Closing Shot: First Comes The Knock

For most of those being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week, it all began with a knock at the door, a bear hug from David Baker, and a welcome to Canton, Ohio.

By David Bourne
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s David Baker (left) informs former Green Bay Packers great Jerry Kramer that he will be inducted into the hall in 2018. Kramer had been eligible for 45 years and was an 11-time finalist for induction before finally getting the good news.Pro Football Hall of Fame

David Baker knows how to make a grown man cry.

 

Each year since 2015, during Super Bowl week, the president and CEO of the Pro Football Hall of Fame makes his way down the hallways of a hotel where finalists wait in their rooms to see if they will be enshrined in Canton, Ohio. If they hear his knock at the door, they know they’re in. The celebration, and often the tears, begin.

“It’s not the elation and celebration of the moment, but when you share news like that, which has been a lifelong effort in the making, all the memories flood them all at once,” said Baker.

“They are not thinking about how much money they made, or their fans; they’re thinking about their mom who drove them to practice, or their dad who wouldn’t let them quit, or that coach that inspired them to be more, and the teammates who helped them get there.”

This week in Canton, the Hall of Fame will welcome both the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021, since COVID-19 made it impossible to have a proper induction ceremony last year. The Hall of Fame will honor 19 inductees over two days, Aug. 7-8.

The pandemic last year also caused Baker to break from tradition somewhat in how he notified the next class of inductees, since it was doubtful all of the finalists could be gathered at a Super Bowl hotel. That included several special trips, including to New York City to surprise Bill Cowher on the set of the CBS pregame show, and to Los Angeles to surprise Jimmy Johnson on Fox’s NFL set. Baker recalls Cowher’s “steel jaw” quivering at the sight of his family joining the celebration, and of Johnson struggling through emotions to form his words.

It made Baker think back to his first year as Hall of Fame president in 2014, when he delivered the news with a phone call. He first dialed up Michael Strahan and then Derrick Brooks before phoning punting legend Ray Guy. Baker recalls hearing Guy fall to the floor, where he stayed for two minutes, overcome by the moment. Guy had been eligible for the hall for nearly 30 years, but had always come up short in the final vote. “I thought I had killed my first hall of famer,” Baker said. “Finally he got up and said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry. I’m not sure I understood until right now how much this meant to me.’”

The next year, Baker switched to the hotel room visits during Super Bowl week to make these emotional encounters more personal. “The goal there was to really share with fans how much this means to them.”

First comes the knock. Then, among hugs and tears, Baker delivers the news, along the lines of:

“On behalf of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it’s my privilege to welcome you to Canton, Ohio. I want to thank you for all you’ve done for the game, and all you’re going to do for the game. We’re going to keep your legacy alive forever.”

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