AP Photo/The Repository, Scott Heckel
CANTON, Ohio John Elway surveyed the sea of Broncos blue and orange, heard the cheers, and offered his fans a tribute.
''To all the Broncos fans out there, thank you for everything,'' Elway said Sunday, when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. ''And a final Mile High Salute is for every one of you out there.''
And there were thousands of them at Fawcett Field to watch Elway, Barry Sanders, Carl Eller and Bob Brown bring the Hall membership to 225. Denver is about 1,100 miles from Canton, but that hardly deterred Broncos fans from making the journey and donning their No. 7 jerseys.
Elway is the first Bronco inducted, and the fans chanted his name, cheered every time he was shown on the scoreboard, then listened intently as Elway's daughter, Jessica, 18, told them how her father taught his children to be tough.
Then Elway took the stage for what seemed like a Broncos home game.
''I have to be totally honest, I have never heard that in Ohio before,'' he joked at the beginning of an emotional speech in which he paid tribute to his late father, Jack, his first coach, and the rest of his family; to his city; to his team; and to his teammates.
''For every guy who ever stepped on the field with me, I accept this honor today on behalf of all of you,'' Elway said. ''Thanks for protecting me, catching my passes, defending our goal line, sharing our highs and lows. And thanks for not losing confidence in me when I lined up for a snap as a rookie behind the left guard.''
When he retired after guiding Denver to its second straight NFL title and his fifth Super Bowl appearance he had led his team to more victories (148) than any quarterback in history. The resourceful Elway engineered 47 game-winning or tying drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. He threw for 51,407 yards, more than 30 miles, and 300 touchdowns.
He was humbled by the company he was keeping, too.
Both Elway and Sanders made a mockery of defenses throughout their record-setting careers, while Brown was one of the premier blockers of his era. Eller was a star defensive end with the Purple People Eaters in Minnesota.
''I'll call him the best ever to play the game,'' Elway said of Sanders. ''I wish I could have played with Bob Brown, and I am glad I didn't have to play against Carl Eller.''
Sanders rushed for more than 1,000 yards in all 10 of his seasons with the Detroit Lions. But at 31, he walked away from the game in 1999 and, Sunday, became the third-youngest Hall of Fame inductee, behind Gale Sayers and Jim Brown.
Known for his unfathomable moves that led to long, darting runs, Sanders said his one regret about leaving the game so early was not playing in a Super Bowl. The Lions reached the NFC title game in 1991, but that was as far as Sanders got.
Introduced by his father, William, as ''the third-best running back who ever lived,'' Sanders credited his dad for ''the great lesson that allowed him to be a great player.''
''He said 'Son play the game the way it is supposed to be played,''' Sanders recalled. '''Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Go out and play the way you are capable of.'''
Sanders was capable of 76 100-yard rushing performances, 15,269 yards rushing overall and five 1,500-yard seasons.
Eller retired in 1979 after 16 NFL seasons. A five-time All-Pro who played in six Pro Bowls and four Super Bowls, he made a habit of recovering fumbles, grabbing 23 in his career.
Eller, an admitted former substance abuser who became a drug counselor in Minneapolis, stressed the importance of education and of serving as a role model in his strong speech.
''I want to use this platform to help young African-American males to participate fully in this society,'' he said. ''I want their direction to be headed to the great universities of our nation, not to the prison and jail cells. They must know they are part of the establishment, not separate from it."
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