Sam Huff, Bobby Mitchell and Sonny Jurgensen surely will share a deeply personal moment today, with handshakes, robust humor, perhaps a hug in the manner of former foes who became teammates and close friends on the Redskins. That Mitchell and Jurgensen have not experienced what Huff will shortly before noon, induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is impossible to understand.
Although Sam is synonymous with violence in the NFL, he touched a lot more people tenderly than roughly. Family, business associates, Alexandria neighbors, Jurgensen, Mitchell and others who want to be with Huff at a special time have swelled Canton, Ohio, toward the size of Canton, China.
The total was 153 by midweek.
"That's just what we can count," Huff said. "The Hall of Fame people tell me it's the largest group ever to come for one inductee."
His pride glowed through the phone.
"I remember every game I ever played," he said. "Almost every play. Started playing as a 146-pound sophomore, a second-teamer for a class B high school in a town of 700 people (Farmington, W. Va.)."
Always, he played as though every play might be his last; once, he almost quit the New York Giants. Young and doubting his ability, sick of being screamed at, he and Don Chandler might never have returned had an assistant named Ed Coleman not been so persuasive. Flat-out, he said these obscure, untested, frightened young men could be stars.
They were, Sam's glittering more brightly.
"I played in the greatest game ever and the worst game ever," he insists. The best would have been the Colts' 23-17 overtime victory over his Giants for the NFL title in '58; the worst, in his opinion, was that 72-41 Redskin rout of his former team in 1966.
Only a defensive zealot could consider such a show offensive.
"Sinful," he called it.
That's close to what fits for the Hall of Fame electorate not honoring Mitchell and Jurgensen. Along with Huff, other inductees are Doug Atkins, Merlin Olsen and George Musso.
Year after frustrating year, Mitchell has been rejected because the panel of wise men cannot determine his football species. Was he a runner? Was he a receiver? Was he a returner? Because his numbers in each of those areas were not gaudy, Mitchell's 47-year-old nose stays pressed to the outside of a unique place he deserves to enter.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is for football players, isn't it? What Mitchell was, was all football player. He ran and received and returned. In the history of the NFL, only two players have mustered more combined yards in their career than Mitchell's 14,078.
If justice is to be served, a man behind only Jim Brown (15,459) and O.J. Simpson (14,368) simply cannot be ignored any longer. Don't these voters have memories?
But forget the final game of the 1961 regular season, Mitchell's Browns vs. Huff's Giants. Huff still chuckles over how a man nearly as elusive as Gayle Sayers and nearly as swift as Simpson could be tackled--in the open field--by the punter.
"What happened was (Don) Chandler outkicked his coverage," said Huff, "and Bobby grabbed the ball and started to run through everyone. It got to where Chandler was the only man between Bobby and the goal-line. Chandler didn't have a chance, except Bobby made one move too many, ran right into him. Either side it would have been six.
"Only tackle Chandler ever made."
Mitchell sets the record straight.
"The year I was traded to Washington," he said. "I'd been part of the Berlin (wall) callup, flying to wherever the games were being played each weekend, trying to absorb everything in a day, playing and then reporting back by reville Monday.
"I was stationed at Fort Meade, and a Redskin in my unit (John Paluck) kept coming up to me and saying: 'Something big's about to happen.' I eventually figured out it was me being traded to Washington, that (Coach Bill) McPeak had let the word out.
"Two games before the end of the season I knew, although Paul Brown hadn't said a word. But that game (against the Giants) he wouldn't give me the ball. Maybe my having a great last game (before a trade already completed) would have been embarrassing. Anyway, I wanted that (Chandler punt) in the worst way."
Wild with rage and resentment, Mitchell ran, carrying everything but his wits.
"I approached Chandler too fast," he said. "Crazy. I was so out of control I never faked, fell right into his arms. They held us (after Chandler's tackle) and we tied (7-7). If we'd beaten 'em that day, we'd have won the (Eastern Conference) title."
A trip to the record book suggests otherwise, but the essential point is that very often the only person who stopped Mitchell was Mitchell.
If Mitchell's failure to specialize makes him unappealing to Hall of Fame voters, Jurgensen's problem is not being well-rounded enough. The game's best pure passer, everyone admits. He had dazzling stats; his teams had lousy records.
"I remember once against the Steelers," Huff said, "Sonny threw three straight touchdown passes on first down. Bang! Bang! Bang! Twenty-one points. I went to him on the sideline and said: 'I love 21 points, but you're scoring too quick. My guys (on defense) are dying."
In good conscience, we can cuff the Hall of Fame voters for not appreciating Mitchell's versatility and Jurgensen's being close to the ultimate virtuoso. Put it this way, guys: you might choose Unitas as the complete quarterback; you might want the charismatic Namath to start a franchise; you might want Layne or Kilmer for leadership.
But if you wanted one quarterback to throw one pass with whatever money and prestige you care to imagine on the line, if that pass had to get through the tightest coverage and wildest rush, if the margin for error was three inches over 30 yards . . . you'd take Jurgy.
Think about it.