Early this morning, a group of veteran sports writers will convene behind closed doors at the Tampa Convention Center and forever change the lives and legacies of football greats they once covered. While the results become instant national news, the Super Bowl eve meeting goes largely unnoticed to the outside world; an event that thrusts journalists into an intense, high-stakes game of power and persuasion — and relegates marquee NFL names to the sideline, waiting tensely for the outcome.
The team that counts in this case consists of 44 football media members who prepare all year for this moment: the presentations, discussions and often heated debate that determine which of 17 finalists will make the Pro Football Hall of Fame — and which might never get another shot. Primarily writers, they represent each of the NFL's 32 teams, with an additional at-large contingent. Most will make impassioned pitches on behalf of the players, coaches or executives tied to the team the reporter covers, though occasionally they speak against the local nominee.
They are transformed at times into trial lawyers, making closing arguments with carefully prepared comments and meticulously researched statistics, all without compensation.
Former Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen remembers the pressure surrounding his presentation of Lee Roy Selmon, whose superlative play as a Buccaneer defensive end for nine seasons made him eligible for induction in 1995. But the fact that the team was so bad for much of Selmon's career made it a challenge.
"It wasn't a slam dunk by any means," McEwen said. "It is the only time that I woke up in the middle of the night to make changes and I came into the meeting with something I felt was beautifully crafted," he said.
McEwen, a polished public speaker, wove humor with evidence of Selmon's impact on the field and the franchise. And he got the job done, swaying at least several members who had not planned to vote for Selmon.
For McEwen, the reward was plentiful: "It's one of the great pleasures of my life that Lee Roy made it on the first ballot."
The sense of duty is shared by every selector.
Unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame, which relies on mailed and faxed ballots from baseball writers, this job starts each February when the Hall of Fame sends the selectors a list of some 130 nominees retired for the mandatory five years.
Many pore through record books, search the Web, and interview former players and executives to prepare. A mail-in vote whittles the number to 25 and a second one narrows it 15, while a subcommittee travels to Canton each August to review senior nominees and select two.
Then, the day before every Super Bowl, selectors go into the meeting at roughly 7:30 a.m. armed with 17 names.
They emerge some six grueling hours later with a list of new inductees — a maximum of five from the modern era and two old-timers, though the final number depends on how many receive the required minimum of 80 percent of the vote.
"I want to tell you, it's one of my very favorite events each year, just because of the tremendous responsibility," said Leonard Shapiro, who covered the Redskins in the '70s and '80s for the Washington Post and has served as a Hall of Fame selector for more than two decades. "You're affecting people's lives. And for guys who make it to the final five and don't get 80 percent, it just kills me."
The process could be as simple as the one former San Francisco Chronicle writer Ira Miller, the longtime 49ers beat man, had in presenting for Joe Montana in 2000.
"What I said was, 'I can talk for a minute and you can go to the restroom or we can just move on,' " Miller recalled. "Cooper Rollow (the former Chicago Tribune sports editor) did that with Walter Payton. He stood up, said, 'Walter Payton' — and sat down."
For towering players such as Montana and Payton, the selection committee's work is a breeze. But other decisions can spark sharp disagreements, such as the Giants' Lawrence Taylor, one of the all-time great linebackers, but a player also known for his two cocaine-related arrests.
"The Lawrence Taylor vote was particularly contentious," Shapiro said. "One of the rules of our bylaws is that we are only supposed to consider on-field accomplishments, not off-field behavior. But human nature makes it hard to screen that out. When Taylor came up, it was a very heated discussion. One voter said, 'I know what the rules are, but I have a problem voting Lawrence Taylor into the Hall because I think it sends the wrong message.' "
Taylor prevailed. On the other hand, retired NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the late "Bullet" Bob Hayes, the speed-demon wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, haven't been so fortunate.
Tagliabue has missed the final cut the past two years, while Hayes fell short in 2004.
Yet their names will be up for a vote again today, along with 15 other finalists, including three of the sport's stellar defensive ends from the past 30 years — Bruce Smith, Claude Humphrey and Richard Dent. Others up this year include Rod Woodson, the defensive back extraordinaire for the '90s Steelers; Redskins guard and "Hog" Russ Grimm (now coaching with the Cardinals); dominating tight end Shannon Sharpe; and Cris Carter and Andre Reed, once two of the league's top wide receivers.
"The only one I think is a lock is Bruce Smith, because he's one of the greatest pass-rushers ever, and I believe Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe deserve to be in there," said John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, a 16-year selector. "But I don't think any deserve to be in there before Bob Hayes and Claude Humphrey."
McClain, speaking for Humphrey, has helped propel four Oilers into the Hall: defensive end Elvin Bethea, quarterback Warren Moon, and linemen Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews.
With Moon, there were obstacles. "The objections were that he had never been in a championship game or a Super Bowl, and he played the run-and-shoot his whole career, so he should have good stats," McClain said. "But I showed how he played in the run-and-shoot only 31/2 years and then had his best season in Minnesota playing in a conventional system."
He laid out how Moon did things at 40 that no other quarterback did, and compared him favorably to Dan Fouts, who never played in a Super Bowl.
"My thought on Moon going in was 'probably not,' and then I voted for him," Sports Illustrated NFL writer Peter King said. "And that rarely, rarely happens with me in 17 years of doing this. I always pay attention to the presentation — and I was really convinced by the tremendous body of evidence from McClain."
A similar challenge is faced today by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. He is the presenter for Hayes and has prepared impressive comparative stats that show his impact:
"His average touchdown — one every 5.2 career catches; Lynn Swann (a Hall of Famer since 2001) one every 6.8, Jerry Rice (not yet eligible) one every 7.8, Cris Carter one every 8.5 …"
So what's not to like? Well, last time around, Hayes was criticized for keeping his hands tucked in the front of his pants in the minus-20-degree Green Bay weather in the legendary "Ice Bowl" game of 1967. His history of drug abuse might have worked against him, despite the guidelines. The vote prompted Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman to resign from the seniors committee in protest. But today might bring a different result for the Florida native, who died in 2002.
Tagliabue has detractors — a contingent from the West Coast, most vocally Miller, who believes the commissioner fell short in key areas, such as bringing a new team to Los Angeles in place of the Rams. But he has supporters such as Shapiro, who stresses that Tagliabue oversaw many advances, including the "Rooney Rule," requiring that minority candidates be interviewed for head-coaching jobs.
There are no guarantees, except that the group, including two women, will be ready. Voting is secret, and results aren't revealed until they are televised at 2:30 p.m. That's when the selectors get their real reward: seeing the reactions of those who made it in.
Like Lee Roy Selmon, 14 years ago. "I'll always appreciate what Tom did for me, and the Hall of Famers appreciate what all the presenters do," he said. "They volunteer their time and the result is a feeling that's hard to describe."
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541.