Field trip to eternity

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There was something special in the air regarding the 2010 Pro Football Hall-of-Fame inductees. All of these men deserved to be enshrined and in the case of Floyd Little and Dick LeBeau, better late than never. What struck me, aside from the heat and humidity at Canton, was the humility of Russ Grimm and LeBeau; the swagger and bright personality of Emmitt Smith; the coolness and calm confidence of Jerry Rice; the quiet intensity of Ricky Jackson; the craftiness of John Randle and the relieved smile of Little.

They all have my heartfelt congratulations at being part of one the world’s greatest sports fraternities. Oh by the way, Emmitt Smith gave a 24-minute speech without any notes and without the use of a teleprompter. Mr. Smith does not need me to write any of his quotes.

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Ricky Jackson and Russ Grimm both played at the University of Pittsburgh under Jackie Sherrill. Both were drafted in the second and third rounds in 1981 by the Saints and the Redskins, respectively. Imagine some of the practices at Pitt in the late ’70s! How could Sherrill prevent unintended bloodshed with Grimm and Jimbo Covert on the offensive line and Jackson along with Hugh Green patrolling along the line of scrimmage for the Panthers? Jackson talked about his Pittsburgh connection. “I tell you, I end up going to the University of Pittsburgh. We had a lot of great athletes. You got Russ Grimm, Dan Marino, Mark May. When I went there on a recruiting trip they had Tony Dorsett showing most of us around. They had just won the national championship. They was 12-0. One thing that I can say, coach Jackie Sherrill, he put a lot of young men together from all walks of life.”

In the beginning of an emotional acceptance speech Grimm said; “Of all the guys that I could’ve picked, [to introduce him] I knew picking Joe [Bugel] would start me out being a little bit emotional, but with the humidity and some of the pollen, if I start to tear up little bit, that’s the reason.” During Grimm’s stellar career, I am certain that many defensive linemen “cried a few tears” at the thought of spending 60 minutes picking themselves up after being brutalized by Grimm and the rest of his “hog mates.’

The football intellect and savvy of legendary Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has not, now or ever really been questioned. Michael Herr, writing for the Detroit News, asked LeBeau if he remembered an incident in which Lions head coach Joe Schmidt had considered using LeBeau as a player/coach late in his playing career.

LeBeau said that; “Actually, I remember it very well. Coach [Bud] Grant from the Vikings had called Coach Joe about the possibility of me going to work up there. Joe said no, he’s going to continue to play. I guess that might have gotten Joe thinking about using me as a player coach. We talked about it a couple of times. I think that’s about where it ended. I think that I really would have liked to have done that because I was quite a bit older than most of the guys anyhow but there had not been a whole lot of player-coaches in the history of the league but I would have liked to have tried it. I kind of knew from a pretty early age that I was going to go into coaching on some level.”

The love that LeBeau had for his players was obvious in his humble and emotion- filled acceptance speech. He pointed out that “A few years ago we played in this game. Joey Porter and James Farrior got this idea that they would put on Dick LeBeau jerseys and wear them all over. Last year Rod Woodson stood up here in his induction speech and he mentioned me.” He also talked about Ike Taylor. “I might be a bit off on this but when I first came there [Pittsburgh], I don’t think I started him [in] one game. Now he’s started every game that we’ve played for the last six years. He hasn’t missed a game, hasn’t missed a snap. That’s a great record of durability and dependability. “

But back to Little who grew up in a time when it was okay for African-Americans to belittle each other because of their skin “tone” and “African” physical characteristics.

Gary Smith wrote for Sports Illustrated that Little had an “old hurt from childhood when even Black kids called him Cheetah, after Tarzan’s chimp, because his skin was so Black.” It is apparent that time and life’s experiences have added class and clarity to the journey of Little and have been the ointment that helped heal those old wounds. Little said, “There’s no words to describe the joy of experiencing this final sports chapter of my life. Every player wakes up wishing to have this honor. I have been favored by God and by those who have had a say in what happens to me.”

Indeed if the pilgrimage to Canton by the 2010 Steelers to honor and induct Dick LeBeau and his fellow “classmates” into the “corridors of forever” amounted to a “field trip” then that getaway from school has to be one of the greatest trips of all time.

(Aubrey Bruce can be reached at: abruce@newpittsburghcourier.com or 412-583-6741.)

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