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Sundays with Sacco: Hall of Fame Weekend

The 2015 National Football League season has its preseason and ceremonial kickoff this weekend, with the first preseason game in Canton, Ohio  to cap off what has become an NFL rite of summer, Pro Football Hall of Fame Weekend.

Our Denver Broncos web site is full of content on the ceremonies and festivities, including Ring of Famer Tom Jackson's awarding of the Pete Rozelle Award for Radio-TV Excellence.

Hall of Fame Broncos running back Floyd Little and two of his best friends and former teammates, Tom Jackson and Billy Thompson, toured the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (All photos by Ben Swanson)

Many Broncos fans are soaking in and enjoying the articles on the web site, ESPN and the NFL Network (listing TJ's network first as a courtesy to Tom), but the Mile High City has a richness of association much deeper than that.

Of course, we have inductees John Elway and Floyd Little, who played their entire careers in Denver, along with Shannon Sharpe and Gary Zimmerman, each of whom joined Elway in being on world championship teams in playing most of their respective careers here.

We also have two inductees who played most of their careers elsewhere, but it is very important to note that both Willie Brown (Oakland Raiders) and Tony Dorsett (Dallas Cowboys) are also recognized as Broncos by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

If you were to ask the Hall how many Bronco players are in, the answer would be six, not four.  There are a great many inductees who played for different teams, and each inductee is listed in the Hall for each team.

But we have some peripheral, less direct associations as well.

Fred Gehrke was the Broncos' General Manager for Super Bowl XII and was a 16-year employee of the Broncos.  Fred hired me and I had the pleasure of knowing him and his very rich pro football history.

As a Los Angeles Rams halfback in 1948 he came up with the concept of a logo on the side of the game's leather helmets.  He took the idea to team owner and future Hall of Famer Dan Reeves (no, not "our" Dan Reeves), who approved the concept and Fred personally painted every Rams helmet with the now famous horns, taking all the helmets home in the back of his pickup truck and touching them up in his garage after every game.

Fred Gehrke received the Pioneer Award for his contributions to the game from the Hall of Fame in 1972.

Stan Jones was the Broncos' defensive line coach for 18 years, from 1967-71 and again from 1976-88), but he was one of the best defensive tackles in the game during his legendary career as a player with the Chicago Bears, and Stan was inducted in 1991.

Doak Walker stands almost alone as a consensus three-time All-American halfback.  The only player with a similar statis is Broncos running back and Hall of Famer Floyd Little.

Walker was in player personnel for the Broncos and coached wide receivers for the Broncos in 1966, and it is interesting and more than coincidental that one of the players he evaluated that year was Little, who was drafted by Denver the following spring.

Not only were Walker's scouting observations astute, but space constraints of this column prevent me from even beginning to describe the greatness of Walker's college play at Southern Methodist and his pro football career with the Detroit Lions.  Walker was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.

Before the NFL was the smooth running machine to today, the Hall of Fame was making its mark and the team in the Rocky Mountains had an attachment even then.

The original Hall of Fame class of 17 in 1963 included Colorado College product Earl "Dutch" Clark.

In 1970 the Hall inducted Colorado A & M (now Colorado State University) defensive back Jack Christiansen.  Sadly, he is not well known to the "experts" of today, but Christiansen was with Walker on those great Detroit teams of the 1950's.  

Jack was on Lions' world championship teams in 1952, 1953 and 1957, and in 1972 he was listed as one of the 25 greatest players in NFL history to that point.  As recently as 1999 he still was listed as one of the 86 greatest players ever.

The Hall of Fame is a special place.

I was honored to be included in a reunion of NFL PR directors, spanning 1949 to the present, and what better place for this than the Hall of Fame, which opened its doors to us for a two-day reunion in April of this year.

But my own memories go back to our own Bronco inductions, obviously, and to the games we have played in Canton.

But so too do I think of watching the parade right next to the city street, as Canton has the richness of small town Americana, and being able to converse with Hall of Famers as they were driven past the crowd in convertibles.

I think back to a television production meeting with the ABC broadcast crew the day before we played a game there, and watching Frank Gifford thumb through the program until he found what he was looking for--the page that showed his own Hall of Fame bust.

Frank Gifford is every inch a very humble gentleman, but he put the program down and said, "Jim, every year I come to do this game, every year I look at the picture of my bust in the program, and every year I just cannot believe I am in the Hall of Fame."

He was as great a player as that is a modest statement--a pure, 100% Hall of Famer in every way.

It is a great weekend, including private luncheons and public dinners, capped by the open air inductions and the game itself.

But it also features moments as simple as watching the late, great San Francisco Hall of Famer Bob St. Clair relaxing in a rocking chair on the front porch of the quaint and classic McKinley Hotel.

I remember thinking that nothing says Americana like that sort of scene.

Bob St. Clair passed away in Santa Rose, California on April 20 of this year, just one week before our PR reunion in Canton.

Life cycles on, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton touches every fan.

I hope everyone enjoys the kickoff to the 2015 season, and that all fans can make it to Canton some day to see how the early days of pro football  connect the dots to the game we all love today. //

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