A year ago, I asked a longtime Pro Football Hall of Fame voter how he responds to angry fans who believe a certain player belongs in the game's most prestigious club. "We always hear when a class comes in, 'How could you not have this guy? How could you leave off this guy?' What I always ask is: Who would you take out?' and that usually silences them …"
It's true. The Hall of Fame is not for everyone, and often great players can't get in because they are not quite as great as the men pushing past them to gain entrance.
Still, I can't help but wonder what reasons voters have for why they have yet to elect former Broncos LB Randy Gradishar. Seems no matter who you talk to from Gradishar's era, everyone thinks the guy belongs in Canton.
And not only do opposing coaches and players, commentators and game historians think Gradishar is worthy - many of them think he is one of the greatest inside linebackers of all-time.
Of course, Gradishar is polite about it all. Sure, he'd love to be enshrined, but he knows how it works.
Shared Gradishar recently, "My name is being considered, so I'm very grateful for that. (But) I have no control over the process. Maybe at some point, some day, it might happen. That's all I can hope and pray for."
Gradishar shouldn't have to pray for it. He earned it by averaging 205 tackles over his 10 NFL seasons, seven of which placed him on the AFC's Pro Bowl roster. Those totals stack up well against the 19 linebackers currently in the Hall, and it could be argued that you could swap out Gradishar for a number of them. So why has he been ignored? Let me suggest two common (though rotten) factors that Hall voters usually consider when sifting through candidates: Gradishar never played on a Super Bowl winner, and his on-field personality lacked pizzazz.
Canton has lined its halls with Packers from the 1960s and Steelers from the 1970s, and the 49ers of the 1980s and Cowboys of the 1990s are starting to arrive in bunches. In an era of outstanding defensive play, the Orange Crush defense was as good — and in some years better — than all the rest of the league's nicknamed units, and yet without a title not a single of its members are enshrined. But, if Gradishar had played for Pittsburgh and Jack Lambert had played for Denver, who do you think would be in the Hall? And should it matter? Both were outstanding men of the middle.
Likewise, football lore seems to favor those linebackers who had personality — the game's great villains or goofballs. Lambert and Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke and Ted Hendricks. All of them in, all deservedly so. But is this really the separating criteria? A particular game face or attitude?
Wrote the late Pro Football Weekly personnel analyst Joel Buchsbaum of Gradishar in 2002, "Maybe the smartest and most underrated ever. Had rare instincts, was faster than Lambert and very effective in short-yardage and goal-line situations. The fact he is not in the Hall of Fame is a shame and may be attributed to the fact he was a sure tackler but not a lights-out hitter or look-at-me type of player."
Gradishar understands it all, but makes no excuses for how he got the job done.
"Some of that is human nature, to relate a position to the personality," he said. "It's not the way people should do it, but it's part of their thinking process. Whether someone is mean or not mean shouldn't matter when comparing statistics …
Gradishar paused, then offered another theory, "Maybe they didn't like my first name Randy. It maybe doesn't have the ring of a Dick or Mike or Jack — the first name of a middle linebacker who'll supposedly tear your head off."
What makes a Hall of Famer? Is it the numbers, the Pro Bowls, or how well a man held up in his era? Maybe it comes down to how well you were respected by your teammates or the players you battled against? Tough to say. I just know that besides not having a one-syllable first name, Randy Gradishar meets the criteria. He belongs.
Five minutes with a legend: Randy Gradishar
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).