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Manning, ’21 class inducted to cap HOF weekend

6:59 PM ET

  • Jeff LegwoldESPN Senior Writer

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    • Covered Broncos for nine years for Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
    • Previously covered Steelers, Bills and Titans
    • Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame Board
      of Selectors since 1999

CANTON, Ohio — One of NFL’s most decorated players helped close out the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s grandest enshrinement weekend in its history Sunday night as Peyton Manning led the Hall’s Class of 2021 in a ceremony filled with tears, laughs, memories and a cascade of thank-yous along the way.

Drew Pearson, who was the only first-team selection to the All-Decade team of the 1970s who had not previously been enshrined in the Hall, led off the evening with an energetic presentation that set the tone for the evening and included showing the crowd “these skinny legs” that propelled him to the Hall of Fame as he pulled up his trouser legs for an ovation.

Pearson, a former college quarterback who made the Dallas Cowboys’ roster as an undrafted rookie wide receiver in 1973, was the Seniors inductee. His career was shortened by liver injuries he suffered in a car accident when he was 33.

Pearson was followed by Tom Flores, the first minority coach to win a Super Bowl. Flores won Super Bowl rings as a player, assistant coach and head coach to go with an AFL championship as a player.

Flores and Hall of Famer Mike Ditka are the only people in NFL history who have been Super Bowl winners as players, assistant coaches and head coaches. Flores’ nine seasons as Raiders coach included two Super Bowl victories, an 8-3 postseason record and a playoff winning percentage of .727, which ranks him behind only Vince Lombardi.

To close his speech, Flores, who had earlier spoken of his childhood home with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing, recalled the significance of sharing a moment in the closing minutes of the Raiders’ Super Bowl XV win with Oakland assistant coach Sam Boghosian, who came from the same part of California’s Central Valley.

But the headliner of the group came third in the speaking order when Manning stepped to the podium awash in a thunderous ovation and gave a thumbs-up to the crowd. Manning, who was selected in his first year of eligibility, played on two Super Bowl-winning teams, was a five-time MVP, a 14-time Pro Bowl selection, Offensive Rookie of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year.

After 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning signed with the Broncos in 2012 — making him one of the most accomplished players to change teams in the free-agency era. The Colts had 11 seasons with 10 wins while Manning was their quarterback and won Super Bowl XLI, with Manning earning MVP honors.

The Broncos won Super Bowl 50 to close out the 2015 season — the last game of Manning’s career — and complete a four-year run in Denver that saw the team win 50 games and four consecutive AFC West titles. Manning retired with numerous single-season and career records, including his 5,477 yards passing and 55 touchdowns in 2013.

Manning’s humor and tears intertwined in his speech as he teased Ray Lewis for the length of his enshrinement speech in 2018 — “he just finished” — and said Tom Brady, among the large throng of Manning invitees, would post his eventual enshrinement speech “on his Instagram account.” Manning tried to choke back tears when thanking his parents, Archie and Olivia, his brothers, his wife Ashley and his children.

Manning also made an impassioned plea to help secure the future of the sport at all levels — “The future of this game is ours to shape, we just need to take tomorrow on our shoulders as easily as we donned our pads for games … God bless you and God bless football.”

Sunday night’s ceremony in Tom Benson Stadium capped off an extended enshrinement weekend with this past Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game to go with ceremonies on Saturday night for the Hall’s Class of 2020 and the Centennial Class of Hall of Famers selected as part of the league’s 100th anniversary. Both of those ceremonies had been canceled last year because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Manning was followed to the podium by former Buccaneers and Broncos safety John Lynch, who joked that “nothing about my Hall of Fame journey has been easy; I waited eight years and then [Hall president] David Baker tells me I’m following Peyton Manning, thank you David.”

Lynch, now the San Francisco 49ers’ general manager, was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, including his last four years in the league, which he spent in Denver. Lynch recounted Hall of Famer Bill Walsh’s impact on his career as well as the influence of Hall of Famer Tony Dungy and Herm Edwards.

He spoke of how his wife, Linda, would write him notes before every game.

Calvin Johnson, who was also selected for enshrinement in his first year of eligibility and is set to turn 36 next month, was just the third player to be enshrined when he was 35 or younger.

Johnson spoke of overcoming back pain and other injuries in his abbreviated career. “The pain began to take a toll on my body and my quality of life,” Johnson said. “… But I was OK with this because I left it all on the field and enjoyed every moment. … There are so many people in pain right now, I want to speak to you for a moment, I want you to know I see you.”

Johnson recorded five 1,200-yard receiving seasons and ranks 31st in career receiving yards. He finished his career as Detroit’s leader in targets (1,312), receptions (731), yards (11,619) and receiving touchdowns (83). His 84 total touchdowns are second in Lions history behind the 109 TDs scored by Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders.

Former Steelers guard Alan Faneca spoke of dealing with epilepsy in his career — “I have always told myself and spoken about the fact epilepsy is part of me, but it does not define me, we are in charge of our destiny” — and called his wife, Julie, “my champion.”

Charles Woodson closed out the night by singing to his mom, Georgia, when he stepped to the podium. The nine-time Pro Bowler eventually asked those in the stadium to stand “if you’re a fan of the way I played football. … When I say when I go in we all go in, I mean it from the bottom of my heart.”

Longtime Steelers scout Bill Nunn, who was enshrined as a contributor, was honored posthumously with a video tribute during the ceremony.

Nunn, a scouting pioneer, advised NFL teams on players from the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities he had evaluated as a sports writer. Nunn later spent more than four decades with the Steelers, and was a key figure in the team’s dynastic run in the 1970s and return to the Super Bowl in the decades that followed. He died in 2014.