OAKLAND, Calif. --On Thursday night prior to the Broncos' game in Oakland, four Hall-of-Famers and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell conducted a fan forum next to O.co Coliseum in the Golden State Warriors basketball arena.
The Hall-of-Famers were John Madden (Head Coach, Class of 2006), John Elway (Quarterback, Class of 2004), Ronnie Lott (Defensive back, Class of 2000) and Howie Long (Defensive end, Class of 2000).
With about 150 Raiders season-ticket holders in attendance, the panel covered a wide range of topics, like player safety in the NFL, how the game has changed since their playing days, their fondest football memories and what it's like to be a Hall of Fame inductee.
One of the first questions that the fans asked was about the issue of player safety. It's a prevalent topic in today's league, as the NFL's staff works to maintain the integrity of the game while also implementing and enforcing new rules to make it safer.
Goodell provided his perspective on the matter as the man leading the charge in trying to accomplish that goal. He works with Madden and Lott, who are the co-chairmen of the NFL Player Safety Advisory Panel.
Long shared his view as a former player and now father of one, perhaps soon to be two sons in the NFL.
Elway shared his opinion as a former player and also as the football boss of the Broncos.
"Football evolves. It evolves to make it safer for the men who play it, and it also evolves to make the game more exciting. That has been our history. I'd say we haven't done enough yet. We still have more work to be done. We have two great people leading a safety committee that work tremendously hard along with our competition committee and our staff of both Ronnie Lott and Coach Madden, Chair of Safety Committee. The work they're doing is extraordinary, but we still have more work to do." "We have raised the level of fines, but I think it's suspensions. What really changes mentality for the players is when they can't be out there on the field, when they can't play and support their team and help their team win."
"You're finding yourself in situations where you're constantly trying to improve the game and constantly looking at the game. I always think - what were the founding fathers thinking about? Now that I have a chance to be a part of this and hopefully protect it, I'm thinking, 'Man, I have to take care of it.'"
"It's interesting, my perspective at 26 - you think you're if not the baddest guy on the planet, one of the top five. You find out later, at 52, that maybe you weren't. Your perspective at 52 versus 26, with a son in the league and potentially another son on the way into the league, my perspective has changed significantly. I think the league and Roger's committee - the changes they have tried to implement are great changes. Necessary changes. Are we there yet? No. The big thing for me is, in a high-speed, violent game when things happen in a nanosecond, the trajectory of a receiver changes six inches at the last second. The word 'launch' is used. I'm not sure what else you can call what you have to do to play football. You have to launch into people. The helmet-to-helmet deal, to me, if it's clear and definitive, fine them, suspend them, protect the players in the game. There lies the real dilemma. It happens so fast. Guys have gotten bigger, stronger and faster. Offensive linemen have gone from 265, 285, 295, 320, 350. Safeties now look like linebackers. Linebackers run like corners. It's a fast league. There's more that can be done but we're making great progress."
*"The strides that have been made in the safety in football have come from (eliminating) the unnecessary hits. When you can prevent the hits, that's where the league and Commissioner Goodell have made tremendous strides. You can't take injuries out of the game. That's unfortunately something we're never going to be able to do. The strides have been made in taking away the late hits. The clips and the chop blocks on defensive linemen, we've made huge strides there. It's a big piece of clay to try to sculpt to make it safe and keep the integrity of the game. It's something that is always moving and taking place. As a league, we have taken tremendous strides so far. As far as the coach, it starts the coach and what we're with what we're teaching them in practice. That's the baseline of where it's all going to start. They can put all the rules out there that they want, but unless it's carried out throughout all the different teams and the players are made aware of what's legal and what's not legal, then it's not going to go anywhere. It's our responsibility, John Fox and the Denver Broncos, to make sure we transcend the rules he is putting in and making sure that's what is getting coached, in practice and in game film."
Another fan asked about how the league has managed to maintain parity among all of the teams.
"It starts with the system. Eighty percent of our revenues are shared amongst all teams. The same amount of revenue is coming to the Raiders as to the Chicaco Bears as to the New York Giants as to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That gives everybody a financial ability to compete. The second is that we have a salary cap. When you combine that with free agency, players can move, but there is only so much that can be spent on players. Those are very critical foundations to competition. Our hope is that every team has the ability to win."
One topic that was particularly special to hear the Hall-of-Famers talk about was their most memorable experiences in the league. Elway and Long shared some anecdotes about the times they spent playing each other in the fierce Broncos-Raiders rivalry, an appropriate topic considering that the two teams would face off about an hour after the discussion.
Before diving into the subject matter, Elway addressed the single fan in the crowd that was brave enough to show her support for the Broncos, donning a blue and orange John Elway jersey.
"I just want everybody to know here it's nice to have some representation from the Broncos. I appreciate that."
He then provided the Raiders fans with some perspective of what it was like being on the other side of the rivalry for 16 seasons.
*"Just to fill you in, all of you being fans of the Oakland Raiders, on how difficult it is to come and play here. I'll tell you this -- in the years that I played against Howie and Ronnie, when we would come up here in the 90s -- I'm so glad I'm sitting right here knowing I don't have to play tonight, and how much better I'm going to feel after this game than I normally did when I came to Oakland. It's a treat to be able to sit here and talk to you. I'll say this -- the Broncos have always had a tremendous rivalry with the Raiders. Going way back when Coach (Madden) was there in the 70s or late 60s, there was a time when the Broncos didn't beat the Raiders for like 20 years. But it's always been a great rivalry. As a player, to come in here and see all the outfits and going down to that one end zone (The Black Hole) -- If I didn't have to go there, I didn't want to. The only time I ever wanted to go there was to score a touchdown. Otherwise, I stayed away from that one end. I'll say it was always a great rivalry. It was always fun to come here. It was always very difficult and you always knew that when you play the Raiders, it would be physical."
That struck a conversation between Elway and Long about their relationship on and off the field, and then Long and Lott shared some of their memories from the league.
"I'll tell you a story about Howie Long. I was always good with my keys and I could always get people offside. You could always tell when it was time to get somebody offside because he would be hitting the center right as I was getting the ball. I could feel Howie hitting our center if he was on the nose. For the 16 or 14 years I played against Howie, I never, one time, got him offside. He still hasn't given me the secret."
"You're the only one (laughs)."
"I'm a big fan of John's. It's funny -- when we played, we never really talked. It just wasn't that type of league at the time. The first time we really sat down was the night before I retired at the Super Bowl. We had a couple of pops at the bar, (pause, laughs) and I retired the next day. That was the first time we really spent time together. I spent most of my adult life chasing this guy around. A lot of it at the ski resort up in Denver where the altitude just sucks the life out of you (laughs). Coming here to Oakland as a kid from Villanova, making 38-grand, bought a used Coupe Deville, power grade, leather interior, spoke wheels - I was on top of the world. When you walk in that locker room and there is Art Shell (Tackle, Class of 1989) Gene Upshaw (Guard, Class of 1987), Ted Hendricks (Linebacker, Class of 1990), the list goes on and on and on - you're not at Villanova anymore. You're not at the dorm where there is a priest on every floor. You're at the Oakland Raider locker room. I have tremendously fond memories of where it all started for me, right here."
"The game of football, we could sit here all day, all of us, and talk about all the great moments and have a great time. There are so many great moments that come along with this game. I played against this guy (Elway) when he was at Stanford, and I'm still trying to figure out how he threw the ball 70 yards. I've never seen anybody throw the ball in college that far. Some great moments when you play the game of football."
"I had an opportunity to coach some of those great players, to be with them and be a part of their lives. It doesn't go away. It's like you're chosen. We had dinner last night, a bunch of the guys. You're away for years and you come back and within 10 minutes, you're back to the way it was. That's a thrill. The players, coaching the players and being with the players -- no matter what other people think, the media, the league, the owners -- it's about the players. That's what the game is."
"Super Bowl XI was our first championship. That was the greatest thrill of my life."
The fans also brought up the surging presence of youth in the NFL. There are three rookie quarterbacks who are thriving in 2012 with their teams at least in the hunt for the playoffs, and players in their early 20s are making their impacts felt all over the league. The panel shared their thoughts.
"If you look back when we were rookies, the popularity in the game has grown so much that there is so many things outside the game for the young guys coming in. John's football game (EA Sports' Madden series), different things are promoted outside the game that makes these guys so much bigger before they take their first step in the NFL. Plus, the draft has gotten so big. You think about the draft, we never used to know so much about these young guys coming into the game. As big as the draft has gotten, and all the background done on these kids, we all know who these kids are now, well before we used to know them. We used to know them when they started playing good football. Now we know them because they are great college football players. People see them and know them now. With the popularity of the game and the endorsement money out there, they are put on a pedestal a heck of a lot earlier than we were."
*"I'm constantly blown away by how impressive a lot of our young players are. You look at the three quarterbacks. (Seahawks rookie QB) Russell Wilson -- I coached high school football in Virginia for eight years. We played against him. Couldn't beat him. He is the same exact kid then as he is now. Money or no money. From John's perspective now, as a GM, it comes back to what kind of guy you want to draft. I think our young guys are so impressive. They are articulate. They are responsible. They are respectful. I think they're mindful of the history of the game. They could probably be a little bit more informed about the history of the game and I think the NFL is doing a lot of things to try to do that. I think it is important."
One of the final discussions on Thursday night was about the honor of being a member of the Hall-of-Fame. The three former players and former coach talked about how it felt when they first visited the Hall and what it means to them that their name and face will forever be enshrined in Canton.
"It means everything. It's a very exclusive club. When you go in, you think you're the one guy that doesn't belong there because you're surrounded by greatness. You're going to be surrounded by that greatness forever. It's a club that you can't be cut from. Forever is a great thing. When I was inducted into the Hall of Fame, I said I believe that the busts (sculptures of their heads) talk to each other. I really do. I'll never be proven that it's not true. You have all those people and you're talking about forever. You're going to be in that room with those busts forever. You have to talk. There's no way you could be in that room with all those great people and not talk. To be in there and know that it's going to be there forever - it's going to be there 10 years, 50 years, 100 years, you'll always be in that club. You're always going to be around greatness."
*"First of all, I'd like to say that I heard those busts. They all say, 'Go get Peyton Manning! He is fine. He is going to have a great year.'" *
"It's still amazing to me that I'm part of that group. All of those guys when I went in were all my heroes when I was growing up. For me, now, to be among them in a club that is so exclusive, as a football player I think it's the most exclusive club in the world. I'd rather be in that club than in the President's Club because of what football meant to me when I was growing up and my dad being a football coach. To be able to look up to the sky and say, 'You know what Dad? I made you proud of me' -- that was always my goal. It's a club that, as Coach (Madden) said, you never get cut from. You'll always be a part of it. It will outlive all of us for hundreds and hundreds of years. You're one of those guys from the greatest game ever invented, and it's really just going to continue to get better. To be able to sit up here with three other members and say, 'You know what? I'm with these guys.' It's a great feeling."
*"Being able to have the yellow jacket is great, but to get to know the other guys in here, to get to understand why they played the way that they played is what's really great. I remember when we went in and this young man was crying. He was crying and crying, sitting there and it was his first time back (to the Hall of Fame). It was Hugh McElhenny (running back, Class of 1970). He goes, 'Man. You guys don't realize how lucky I am to play this game of football.' We were all in the room together. He was crying. He couldn't believe he had the opportunity to play the great game of football. There are moments like that that I'll never forget, how much it meant to him. When you're in that room, there is something special about those guys. You can't get cut, but man, one of the great moments, Ray Nitschke (linebacker, Class of 1978) walked up to me one day and he goes, 'Kid, I could have played with you. I could have played with you!' You have moments like that you never forget. They stay with you for the rest of your life." *
"It's not something you think about as a player. You're not thinking about money, you're not thinking about the Hall of Fame. You're thinking about trying to be as good as you can possibly be. If you're fortunate enough to go to an organization like the organization I was drafted by, you're surrounded by that kind of greatness - whether it's Freddie Biletnikoff (Wide receiver, Class of 1988), Willie Brown (Cornerback, Class of 1984), Art Shell, Gene Upshaw - you can't help but kind of dream a little bit about maybe someday being considered great. When you get that call, and Ronnie and I went in together in 2000 with Joe Montana (Quarterback, Class of 2000) and Dave Wilcox (Linebacker, Class of 2000) from the 49ers and Mr. (Dan) Rooney (Owner, Class of 2000), there is always, on top of the bond you have with everyone in that room, the class you go in with you are forever linked with. To say it's a special honor, individually, is an understatement. It's something that you have to pinch yourself periodically and remind yourself, 'I'm in the Hall of Fame. Things went okay.' You're really not thinking when you're playing, 'I'm good.' You're thinking about the next day, the next play, the next series, the next game, the next year and continuing to be in that class. When you go in the Hall of Fame, you don't just go in. Your teammates go in, your high school coach goes in. Your family goes in. A lot of people go in with you."