Monday, August 9, 2010

Canton's First "True Dat"

While attending a meeting in Cleveland in 2006, I decided to drive down to Canton to see the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Towards the end of the museum, there’s a section where each team has its own small area. Under the Saints’ display, I noticed a small card listing the Saints that had been inducted in the Hall. One name was listed: Jim Finks.

Technically, that was incorrect, as a few athletes that have worn a Saints uniform had made it inside.

Fullback Jim Taylor, running back Earl Campbell and defensive end Doug Atkins are in the Hall though they earned their busts from their accomplishments with other teams as their best days were behind them when Taylor and Atkins arrived at Tulane Stadium and Campbell suited up in the Superdome.

They were Saints in the same way that Rickey Henderson was a Seattle Mariner. All three ended their careers as Saints combining for just over 5.5 seasons with the Black and Gold.

Even the one individual the Hall’s display manager conceded to the Saints had made his mark prior to affiliating with the team. Finks had enjoyed success running the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears’ front offices before heading down south. Unlike the case of the three other “Saint” Hall of Famers, Finks made a substantial contribution to the New Orleans organization, transforming a perennial loser into a playoff team that inhaled its first whiffs of success.

Finks didn’t just pass through New Orleans; he demonstrated his organizational genius in the most challenging setting in the league.

Fast-forward a few years later at the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame luncheon in Metairie, retired kicker Tom Dempsey is mingling with the fans, proudly signing his autograph “Tom Dempsey 63 yd FG 11/8/70” on to whatever objects that are put before him.

Though not inducted in the Hall itself, Dempsey’s flat-tipped shoe from his record-setting kick is on display. When I mentioned seeing his footwear and wondered aloud whether former linebacker Rickey Jackson’s likeness would make it in the shrine, Dempsey’s smile instantaneously disappeared and was replaced with an angry grimace.

“It’s criminal how he’s not already in there,” snarled the ex-kicker who went on to play for a few other teams after his stint with the Saints but moved back to New Orleans after retiring.

For a pro who never played on the same Saints squad, Dempsey’s sincere consternation about the Hall’s “sin of omission” impressed me.

Short of something horribly extraordinary happening (and I dare not speculate what could derail this), quarterback Drew Brees will go down as the greatest figure in Saints’ history. No need to delve into reasons why…just go take a gander at the Lombardi Trophy sitting in the foyer of the team’s headquarters off of Airline Drive.

However until Super Bowl XLIV, number 57 was undeniably the greatest player to ever wear a fleur-de-lis on a football helmet. And Jackson will likely remain the team’s greatest defensive player. The combination of his impressive physique, playing style and mentality towards the game is rare in the history of the game and never has a player meant so much for so long to this team.

Jackson was a gridiron monster that got sacks, forced fumbles, recovered fumbles and made tackles. And he was the star of the best linebacker corps in the history of pro-football.

Jackson was a large part of the foundation that was already in place when Finks arrived on the scene to build a hapless franchise into something special.

Jackson’s contributions have always been appreciated locally. He is one of only two Saints players whose name and number hangs from the rafters of the Superdome and there was an online petition dedicated to the cause of Jackson’s enshrinement.

A testament of how much he was loved by area fans was that many weren’t too upset when he went to San Francisco because that would be Jackson’s best shot at getting a Super Bowl ring.

Being in the same division as the Saints and having consistently put quality teams on the field in the 1980s and early 1990s the Forty-Niners were considered the “other” Red and Gold evil empire by New Orleans fans.

Though he finished as one of the all-time leaders in quarterback sacks, got his Super Bowl ring and was selected to six Pro Bowls, Jackson struggled more busting through the door to the Hall than he ever did an opposing offensive line.

Part of this likely has to do with the small media market where Jackson made his bones. Jackson’s cause wasn’t helped from unresolved child support issues.

Yet 14 years removed from his final season, Jackson’s chances of finally getting the respect he deserved improved at the same time his former team was having the greatest season in franchise history. One wonders if the rediscovery of Jackson’s greatness was nudged a bit by the 2009 Saints.

While most Saints fans were totally caught up in Super Bowl fever, a part of my mind was dwelling on another piece of news important to the Saints: would Jackson finally get his due?

On the eve of the greatest moment in Saints’ history, the Hall announced that “City Champ” would be inducted. The superstitious Catholic in me considered that the ultimate omen that things would indeed go well for the Black and Gold in Miami the next day.

While watching ESPN’s SportsCenter after the induction ceremonies, I got agitated from the commentators who acted as if the only two people brought into the hall that evening was Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice. It was as if Jackson and the other four barely mentioned inductees had gotten into Canton by winning a raffle.

Some things never change.

However, enough responsible people finally gave the recognition due to #57 thus making Rickey Jackson the first “True Dat” to enter the Pro-Football Hall of Fame and opening a hole for other Saints players whose names might create some clutter on that little card in the museum that now bears the names of two New Orleans Saints Hall of Famers.

Congratulations Rickey. You earned your spot even if you didn’t deserve to have to wait this long to get it.

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