CANTON, Ohio—You covered some of them daily when they were young. Now, you’re seeing them again for the first time in a long time, and the age etched on their faces and frozen in their knees and hips and the joints that would be associated with the positions they played is betraying who and what they were. You try not to let them see that you notice, and then you see the same look in their eyes and you quickly realize you’ve grown older, too, and then an ease comes over both of you.
This is the place old players go. This is the place where they live forever, and this is the place where the mere mortals that covered them are allowed to write about them one more time.
That’s why this is a good place. That is its charm, in an otherwise gritty town that is famous for the Professional Football Hall of Fame that is so uncharmingly pushed up against I-77. Metaphorically, the cars whiz by, as did the years since the guys with the creaking bodies were the roughest, toughest men on the face of the Earth.
A lot of those men played for the Green Bay Packers during the years known as Lombardi’s. They cut a wide swath in this town at this time every summer. In a place that makes a point of remembering, never forgetting, the 1960s might as well have been yesterday.
Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg and Willie Davis were patroling the lobby of the McKinley Grand Hotel in Downtown Canton on Saturday. The lobby of the McKinley Grand is where you go to see the greatest football players ever.
When Dave Robinson and six other men are elevated to the state of immortality tonight, the ranks of the greatest ever will swell to 280. It is but a mere fraction of the 22,000 men who are believed to have played professional football. That’s why this place is great. Only a few get here, and that’s the way it should be.
Taylor spoke to this reporter about his journey. He spoke and spoke and it was so easy to see the love he still has for the game and the importance it still holds in his life, and how he yearns for the camaraderie he shared with his former teammates. Taylor pointed to Willie Wood. He was here in body and spirit. The rest didn’t matter. All of that was cemented a long time ago.
Davis never misses a chance to celebrate his Packers. In this case, he’s here to celebrate the man that kept the tight ends, the Mike Ditkas and John Mackeys of the game, off Davis’ knees. Robinson was Davis’ protector, and the two represent two-thirds of Lombardi’s left side. Herb Adderley wasn’t able to make it.
Gregg had a glint in his eye when asked about the Packers’ prospects in 2013. He wanted to talk more about this year than he did about his years.
Packers legendary wide receiver James Lofton graced the lobby. Lofton is in mid-life. He’s between the greatness of his career and the creaking knees that inescapably await him.
All of these men were at Friday night’s Gold Jacket Dinner. One by one they were introduced and cheered. They represented the largest assemblage of Hall of Fame football players in history, and they all wore gold, except one man, Jim Brown. A rebel to the end, Brown wore a dark-blue suit. Don’t you love him?
Saturday, Brown limped out the door of the McKinley Grand. He was the star of the lobby. His mere presence seemed to chill the air.
“Can I help you with those golf clubs?” the doorman asked.
Golf? Jim Brown? I’ll pretend I didn’t see that.
Once a year, the gray-haired men in the lobby of the McKinley Grand are young again. It’s where they go to remember what it’s like to not be old.
Joe Greene walked by, then something clicked and he stopped. He hadn’t aged a bit.