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HALL OF FAME SPARKS EMOTIONS

The Hall of Fame induction became a family affair Saturday night.

Michael Irvin lauded the Cowboys family for inspiring him. Thurman Thomas - who rubbed his head when his bust was unveiled and said, "It's really, really scary up here." - punctuated his acceptance speech by asking his wife to marry him again. Charlie Sanders finally got to say, "Hi Mom."

Bruce Matthews campaigned to have his brother, Clay, join him in Canton. Roger Wehrli praised the timing of his election because it allowed his grandchildren to be with him.

And Gene Hickerson's son Bob accepted on behalf of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Then Gene was brought onto the stage in a wheelchair guided by former teammates Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell - all running backs he helped into the hall.

Two other emotional mo-ments highlighted the night.

Citing what he called a "simple but memorable life," Sanders thanked a mother he never knew. She died when he was 2.

Noting how players often mug for the camera and salute their mothers, a teary-eyed Sanders said, "I thought it was something that was always special and I would want to do but couldn't. So I take this time, right here and right now, in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to say, 'Hi Mom.' "

Irvin kissed his bust before capping the ceremony with a preacher's intensity. His eyes wet, his words coming slowly and emphatically, he commended Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and fellow "Triplets" Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman for motivating him. But he saved his most moving tributes for the relatives who stuck with him through his difficulties.

The former University of Miami star pleaded no contest to felony cocaine possession and was put on probation for four years after a March 1996 arrest. Police crashed Irvin's 30th birthday party and found him, marijuana, cocaine and strippers in a hotel room.

He subsequently had other incidents with police.

Saturday, Irvin asked sons Michael, 10, and Elijah, 8, to stand before saying the prayers he utters about them:

"Help me raise them for their kids, so that they can be a better father than I. I tell you guys to always do the right thing so you can be a better role model than dad. Look up, get up, but don't ever give up."

Gene Hickerson

Position: Guard

Career: 1958-73, Browns

Highlights: Was lead blocker for three Hall of Famers: Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly. ... First-team All-Pro 1966-70. ... Before 1958, just seven runners in NFL history reached 1,000 yards rushing but Browns had one in nine of his first 10 seasons. ... Named to all-decade team of the 1960s.

Michael Irvin

Position: Receiver

Career: 1988-99, Cowboys

Highlights: Led league with 1,523 yards on 93 catches in 1991. ... 1,000-yard seasons in all but one season from 1991-98. ... In 1995, set league record with 11 100-yard games, finishing with 111 catches for 1,603 yards and 10 TDs. ... Finished with 750 catches for 11,904 yards and 65 TDs. ... Named to all-decade team of the 1990s.

Bruce Matthews

Positions: Guard, tackle, center

Career: 1983-2001, Oilers/Titans

Highlights: Played in more games (296) than any positional player in NFL history. ... Started 292 (at every position on the line) while also the long snapper for the majority of career. ... Voted to 14 consecutive Pro Bowls (nine at guard, five at center), tying Merlin Olsen's record. ... First-team All-Pro nine times. ... Named to all-decade team of the 1990s as a guard.

Charlie Sanders

Position: Tight end

Career: 1968-77, Lions

Highlights: In era of blocking tight ends, caught 50 passes for 533 yards as a rookie and 42 for 656 yards and three TDs in 1969. ... Was only rookie in Pro Bowl after 1968 season. ... First-team All-Pro 1969-71. ... Caught 30 or more passes seven times and had more than 500 yards six. ... Led or tied for the lead in catches for Lions in six of 10 seasons. ... Named to all-decade team of the 1970s.

Thurman Thomas

Position: Running back

Career: 1988-99, Bills; 2000, Dolphins.

Highlights: Led league in yards from scrimmage four consecutive seasons. ... In 1991, gained more than 2,000 and was voted MVP. ... When he retired, ranked sixth all-time with 16,632 (12,047 rushing). ... One of three Hall of Fame running backs (Walter Payton and Marcus Allen) with more than 400 catches and 10,000 rushing yards. ... Named to all-decade team of the 1990s.

Roger Wehrli

Position: Cornerback

Career: 1969-82, Cardinals.

Highlights: In 1970, picked off career-high six passes (matched in 1975). ... First-team All-Pro five times (1970, 1974-19). ... Led or tied for lead in interceptions for Cardinals four times. ... Registered interception in all but two seasons, finishing with 40 and returning two for scores. ... Named to all-decade team of the 1970s.

FAST FACTS

Tonight: Hall of Fame Game

Saints vs. Steelers, 8, Canton, Ohio TV/radio: NFL Network; 1010-AM

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