CANTON, Ohio John Elway fearlessly stared down opponents and the clock in the final minutes of games. Yet the prospect of election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame made him sweat.
Barry Sanders calmly slinked his way around and through tacklers nearly twice his size. But the possibility of being chosen for the Canton shrine got Sanders all nervous.
They need not have worried as both the two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback of the Denver Broncos and the 10-time 1,000-yard rusher for the Detroit Lions got in on their first tries.
They'll join Carl Eller and Bob Brown, who took considerably longer to be selected, as the Class of 2004 on Sunday.
Elway admits the lead-up to January's balloting was an anxious time. The man who led more fourth-quarter or overtime victory drives (47) than any other quarterback was antsy.
''You're hopeful, but you're not really involved in the process,'' Elway says. ''You try not to get too excited until you officially hear you are in, but I would have been disappointed if I didn't get in.
''Still, you don't want to put the cart before the horse.''
As a player, Elway drove the cart like Ben-Hur and performed like Secretariat. The 1987 league MVP, he ranks second to Dan Marino in many passing categories, including yards (51,475), attempts (7,250) and completions (4,123). Elway, a nine-time Pro Bowler who was the first overall pick in the Class of '83 draft that produced six quarterbacks in the first round, is the only NFL player to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 200 yards in the same season seven consecutive times.
The climax of his career was winning the 1998 Super Bowl after failing in his first three trips to the title game. To cap it, he also won the championship the next season, then retired on top.
''Beating the Packers for the first Super Bowl when you worked so long, and getting one in your 15th year, it was a great feeling,'' Elway says. ''That would be the best memory that I had.
''When I retired I was ready to retire. Even after the first year out, I didn't miss it at all. My playing days were over.
''I think the hardest thing was during game day and watching the games. I miss the camaraderie of training camp and being close. You knew your daily schedule and as the time passed I was ready to get the season started. Near the end I was ready to come home.''
Sanders went home prematurely at age 31. Within reach of Walter Payton's career rushing record, Sanders stunned the football world when he quit after 10 seasons. The 1989 offensive rookie of the year after winning the '88 Heisman Trophy, Sanders was the first player to rush for at least 1,000 yards in his first 10 seasons. In 1997, when he shared the league MVP award with Brett Favre, Sanders rushed for 100-plus yards in a record 14 consecutive games. That year, he became the third player to gain 2,000 yards on the ground, getting 2,053.
Sanders' trademark was making tacklers miss with a variety of unfathomable moves. He often was compared to Gale Sayers for the way he embarrassed opponents, but he never considered himself in Sayers' class or on the same level as any Hall of Famers.
''No, it never crossed my mind as a player,'' he says. ''When I heard people mention it to me, it was still the furthest thing from my mind, because I was too busy preparing and playing. When I retired, it still wasn't on my mind. It wasn't something that I really became conscious of until about a year ago when people talked about me being an '04 inductee.
''My biggest achievement was just being able to suit up and play in the NFL. Getting to the Hall of Fame is second. It's the royalty of football and it's a tremendous and humbling honor to go in and be in the same class with the greats of our game.''
These four greats comprise the first full class of first-round draft picks to enter in the same year. Sanders went third overall in 1989, Brown was the No. 2 pick in 1964 and Eller was sixth in '64.
Brown, one of the first pro football players to use weight training, was a dominant offensive tackle for the Eagles, Rams and Raiders. He also was the first overall pick in the AFL draft, by Denver, and went on to make seven all-league teams and six Pro Bowls. He retired in 1973.
''I had two options,'' Brown says. ''I could either go out there and be real good and be the beater, or I could go out there and be very mediocre or ordinary and be the beatee. I liked the role of beater better.''
Brown and Eller were roommates at a college all-star game and played twice against each other in college. In the NFL, Eller says one of his most memorable plays was on a sack of the Rams' Roman Gabriel that resulted in a safety. Eller beat Brown on the play.
''I had great combat with Carl Eller,'' Brown says. ''Every time I saw Carl Eller, he had his 'A' game going and I had my 'A' game going, too. Because if I didn't have my 'A' game going, then I was going to look like a jerk.''
Eller and Alan Page, who made the Hall of Fame in 1988, were the main Purple People Eaters on Minnesota's powerful defensive line. Eller, who retired in 1979, was a five-time All-Pro and made six Pro Bowls, using his quickness and mobility to avoid blockers and find the ball.
''We dominated the opposing teams, certainly some of them, for a while,'' he says. ''That's one of the great things about sports: the competitiveness. It's win or lose ... there's not a lot of gray matter in there.''
AP Writers John Marshall in Denver, Larry Lage in Detroit, Dave Campbell in Minneapolis and Andy Resnik in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this story.
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