By TOM WILLIAMS
A sea of Cowboys blue and 49ers red welcomed the seven newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to immortality.
Also at Fawcett Stadium on Saturday night were plenty of Terrible Towels twirling to provide a black-and-gold accent to pay tribute to two inductees with coaching ties to the Steelers.
Speaking of connections, the Mahoning Valley was represented by former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, who served as presenter for wide receiver Jerry Rice’s induction at the 48th ceremony before approximately 80 Hall of Famers and 19,300 watching.
During the opening introductions, DeBartolo received one of the loudest ovations from the near-capacity crowd filled with Niners and Cowboys fans.
Ninety minutes later, Rice, the NFL’s all-time leading receiver and three-time Super Bowl winner, piled on, calling DeBartolo “the greatest owner ever.”
Later in his speech, Rice endorsed DeBartolo as a Hall of Fame candidate for the five Super Bowls the 49ers won during his tenure.
“It was a dream come true to be drafted by the 49ers and I’m so proud to be part of such a classy organization,” said Rice, citing DeBartolo and coach Bill Walsh. “There will never be another organization like that in the history of sports.
“Eddie would say, ‘All I want is for you to do is win championships.’ Eddie was like that 12th man,” Rice said. “He loved football, loved his players even more and he wanted to win.
“He deserves to be standing with us as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Rice said. “Thank you, Eddie.”
DeBartolo’s pre-recorded presentation cited key numbers in Rice’s 20-season career: 208 (touchdowns), 1,549 (receptions) and 22,895 (yards).
“There isn’t anybody that is anywhere Jerry Rice in ability and what he’s done on the football field,” DeBartolo said. “He is the greatest athlete and greatest football player that has ever put on a uniform. He worked harder that anybody I have ever seen.”
Rice was a 49er from 1985-2000 then played four seasons with the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks.
“He was a perfectionist,” DeBartolo said.
Rice said fear of failure motivated him, perhaps too much. His one regret is “that I never took the time to enjoy it, I swear to God this is true because I was always working. Right after the season, whether we won the Super Bowl or not, I would take two weeks off and go right back to training.
“The doubts, the struggles is who I am, and I wonder if I would have been as successful without them.”
Appropriately, joining the NFL’s leading receiver in the Hall was the league’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, who gained 18,355 yards for the Dallas Cowboys from 1990-2002 and Arizona Cardinals from 2003-04.
“Rivalries are great for the NFL, and it’s fitting that the 49ers and Cowboys are represented here today,” Rice said. “We definitely made each other better.”
Smith thanked owner Jerry Jones and the Cowboys for taking a chance on someone thought to be too small to excel in the NFL.
He called attention to his teammates who helped him win three Super Bowls, including Hall of Fame teammates Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin.
And he called attention to his family members for inspiring him to improve on and off the field.
Inducted for his 14-year career as a cornerback with the Detroit Lions was one of the NFL’s most beloved coaches. Dick LeBeau’s speech highlighted his 38-year NFL coaching career, particularly two Super Bowl championships in the past five seasons as Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator.
Citing the Steelers’ 2009 trip to the White House, LeBeau said being singled out by President Barack Obama might have been “the highest deal of his life.”
“I thought, ‘There certainly can’t be anything greater than this.’ But in all due respect Mr. President, this whole business is a little bit bigger, I can tell you that,” LeBeau said.
The London, Ohio, native saluted his current players who were seated in the stands.
“I wouldn’t want to be here without you men, offense, defense, special teams,” LeBeau said. “They are my best PR ... the reason that President Obama knew who I was.”
LeBeau played for Woody Hayes at Ohio State before turning pro. Among those he credited for influencing his life (Hayes, Steelers owner Dan Rooney), LeBeau included Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel, calling him “a textbook on how to conduct yourself at a major college level with integrity.”
He also offered a prayer for Bill Cowher, his former Steelers boss whose wife, Kaye, died of cancer last month.
At 73, LeBeau shows little signs of slowing down and suggested that age is just a number.
“If I would have gotten out of my life’s work at 65 or 67 ... I would have missed not one but two world championship football teams that I got to be a part of,” he said.
Also inducted were Redskins guard Russ Grimm (1981-91), Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson (1981-93, 49er from ‘94-95), Vikings defensive tackle John Randle (1990-2000) and Broncos running back Floyd Little (1967-75)
Grimm, from Scottdsale, Pa., won three Super Bowls as a member of “The Hogs.”
The Steelers’ offensive line coach during their Super Bowl XL championship season, he’s now the Arizona Cardinals’ assistant head coach.
“To all football fans, no matter who you root for, no matter what level, you’re the reason we play the game,” Grimm said. “It’s a privilege to play in the NFL. It’s been a privilege to coach in the NFL. It’s an honor to be selected here in Canton.”
In a short speech, Randle said, “I also am so humbled by this incredible honor which I never thought was possible.”