Tampa Bay Sports Day

Smith and Thomas Lead Hall Class

Bruce Smith enters the Hall of Fame after an All-Pro career with the Buffalo Bills. (Joe Pietaro/NYSD)

Bruce Smith enters the Hall of Fame after an All-Pro career with the Buffalo Bills. (Joe Pietaro/NYSD)

TAMPA, FL – Perhaps Rich Eisen of the NFL Network summed it up best when he called it a “goose bump moment.” Two of the six names in the 2009 class are no longer with us, but will still represent the sport they played when they are officially inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer.

Bob Hayes, the former Dallas Cowboy wide receiver who died in 2002 at the age of 51 after suffering liver ailments, prostate cancer and kidney failure, left his sister Lucille Hester a note for her to read for him “in case this day ever came.” When she finished, Eisen made his statement and there was not a hush in the overcrowded auditorium at the Tampa Convention Center.

Kansas City Chiefs Chairman Clark Hunt remembered more than just Derrick Thomas’s football prowess, stating that he was a “Hall of Famer off the field, as well.” Thomas, who averaged one forced fumble out of every four games during his career, had his life cut short while he was still an active player when he died in an automobile accident nine years ago.

“When Derrick’s dad was shot down in Vietnam in 1972, oddly enough the code name for the operation was ‘Linebacker Two,’” continued Hunt, commenting on the position that Thomas would end up dominating in the 1990s.

“Derrick Thomas was the cornerstone of the modern era of the Kansas City Chiefs,” he said.

Bruce Smith, who was elected in his first year of eligibility, remembered Thomas as being “an incredible player and an incredible person.” The bruising defensive end, who is the all-time career sacks leader with 200, became emotional when he spoke about his morning.

“I just had a moment,” the 19-year veteran said, “wishing that my father was still here. He would have been so proud.” Unable to hold back his tears, he then admitted, “Some may look at this as a sign of weakness. I cry because I’m not less than a man but because I am a man.”

Another player getting in his first year on the ballot was Rod Woodson, who starred playing in the secondary of four different franchises. Eisen, his colleague on the NFL Network said, “For the last five years, we always referred to him as ‘Future Hall of Famer Rod Woodson’ and he didn’t want to hear it.”

That will no longer be necessary and the humble Woodson thought back what drove him. “I didn’t start playing football because I wanted to be in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “I started playing because my brothers played it.” Woodson was named to the 1990s all-decade team, mainly from his years in Pittsburgh.

Unable to attend was Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Randall McDaniel, but via telephone he gave credit to the two most important people in his life. “I’ve got to thank my folks for raising me the right way.”

Joining Smith representing the Buffalo Bills is 90-year-old Ralph Wilson, Jr., the team owner and president since 1959 when he was a member of the original group that formed the American Football League. Known as the NFL’s Voice of Reason, Wilson was at a loss for words.

“I don’t know what to say, but you’ve got to say something,” he said. “It’s a tremendous honor.”

It was also announced that this year’s Hall of Fame Game on August 9 will be between Buffalo and the Tennessee Titans, formerly an original AFL franchise, the Houston Oilers, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the old “rival league.”

The younger Hunt spoke of his late father Lamaar – who was the founder of the AFL – and what he would think of the half-century milestone and Wilson’s enshrinement the same day.

“I know that my dad is looking down and smiling at his old club buddy.”

Add Thomas and Hayes to that list of people looking down and smiling on this day.