Gene Hickerson retired from the Browns and pro football in 1973, which means he was first eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978. No one expected him to be elected on the first ballot, but his supporters never thought it would take this long, either.
Hickerson will be inducted on Aug. 4 at the age of 71. The problem is, he might not be part of the ceremony because he is battling dementia and has difficulty communicating. If he is in Canton on that day it is unlikely he will be able to give his own acceptance speech. Instead, Hickerson will be represented by his longtime friend and former teammate, Bobby Franklin.
What should be a time of celebration and reflection for Hickerson has turned into a time of bitterness to those who believe this recognition has come far too late for the pulling guard who blocked for Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly, both in the Hall of Fame.
Three years ago Hickerson was fine physically and mentally. He talked about being passed over year after year. Brown and other players campaigned for him, but the Hall of Fame electors ignored those pleas until they voted him in in February.
"I was a good dancer and I could run fast," Hickerson said at the time. "I could care less about the Hall of Fame. I'm talking from my heart. That doesn't bother me a bit.
"Every placed I go when somebody knows me they say, 'When are you going to the Hall of Fame?' I tell them 'Maybe I'll go down there tomorrow or Thursday.'
Three former Browns offensive linemen preceded Hickerson into the Hall of Fame. Frank "Gunner" Gatski was the center from 1946-56 before playing one final season in Detroit. He never missed a practice or game in high school, college or the pros. He played in 11 championship games in 12 seasons.
Mike McCormack, the right tackle from 1954-62 is in the Hall of Fame. So is Joe DeLamielleure, more because of what he did blocking for O.J. Simpson with the Bills from 1973-79 than for how he played for the Browns from 1980-84.
Hickerson played for the Browns from 1958-60 and 1962-73. He missed the 1961 season because his leg was broken in the first preseason game. The same leg was broken again late in the season when, as a spectator on the sideline, he got caught in a pile.
The Browns had a 1,000-yard rusher every year from 1958-68, and the only reason the streak ended was because Kelly had only 196 carries (817 yards, a 4.2 average) in 1969.
CAMP CALENDAR: Rookies report for their first practice July 23. The first full-squad practice of training camp is July 27. Camp closes Aug. 23.