Sunday, February 1, 2004

Elway, Sanders easy choices for Hall

The Associated Press

HOUSTON - Anyone who tried to rattle John Elway or tackle Barry Sanders always knew what kind of player they were up against. Their elections Saturday to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a mere formality.

Elway, the winningest quarterback in NFL history, and Sanders, No. 3 in career rushing, made the Hall in their first attempts. They were joined by Bob Brown and Carl Eller.

"When you take everything into consideration, the Super Bowls, the measurables like arm strength and the length of his career, you can build a case that he's the best that's ever played the position," said Jim Fassel, one of the assistant coaches at Stanford and Denver when Elway played there.

Elway was the first player chosen in the 1983 draft, then proved his worth through 16 incomparable seasons with the Denver Broncos, capping it all by being Super Bowl MVP.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue called him "the greatest ambassador imaginable" for the game of football.

"He combined talent and character to become an incomparable performer and champion on the field," Tagliabue said.

Sanders played 10 NFL seasons, walking away from the game at 31, just 1,457 yards from the career rushing record held by Walter Payton. Emmitt Smith went on to break that record but has acknowledged that Sanders would have shattered it had he kept playing.

"He's in a class by himself," Smith said.

Sanders displayed his skills for the Detroit Lions, usually on teams that weren't very good.

"For 10 years, you could have called the Detroit Lions the Detroit Sanders," former linebacker and Lions president Matt Millen said, "because he was everything for the Lions."

No other back has accumulated so many yards in a decade.

"Barry Sanders is the only guy who can go east and west at the same speed at the same time," linebacker Dwayne Rudd said.

"God only put one pair of feet like that on a human being," said Fritz Shurmur, former defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers.

Wayne Fontes, Sanders' coach for nine seasons in Detroit, said: "The guy upstairs has got a plan. He had a plan to make Einstein. He had a plan to make the guy that invented this and a guy that invented that. And he made Barry the way he is. He said, 'This is a football player.' "

While Elway and Sanders breezed into the Hall of Fame, defensive end Carl Eller got there a quarter-century after his retirement from the game.

Eller left the NFL in 1979 after 16 seasons and has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for two decades.

"Carl should have made it before," his coach, Bud Grant, said.

Eller is the second member of the Minnesota Vikings' Purple People Eaters defensive line to earn the honor. Alan Page made it in 1988.

"Carl was ahead of his time," former Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton said. "He was a huge man, he had great speed, he had great athletic ability, he had great intellect. He understood the game, and he was the dominant outside pass rusher of his day."

The family of the late Bob Hayes was disappointed, but not surprised, that he failed to make the final cut after being one of six finalists. Offensive tackle Rayfield Wright was the other finalist not selected for the Hall.

Hayes, a wide receiver, made it further than ever in the selection process. His family believes his problems with drug addiction after his retirement in 1975 hurt his chances.

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