Roger Wehrli praised the timing of his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame at induction ceremonies Saturday night in Canton, Ohio. He said it allowed his grandchildren to share something special with him.
Wehrli, who was elected in his final year of eligibility with the regular selection committee, was a standout player at MU before going to the NFL.
As a Tiger, the King City native played cornerback for Dan Devine from 1966-68, earning All-Big 8 Conference honors twice, including the conference’s defensive player of the year award after his senior season.
From 1969-82, Wehrli was a shutdown cornerback for the St. Louis Cardinals. He also excelled as a punt returner. He recovered a franchise record-tying 19 fumbles during his career and made the NFL’s all-1970s team, plus five All-Pro teams.
“The Hall of Fame is never a given. I never for once took it for granted that I would be or should be here,” Wehrli said. “I believe I was elected at this time of my life so my children ... and three grandchildren could be here and enjoy this, and remember something special about their granddad.”
The other inductees Saturday also kept to a family theme.
Michael Irvin lauded the Dallas Cowboys family for inspiring him to make it to Canton. Thurman Thomas asked his wife to marry him again. Charlie Sanders finally got to say “Hi Mom.”
Bruce Matthews campaigned to have his brother, Clay, join him in the hall. And Gene Hickerson’s son, Bob, accepted on behalf of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Then Gene was brought onto the stage in a wheelchair guided by former teammates Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell, all running backs he helped get into the hall.
Irvin kissed his hall bust before he capped the riveting ceremony with a preacher’s intensity. His eyes wet, his words coming slowly and emphatically, he commended Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and fellow “Triplets” Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman for motivating him. He saluted Cowboys fans everywhere, but saved his most moving tributes for the relatives who stuck with him through three Super Bowl wins and all the difficulties away from the field.
Irvin pleaded no contest to felony cocaine possession and was put on probation for four years after a March 1996 arrest. Police crashed Irvin’s 30th birthday party and found him, marijuana, cocaine and strippers in a hotel room. He subsequently had other incidents with police.
Thomas, a second-round pick in 1988, set a record by leading the NFL in total yards from scrimmage four consecutive seasons. The 1991 league MVP, he rushed for 12,074 yards in his career, and only all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders ran for more yards in the 1990s.
Thomas didn’t kiss his hall bust, but he rubbed the head when it was unveiled, and mentioned “it’s really, really scary up here.”
Citing what he called a “simple but memorable life,” Sanders entered the hall by thanking a mother he never knew. she died when he was 2 years old.
Noting how players often mug for the camera and salute their mothers, a teary-eyed Sanders said: ’I thought it was something that was always special and I would want to do, but couldn’t. So I take this time, right here and right now, in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to say, ’Hi Mom.’ “
The 74th player chosen in the 1968 draft, Sanders foreshadowed the era of pass-catching tight ends that spawned fellow Canton inductees Kellen Winslow and Dave Casper. As a rookie, he made 40 receptions for 533 yards, almost unheard-of numbers for his position. He was selected to the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1970s.
Speaking for his father, who was too ill to talk or sit on stage, Bob Hickerson remembered his dad as “still leading the way for” Brown, Kelly and Mitchell. Then those three great runners turned things around by leading Hickerson onstage.
As a 248-pound guard, Hickerson played 15 seasons for the Browns, and Cleveland never had a losing record in that time. He made five straight All-Pro teams (1966-70). In 1964, he helped Cleveland to the NFL championship.
Hall of Famer Mike Munchak, who introduced his former mate on the offensive line, lauded Matthews’ “work ethic, competitiveness and passion for the game, which were contagious. He raised the standard for all of us.”
Matthews’ set an enviable standard for blockers. He played in more games than any positional player in NFL history, starting 292 of 296, and 15 playoff games. The most starts came at guard (99 on the left side, 67 on the right) and at center (87). Matthews had 22 starts at right tackle, 17 at left tackle.