CANTON, Ohio -- Warren Sapp, on the night he joined football immortality, took a moment to remember where it all started: when he was just a “humble, country boy from Plymouth, Fla.”
“That dirt road was something rough, but it sure was something special,” Sapp said.
That dirt road has taken him through the University of Miami, to Tampa Bay and Oakland, and now, the pinnacle: the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In a spirited 11-minute address, the standout defensive tackle was at times funny and then emotional, thanking the coaches, players, friends and family members who helped him reach the top of the football world.
Sapp was one of seven men inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, a sensational class that included Cris Carter and Bill Parcells, who both had tangential ties to the Miami Dolphins.
Parcells, a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach, was a Dolphins executive for two seasons before retiring from the game for good. Carter played a half a season with the Dolphins before his second and final farewell to football.
Carter, who battled well-documented substance-abuse demons early in his career, was cut by the Eagles after three seasons before turning his life around in Minnesota. He says he hasn’t touched a drink in 23 years, allowing him to catch 1,101 passes for 13,899 yards — both ranking in the top 10 in NFL history. Currently, he serves as receivers coach at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
Carter is the 11th player who has worn a Dolphins uniform to enter the Hall, but like fellow Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas, his defining seasons were behind him when he joined the team.
“To be able to join these men on this stage in football heaven is the greatest day of my life,” said Carter, who fought tears for much of the speech.
Jonathan Ogden, the towering left tackle for the Ravens, was the first inductee to speak. Ogden made a point to lobby for the inclusion of the late Art Modell into the Hall of Fame. Modell was the longtime owner of the Cleveland Browns who moved the franchise to Baltimore, and made Ogden the new franchise’s first draft pick.
Then Packers linebacker Dave Robinson had his turn. He’s the 12th inductee from Vince Lombardi’s legendary Packers teams. Robinson’s speech included a string of one-liners, including a quip about having lots of friends and family looking down on him — and probably a few looking up at him, too.
Offensive lineman Larry Allen, best known for his days with the Cowboys, went next. A man of few words during his playing career, Allen had trouble holding back the tears throughout his 16-minute address. Allen remembered a game early in his career in which he got dominated by Reggie White, spurring him to get in the weight room and become “the strongest man in the NFL.”
Allen added, with perfect timing: “I did it naturally.”
Then it was time for Parcells, who delivered one of the most anticipated speeches of the night. The always fascinating Parcells is the only coach in football history to lead four different teams to the playoffs: the Giants, Patriots, Jets and Cowboys. He used the forum to take listeners on a tour of the real NFL, the part that isn’t caught by television cameras and video games.
Early in his speech, he was light in tone. Parcells asked to have his bust put somewhere near Lawrence Taylor’s, “so I can keep an eye on that sucker.”
But later on, Parcells grew serious. He talked about how the locker room is a Petri dish for society at large, dealing with issues such as the greater good, accountability, and law and order. In success, a brotherhood forms, Parcells said, a bond that lasts for life.
But there’s a darker side to football that few know about, he added: defeat, despondency and pain.
“I wish all of the American society can experience what I did in this place. It is a priceless, priceless education,” Parcells said.
Parcells made only passing reference to his time in Miami.
After Chiefs defensive tackle Curley Culp had his turn at the podium, the stage was set for Sapp and Carter, two of the best extemporaneous talkers of their era.
Sapp made history in more ways than one. His bronze bust is the first to feature braids in Hall of Fame history. After he and daughter Mercedes unveiled the sculpture, Sapp kissed his own head before approaching the lectern.
Sapp, who spent 13 seasons in the NFL, tallying 961/2 career sacks while with the Buccaneers and Raiders, took time to acknowledge the five University of Miami Hurricanes already in the Hall. He also thanked former coach Dennis Erickson, who recruited him to Coral Cables.
“Thank you for coming to get this little country boy and show him what life is all about,” Sapp said.
“I love this game; I love the passion of it,” he added. “This game is so great, there’s nothing else that I know and love [that] has taken me from a dirt road to heights I’ve never seen and now to a gold jacket.”
Saturday night was the highlight of the Hall’s Golden Anniversary reunion, with more than 120 alumni returning to Canton, including six Dolphins — Don Shula and Dan Marino among them. Shula, now 83, enthusiastically hopped to his feet when announced to the crowd Saturday.
In all, it was the largest collection of Hall of Famers of any sport in history.