When someone last week asked which speech I most wanted to hear Saturday at the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2022 induction, I went for the layup.
“Dick Vermeil,” I said.
The reason: Simple. His would be the most emotional.
It made perfect sense … except for one detail. I was wrong.
It wasn’t Vermeil’s ceremony-ending address that we remember most from Saturday’s enshrinement. It was San Francisco defensive tackle Bryant Young’s. A tower of physical and emotional strength in his 14 years with the 49ers, Young fought to hold back tears as he paid tribute to the life … and death … of his son, Colby, who passed away in 2016 from pediatric cancer.
He was 15.
“He didn’t fear death as much as the process of dying,” Young said. “Would it be painful? Would he be remembered? We assured Colby we would keep his memory alive and continue speaking his name.”
Then he paused.
“Colby,:” he said, his voice choked with emotion, :”you live on in our hearts. We will always speak your name.”
His audience stood and applauded, much as they had during Young’s Hall-of-Fame career. But this was different. It wasn’t a response to Bryant Young’s heroics as a football player. It was in recognition of a father’s strength to stand before a televised audience and dedicate his speech to a son left behind.
“From my pain, I found purpose,” Young said. “Letting someone grab my hand is as important as reaching for theirs. In an isolated world, personal connections matter more than ever. I keep my gaze on Christ and pour myself into good works, including the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, and I’ve learned to live with God’s plan and timing … not mine.”
Young’s 10-minute speech was the most powerful moment of the three-hour event, with the former 49ers’ star demonstrating the poise, strength and, yes, courage that made him an eight-time recipient of San Francisco’s coveted Len Eshmont Award, given annually to the player who best exemplifies “the courage and inspirational play” of Eshmont, an original member of the 1946 49ers.
No other 49er won it more than twice.
“In this, my 10th year of eligibility, I enter the Hall as 22,” Young said, stopping to correct himself. “2022.”
Twenty-two, Young said, “was Colby’s favorite number.”
Then he thanked his listeners and left the stage.
THE CLOSING SURPRISE. The Hall had Vermeil close the ceremony as its eighth and final inductee, and it did it for a reason. The smart money was on him speaking the longest … and he did. Exceeding 22 minutes, Vermeil spoke longer than four others combined. But that was expected. This wasn’t: Somehow, some way, he refused to break down. An emotional coach who often teared up when talking about players, Vermeil defied expectations and held it together as he thanked a litany of persons throughout his high-school, collegiate and pro careers. “You notice I didn’t get to talking about a lot of other things that would make me cry,” he said as his audience laughed.” But when I talk about Carol Vermeil (his wife), it ain’t going to work. Carol Vermeil as a football coach has no equal. Never has. Never will. “
ON THE CLOCK. The Hall last year started to crack down on long acceptance speeches, imploring inductees to keep addresses to no more than six-to-seven minutes … and it worked. No speech exceeded 11-and-a-half minutes. That wasn’t the case Saturday, but only because of Vermeil. Otherwise, the Hall’s message that shorter is better seems to be working, and the envelope, please. Here are the lengths of speeches, listed in order of enshrinees’ appearances.
S LEROY BUTLER –5:19.
LB SAM MILLS (wife MELANIE MILLS) – 3: 14
DL RICHARD SEYMOUR – 9:26
ART MCNALLY (video) with granddaughter Shannon O’Hara) --1:40.
OT TONY BOSELLI --11:36
DT BRYANT YOUNG --10:09.
WR CLIFF BRANCH --(sister ELAINE ANDERSON) – 4:10.
DICK VERMEIL – 22:59.
BUTLER’S MESSAGE TO REMEMBER. Some Hall-of-Fame candidates complain when they’re not first-ballot choices, but the former Green Bay safety isn’t one of them. Neither is Jacksonville tackle Tony Boselli, the first Jaguars’ player elected to Canton. Butler and Boselli each waited 16 years to be inducted, and both were all-decade choices. In fact, Butler was the last first-team all-decade pick from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s to be inducted. “Sixteen years is a long time,” he admitted, “but it’s worth the wait.” Pass it on.
BIG DAY FOR CARL PETERSON. The former NFL and USFL executive presented Vermeil for induction and is the pro football GM who gave linebacker Sam Mills a chance when others would not. That was back in 1983 when Peterson, then general manager of the USFL Philadelphia Stars, signed the 5-foot-9 Mills after he failed tryouts with the Cleveland Browns and CFL Toronto Argonauts. Mills would go on to become a three-time USFL all-star and NFL standout with New Orleans and Carolina. He was elected to the Class of 2022 in his 20th … and final … year of modern-era eligibility.
THEY SAID IT. Rewind the videotape to Saturday’s best sound bites, and you might hear the following:
“When you play for the Green Bay Packers, a lot of doors pen up. When you win a Super Bowl, all doors open up. And when you make the Hall of Fame, football heaven opens up.” – Safety LeRoy Butler.
“This is the greatest thing for an official: Doing the job. Hopefully, nobody’s even going to know you’re around. Make the calls the proper way, (and) they should be with a heavy dose of common sense.” – Art McNally, contributor inductee.
“Football … our game … has afforded me possibilities I never could have imagined. And with that privilege comes profound responsibility. The responsibility of stewardship. The responsibility to put others first … to take care of the details … to keep learning … to keep giving to the long-term strength of our game. Let us commit today … and every day … to be worthy stewards of our game and its values in recognition of these values with reverence for those who passed them to us.” – Defensive lineman Richard Seymour.
“I never, ever, wanted to let you down.’ – DT Bryant Young to his 49ers’ teammates.
“When it is not in God’s time, you cannot force it. When it IS in God’s time, you cannot stop it. Clifford was delayed but not denied. He never, ever gave up on his dream.” – Cliff Branch’s sister, Elaine Anderson.
“I learned from my players. Many people said to me, ‘Coach, you impact players.’ It’s the other way around. Players impact me.” – Coach Dick Vermeil.
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