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Once Again, Canton Becomes Buffalo South

Buffalo fans in force at Hall of Fame enshrinement

CANTON, Ohio—The Pro Football Hall of Fame has seen this before…one of Buffalo’s own gets enshrined into the Hall, and Buffalo descends en masse to celebrate the accomplishment.

But this past weekend’s event in Canton raised the bar on Buffalo revelry.

Not one but two Buffalo Bills representatives were part of the 2009 class entering the Hall. Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. and defenseman Bruce Smith were both honored with pro football’s ultimate achievement. More than half of the 13,000 or so who attended the ceremonies this past weekend at Fawcett Stadium were dressed in Bills gear. Their voices were so loud that the ground shook on the field, and presentors for the other enshrines were quick to add Buffalo connections to their comments, hoping to elicit cheers for their parts of the program.

The day began in Canton rainy and gloomy, with many fans scurrying indoors into the Hall of Fame museum or one of the many hospitality tents and merchandise sales venues set up on the grounds. But the grey skies didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of those who were here, and amidst the tight neighborhood streets that wind around this complex, Buffalo Bills tailgaters could be spotted along the curbs and on front lawns pretty much everywhere.

By early evening the rains had stopped, and workers were scurrying about the stadium to dry seats and place programs on the chairs, getting ready for the 7pm start before a national television audience on ESPN.

Ralph Wilson’s turn came up first, and presentor Chris Berman of ESPN pretty much gave the best tribute of all on this night, capturing the essence of Buffalo and what it means to be a Bills fan. Referring to Wilson, Berman said “This is one of the wisest selection the Hall of Fame has made in quite a while.” He spoke of the early days of the Bills, when deals were often made by handshake. “The Bills still belong to Buffalo because your owner has given you his word. No one has circled the wagons like the only owner the Buffalo Bills have ever had.”

And just before welcoming Wilson to the dais, Berman exhorted the fans to join him in his signature line, “No one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills!” The full throated crowd joined in unison. The only thing missing was the blaring of the “Shout” song.

Most were expecting a long and rambling and discombobulated speech from the 90-year-old Wilson, best known for his long windedness and for telling tall tales. And while he didn’t disappoint, he spoke form the heart when he said that this moment was his crowning achievement in football.

They saved the best for last, and when Bruce Smith took to the stage to receive his honor, he came across as a man humbled by the awe of the day, still looking fit and ready to jump right back into uniform if called upon.

Smith has had his personal problems; he was suspended once during his Bills tenure for testing positive for cocaine. He recently made big headlines down in his home town of Hampton Roads, Virginia, when he was arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Yet even after facing his demons, Smith spoke highly of his family and the roles they played in shaping his life. One of the most poignant remarks was to his son Alston. Losing his composure briefly, Smith said, “I still remember you as a cute little toddler that would jump into my arms after a long day at practice. And now you’re a handsome young man. I am so proud of the respectful, empathetic human being that you’ve become. The path that you will follow in life is yet unknown. But I know this for sure, that your courage, intelligence, and strength in character will be your guiding compass.”

Smith then went into his tent revival mode, revving up the partisan crowd with memories of his great teammates. The best line was saved for Thurman Thomas. “Thurman Thomas, known to his teammates as Squatty, you undoubtedly are the most complete running back of our era. My life would be a little less bright if I didn’t have you to laugh and joke with,” said Smith. Then in reference to that infamous moment in Super Bowl XXVI, when Thomas had to stay out of a play because of his missing helmet, Smith then said, “P.S. I hid your helmet.”

Walking out of the stadium to the colorful pyrotechnics in the sky and to the strains of U2’s “Beautiful Day,” one had to wonder if Buffalo will ever see a day like this again here in Canton. Sure, many speculate that Andre Reed may yet be bestowed with this ultimate honor, but looking back on that great team of the four Super Bowl era, one has to wonder if we will ever see such a collection of talent ever assembled on one team ever again. And sadly, with such a team, one has to wonder how they managed not to seal the deal with at least one Super Bowl championship.

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