Gene Hickerson: One Step to Go

The great Browns guard seems like (and should be) a shoo-in, but one possible pitfall remains. Rich Passan, a strong backer of Hickerson's candidacy, outlines the one additional step that Hickerson must make to be enshrined in Canton...

Just when all hope was thought to be lost, when all the good fights had been fought in vain, the ghosts of the past appear to have caught up with Gene Hickerson.

The ghosts of Paul Brown, Otto Graham, Frank Gatski, Lou Groza, Len Ford and Marion Motley are reaching out to the former Browns guard, beckoning him, teasing him.

Those Pro Football Hall of Fame members are eager to swell the ranks of Cleveland Browns to 16 with another of their own. It's been a long wait since tight end Ozzie Newsome joined them back in 1999.

After way too many years and way too many lost battles, it looks as though Hickerson finally will receive the reward he so richly deserves: Pro football immortality.

It's not a certainty yet. The mere formality of his election to the Hall of Fame is not without a boulder or two along the way. The Pro Football Hall of Fame's Seniors Selection Committee's nod is just the first step.

There is precedence for at least a sliver of concern, a snippet of doubt that Hickerson again will fall short.

The Seniors Committee has been ignored on three other occasions. It took two stabs by the committee before Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Henry Jordan and Detroit Lions offensive lineman Lou Creekmur were eventually elected in the 1990s. Back then, the committee submitted only one name for consideration.

Since the rules were broadened four years ago to allow the committee to put forth two names for deliberation, only Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Bob Hayes failed to gain the necessary number of votes for enshrinement, causing friction within the voting ranks.

Hickerson and Detroit tight end Charlie Sanders, the Seniors Committee picks this year, join 15 modern-era candidates on the 2007 ballot. When voting takes place at the Super Bowl next year, the 39-man board of selectors has the latitude to elect as few as three and as many as six men.

One would think that Sanders, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, and Hickerson would be a lock for election. But when one scans the list of modern-era players, it might cause a furrowed eyebrow or two.

Up for consideration are such luminaries as Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas, Dallas wide receiver Michael Irvin (who should have been elected last year), late Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas (ditto), Washington Redskins wide receiver Art Monk, Pittsburgh Steelers center Dermontti Dawson, Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Bob Kuechenberg and Minnesota Vikings/Denver Broncos offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman.

First-year eligibles include Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Bruce Matthews and outgoing National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Thomas, Irvin, Matthews and Tagliabue will get strong consideration for certain. And Monk, one of the all-time great receivers in the game, has been ignored too long.

Bear in mind that there is no guarantee the electors will choose a class of six. Until this past year, when six men were enshrined, the Hall of Fame had gone four straight years with five or less inductees (five each in 2002 and 2003; four each in 2004 and 2005).

So you can see why Hickerson's election will not be a slam dunk.

This is not meant to throw cold water on the joy of his selection by the Seniors Selection Committee. It's that reality sometimes delivers cold, hard blows when one's hopes rise to extraordinary levels of expectation. Just ask supporters of Hayes.

Why it took so long for the Seniors Committee to recognize Hickerson, however, will forever remain a mystery. Men of excellence gain entrance to the HOF in amazingly quick fashion. And Hickerson was as excellent as they came.

Considered briefly by HOF voters a couple of times shortly after he retired, Hickerson became a forgotten man even though he set a high standard with his peerless approach to the game and six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. He redefined his position with his uncommon athleticism.

Then he slipped into Hall of Fame nomination oblivion. Until now.

Maybe it will take some fancy persuasion to illuminate the voters who might not have heard of Hickerson. There will be a large generation gap for some of them.

But the guess here is that Tony Grossi of The Plain Dealer, the Cleveland representative on the selection committee, will be fully armed when he stands up to lobby for Hickerson's election. He will be just as persuasive as he has been in his efforts to keep Art Modell out of the Hall of Fame.

Until that time, we wait and hope that justice finally prevails. The wrong is so close to being righted. It's about time.

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