selection committee for 17 elections, but Isaac has been the first where I have been the official presenter. I was part of the discussion for Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Kurt Warner, Aeneas Williams and for the first year that Isaac was a finalist in 2017.
Since 2018, that responsibility has been mine. A privilege, yes, but also one where you are tasked with succinctly and passionately putting on a case for 47 other selectors that are also considering 14 other very deserving candidates.
My preparation then became different when Rams receiver Torry Holt became a finalist for the first time. There are often instances where two players from the same team are finalists. In fact, this year, the Colts had running back Edgerrin James and receiver Reggie Wayne, while Steelers finalists were guard Alan Faneca and first-time eligible safety Troy Polamalu.
However. It’s rare when the players play the same position. I felt like Pittsburgh selectors Myron Cope and Ed Bouchette who had to present receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth seven times when both were finalists. Finally, Swann was elected in 2001 after 14 years as a finalist and Stallworth the next year in his eighth try.
While there was a thought that Holt’s presence might split votes with him and Bruce, the reverse turned out to be the case. After all, the committee had essentially stated its opinion the previous three years when Bruce was a finalist and Holt wasn’t.
The lengthy discussions for both ended up being a big help to Bruce.
But Holt is certainly deserving and my presentation made that clear. However, the prevailing belief was that it was Isaac’s time. One reality is that both Bruce and Holt should have been finalists earlier. But timing worked against them. Again, just what can happen in the process.
In 2015, those two, along with Pace and Warner became eligible at the same time. Warner and Pace were finalists the first year, but somehow Pace wasn’t elected, most likely because with Junior Seau the only first-time eligible elected, the other four – Tim Brown (6), Charles Haley (6), Jerome Bettis (5) and Will Shields (4) — were finalists a combined 21 times.
Saturday was history repeating itself. Polamalu was the only first-time eligible to be selected. Bruce, James (4), Steve Atwater (3) and Steve Hutchinson (3) were finalists a combined 14 times. And Atwater was in his 16th year of eligibility, meaning he was nearing the magic 20 number that would send him to the always burgeoning seniors pool.
With receiver Calvin Johnson a first-time eligible next year, followed by Andre Johnson and Steve Smith in 2022, a significant logjam at receiver had to be avoided by not electing one this year.
I have been further humbled by texts from many including Dick Vermeil and Al Saunders, along with mentions on Twitter expressing congratulations for my role in Isaac’s selection. Of course, the best were the simple two words that came from Isaac as he was on the way to the NFL Honors program: “Thanks Howard.”
I will never forget that.
Still, it was a massive team effort. Many selectors eloquently spoke up for him to me, the Rams provided statistical assistance (as well as for Holt), and Hall of Fame opponents I spoke to like Williams, Michael Irvin, Rod Woooson and Ty Law were effusive in their support for Bruce.
What was also significant turned out to be the Hall’s decision to put Hall of Famers wide receiver James Lofton and Dan Fouts on the selection committee a few years ago.
Many of the comments in the room centered around Bruce’s excellence as a route-runner. One selector asked Lofton his thoughts on Bruce. Lofton explained how as the receivers coach for the San Diego Chargers from 2002-2007, he would show film of Bruce running routes so his receivers could see “the way it’s supposed to be done.”
Irvin said, “He bucked the trend of what receivers are. You never saw him go over and demand the ball. He played within the framework of what he was asked to do. Isaac didn’t get the attention (from the outside) because he wasn’t acting like an ass. How are we slighting him for that?”
Isaac Bruce always did and still does things the way they are supposed to be done. And did them extraordinarily.
And that’s why he will put on that iconic Gold Jacket next August.
As for me, it’s getting ready again for Torry Holt next year in Tampa.