A gunslinging quarterback, unstoppable wide receiver and lockdown defensive back all walk onto a football field.
It sounds like the start of a joke. However, these three former football players were no joke on the gridiron. Quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and cornerback/safety Charles Woodson were all superstars at their respective positions. Now, all three will walk into the Hall as first-ballot inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2021.
They will be joined by safety John Lynch, guard Alan Faneca, wide receiver Drew Pearson, head coach Tom Flores and scout Bill Nunn.
The eight-member class was chosen from a list of 18 finalists who had been determined earlier by the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee. With the addition of the Class of 2021, the Hall of Fame will have 354 members in its exclusive club.
The Class of 2021 will be inducted during Enshrinement Weekend on Aug. 5-9 in Canton, Ohio, as will the Class of 2020, its induction delayed a year because of the COVID pandemic. The Class of 2020, which will be inducted on a separate day, include safety Steve Atwater, wide receiver Isaac Bruce, guard Steve Hutchinson, running back Edgerrin James and safety Troy Polamalu. A look at the classes:
CLASS OF 2021
When Peyton Manning was selected No. 1 overall in the 1998 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts, expectations were sky high.
Over the next 18 years, the razor-sharp quarterback – both with accuracy on the field and obtaining knowledge off of it – accomplished far beyond what anyone could have imagined.
Manning spent the first 14 seasons of his career (1998-2011) with the Colts and the final four years (2012-15) with the Denver Broncos. He won a pair of Super Bowl rings, one with each franchise, and had four Super Bowl appearances in all.
His legacy will be felt for a long time, and his bust in Canton will live on forever.
“When you’re playing, you never look ahead to things like this,” Manning told The New Orleans Advocate. “You’re in the moment, so you don’t get to look back or look ahead. I’ve used these past five years of retirement to look back and reflect.”
When the 14-time Pro Bowler retired in 2015, he left the league No. 1 in all-time passing yards (71,940) and total touchdown passes (539). Both figures have since been trumped by Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Manning still holds the NFL record for most consecutive seasons (13) with 25 or more touchdown passes. In 2013, Manning set the record for most passing yards in a season (5,477).
Manning found out he had earned entry into the Hall of Fame when he thought he was on site to shoot an episode of “Peyton’s Places,” which he hosts on ESPN+. He was surprised in person and on a stadium video board by a number of his former coaches, including Tony Dungy and John Fox.
“I was certainly honored with the news and very humbled, but really appreciative to find out from the coaches that were a part of my football life and football journey,” Manning said.
“It really did kind of take me down memory lane.”
After four phenomenal years at the University of Tennessee, Manning didn’t have the ideal start to his professional career. As a rookie, Manning and the Colts went 3-13, and he completed just 56.7 percent of his passes with 26 for touchdowns. But another number still stands out in Manning’s head.
“I promise you when I threw 28 interceptions as a rookie, I wasn’t thinking anything close to Canton, Ohio,” Manning told the Advocate. “You just play and try to be better the next year than the year before.”
By Manning’s sixth year, he was named Associated Press Most Valuable Player, an award he ended up winning five times in his illustrious career. By the middle of his career, the wily veteran nabbed his first Super Bowl victory. Eight years later, he won another title in his final NFL game.
Manning is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, in which he was enshrined in 2017. He joined his father, Archie, as the first father-son duo to enter as players.
For the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, former NFL quarterback Archie will introduce his son.
“My dad has had the greatest impact on my football life than anyone,” said Manning, who shared 12 seasons in the NFL with his younger brother, Eli. “He was never my coach. His rule was always if we wanted his help, we had to ask for it. I can’t tell you how many times I asked. I appreciate him letting us be a part of his football life, and as kids, that’s what I wanted to do. I never knew it was going to happen. It was a dream of mine, and I was fortunate that it became a reality.”
When Charles Woodson was a free agent following the 2005 season, his legacy as one of the best defensive backs of all time had yet to be cemented.
After eight seasons with the Oakland Raiders, Woodson signed – a little reluctantly – with the Green Bay Packers. Five years later, he was a Super Bowl champion.
With a ring on his finger, Woodson went on to greatness. He finished his career with an NFL-record 13 defensive touchdowns along with 65 interceptions, which is tied for fifth all time. Woodson, who was the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, is one of just three players to ever have 25 or more picks with two different franchises.
When Pro Football Hall of Fame President and CEO David Baker surprised Woodson in person with the news he had made the Hall of Fame, Woodson became overwhelmed with emotion as he hugged his wife and kids.
“We in the Hall, man,” Woodson said. “We in the Hall, man. Unbelievable.”
A day later, he was still beaming with excitement.
“I feel like this means that I’m going to live forever,” Woodson told Packers.com. “This is immortality. This is a great, great accomplishment that I share with each and every player and coach and friend and family member that I have that’s supported me over the years. This is the ultimate compliment that one player could ever achieve after their playing days are over.”
The journey to the Hall of Fame was a long one for Woodson. After an illustrious college career at Michigan, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1997, beating out Peyton Manning, Woodson was selected No. 4 overall in the 1998 NFL Draft by the Raiders.
“I’m very honored to be going in with Charles,” Manning said on the NFL Network. “Charles and I have been through a lot together. This will be our third major banquet we’ve had to sit through together from the Heisman ceremony to the draft when they only invited about three or four players. But this one’s a great one to be at in the Hall of Fame ceremony.”
Woodson spent seven seasons (2006-12) with the Packers before heading back to the Raiders for three seasons before retiring.
The Wisconsin State Journal asked Woodson prior to his Hall selection if he would have made it into the exclusive club had he not gone to Green Bay.
“I think so, because if I wasn’t in Green Bay, I would’ve been somewhere else,” he said. “I would’ve made my mark somewhere else. But it just so happened that during that transition from Oakland, I was able to make my stop in Green Bay and go there and do some great things.
“In that respect, it doesn’t happen without Green Bay. But my career was going to continue somewhere.”
While with the Packers, Woodson hauled in 38 interceptions, nine of which went for touchdowns. He had 20 sacks and 139 passes defensed in his career.
Woodson will be the 27th Packers player enshrined in Canton, which is the second most for any NFL franchise behind the Chicago Bears. The Packers have had six inductees in the last nine years.
Despite playing only nine seasons in the NFL, Calvin Johnson made an impact with the Detroit Lions and registered gaudy numbers.
Johnson, who played in approximately 60 fewer games than the average Hall of Fame wide receiver, amassed 11,619 receiving yards and 83 touchdowns in his career. His 1,964 yards in 2012 is still an NFL record.
Johnson grew up idolizing fellow receivers Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison. Now he joins that trio in Canton.
“To be a member of this excellent fraternity,” Johnson told The Detroit News, “to be a member of the guys I grew up watching, to be alongside the guys I emulated my game after, to say, ‘Hey, I did this because of you, I saw you do this,’ to be able to meet those guys and have conversations with those guys to learn more about what the game was like when they played…just to be amongst such a great group of guys, and the excellence, and to be the best in the game, (is) truly an honor. I’m still beside myself.”
Just the 29th wide receiver to be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he’s just the seventh at that position to go in his first year of eligibility.
When the Lions picked Johnson out of Georgia Tech at No. 2 overall in the 2007 draft, Detroit knew it was getting a beast – well, Megatron – in the passing game. However, it wasn’t until Johnson’s third season when he finally got a suitable quarterback to receive passes from. Teamed up with No. 1 pick Matthew Stafford, Johnson showed his full capacity on the field. During a five-year window from 2011-15, Johnson put up 7,428 yards receiving and 50 touchdowns.
Johnson – who only competed in two postseason games in his career, both losses – is the 22nd Lions player to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“On behalf of the entire Detroit Lions organization, I’d like to congratulate Calvin Johnson on being named a first-ballot inductee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp said. “Calvin is one of the best to ever wear a Lions uniform…This is the highest individual honor in football, and it brings me great joy to know that Calvin Johnson’s legacy will forever be enshrined in Canton.”
John Lynch had to wait until his ninth year of eligibility – eighth straight as a finalist – but he finally got the call to the Hall.
The hard-hitting safety played 15 years in the NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1993-2003 and Denver Broncos from 2004-07.
“I’m so proud to go in – there are Hall of Famers and then there are guys like Peyton (Manning who) are some of the greatest players to ever play, so it’s an honor to go in with him for sure,” Lynch told The Denver Post.
A Stanford product, Lynch earned a starting role in the secondary in his fourth season and never looked back. He helped lead the Bucs to their first Super Bowl title in 2002.
Lynch was a nine-time Pro Bowler who finished his career with 26 interceptions and 1,059 tackles.
Another first-round pick from the 1998 NFL Draft, joining Manning and Woodson, Alan Faneca was a staple on the offensive line.
He missed just one game in his career that spanned 13 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1998-2007, New York Jets from 2008-2009 and Arizona Cardinals in 2010.
Faneca, an LSU product, goes into the Hall in his sixth year of eligibility.
He was a six-time first-team All-Pro and member of the 2000s All-Decade Team. Faneca blocked for 1,000-yard rushers a combined nine times: for the Steelers with Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker, and the Jets with Thomas Jones.
Although Drew Pearson had to be a senior finalist to get into the Hall of Fame, it doesn’t diminish the fact that he was a solid wide receiver.
Pearson was an unheralded player coming out of Tulsa and the Dallas Cowboys took a chance on the undrafted free agent. Boy, did that work out. He played for the team from 1973-83.
He capped his career with then-franchise records in receptions (489) and receiving yards (7,822). Pearson, now 70 years old, also had 48 touchdown catches.
Pearson caught a 50-yard touchdown from quarterback Roger Staubach in a 1975 divisional playoff game against Minnesota. That reception gave rise to the term, “Hail Mary.”
After winning his second Super Bowl as the head coach of the Raiders, that should have secured Tom Flores’ name in the Hall of Fame. However, it took a little bit, but the 84-year-old will now be enshrined. Flores guided the Raiders to wins in Super Bowls XV and XVIII. During his nine seasons with Oakland/Los Angeles (1979-87), he had a record of 91-56. He spent the final three years of his coaching career with the Seattle Seahawks (1992-94) going 14-34.
Bill Nunn was behind the scenes when the Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in six years in the 1970s. Nunn, who was a senior scout and an assistant director of player personnel for 47 years with the Steelers, helped build the team’s dynasty by drafting players such as John Stallworth and Jack Lambert. Nunn died in 2014 at the age of 89.
CLASS OF 2020
When talk emerges about who was the best safety the first decade of the 21st Century, look no further than Troy Polamalu.
The premier player at his position for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 12 seasons, Polamalu was a two-time Super Bowl champion. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, he was named the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 when he intercepted seven passes with 101 return yards and one touchdown. He ended his career with 32 interceptions and five total defensive touchdowns.
Polamalu was an eight-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All-Pro recipient. Not surprising, he was named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 2000s.
After a phenomenal college career at the University of Miami, Edgerrin James didn’t miss a beat in the NFL.
Teamed with quarterback Peyton Manning for seven seasons, James had his glory years with the Indianapolis Colts. He played the last four seasons of his 11-year career with the Arizona Cardinals (2006-08) and Seattle Seahawks (2009).
The 1999 NFL Rookie of the Year finished his career with 12,246 rushing yards on 3,028 carries and 80 touchdowns. He is currently 13th on the all-time rushing yards list. He was also selected to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 2000s.
Another one of the key figures in the “Greatest Show on Turf” is going into the Hall. Isaac Bruce dazzled as a wide receiver for the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams and helped lead the franchise to a Super Bowl title.
Bruce played the first 14 years (1994-2007) of his career with the Rams and retired as the franchise leader in catches, receiving yards and most yards from scrimmage. He played the first two seasons of his career with the San Francisco 49ers.
A second-round draft pick, Bruce finished with eye-popping numbers: 1,024 receptions, 15,208 yards (which is second all time) and 91 touchdowns.
Any wide receiver going over the middle of the field in the 1990s had to watch out for No. 27. Steve Atwater was a ferocious hitter for the Denver Broncos.
It took Atwater 16 years on the Hall of Fame ballot, but he’ll finally be enshrined in Canton. He played 10 seasons in Denver (1989-1998) and one last season for the New York Jets. Atwater competed in three Super Bowls.
He capped off his career with over 1,000 tackles and 24 interceptions. He was picked to be on the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s.
It can be argued there wasn’t a more durable offensive lineman in the opening decade of the 2000s than Steve Hutchinson.
Hutchinson enjoyed a 12-year career in which he played in 169 games. The Michigan product played for three teams: Seattle Seahawks (2001-2005), Minnesota Vikings (2006-11) and Tennessee Titans (2012).
While with the Seahawks, Hutchinson paved the way for running back Shaun Alexander to win NFL MVP honors. After moving to Minnesota, he helped Adrian Peterson start his future Hall of Fame career in style. Hutchinson was voted to seven consecutive Pro Bowls.
Pro Football Hall of Fame
What: Enshrinement Weekend
When: Aug. 5-9
Where: Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, Canton, Ohio
Who: The Classes of 2020 and 2021
2021 Inductees: Alan Faneca, Tom Flores, Calvin Johnson, John Lynch, Peyton Manning, Bill Nunn, Drew Pearson, Charles Woodson
2020 Inductees: Steve Atwater, Isaac Bruce, Steve Hutchinson, Edgerrin James, Troy Polamalu
2020 Centennial Slate Enshrinees: Bill Cowher, Jimmy Johnson, coaches; Steve Sabol, Paul Tagliabue, George Young, contributors; Harold Carmichael, Jimbo Covert, Bobby Dillon, Cliff Harris, Winston Hill, Alex Karras, Donnie Shell, Duke Slater, Mac Speedie, Ed Sprinkle, seniors