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HOF class lets us look back in time

NEW YORK -- The 15 men and one woman on the dais at the media conference for the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday represented a living, breathing exhibit of nothing more elementary than the passage of time as distilled through the game.

Clendon Thomas, who played for Oklahoma in the 1950s, described the difficulty of tackling the great Jim Brown.

"You had to get down on his shoes," said Thomas, who played against Brown in the NFL. "That was the only way to get him down. He was a little bit top-heavy. If you took him on in his upper body, you were going to lose."

You had to squint real hard at Thomas, a soft-spoken, white-haired gentleman, to see a football player. That is the point of a Hall of Fame, of course, to honor the heroes of an earlier time.

Moderator Bill Little told the media conference Tuesday that out of 4.86 million people who have played college football, exactly 900 have been elected to the Hall of Fame. That is, Little added, about .0002 percent.

Former Miami defensive tackle Russell Maryland, an All-American talent with a Division III ego, couldn't help but brag when he heard that.

"We are the less than 1 percent," Maryland said. "I guess we could start a chant like that. Talk about occupy -- I am definitely, definitely going to occupy this time. Savor this moment. We Are the Less Than 1 Percent."

Maryland, who finished his career at Miami in 1990, is one of the younger men who will be inducted at a black-tie dinner Tuesday night in the ballroom of the venerable Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. So, too, are men such as Eddie George of Ohio State and Deion Sanders of Florida State. None of them is far removed from the football field.

It is the other men whose stories illustrate not just how far they have come, but how far we have come with them.

The first player introduced, Carlos Alvarez, who played wide receiver at Florida from 1969 to '71, set the tone.

"I am Cuban-born," Alvarez said. "My hero, my father, who got us here from Cuba in 1960, my brothers, my sister and I, and had the foresight to give everything up to make sure his son ... had an opportunity, an opportunity called the United States."

The Cuban diaspora is entrenched in south Florida today. Alvarez is a walking diorama of the fruits this country has enjoyed by opening its doors to those who wanted to escape communism.

Barbara Stephens Foster represented her late brother Sandy on the dais. Sandy Stephens played quarterback for Minnesota when it won the national championship in 1960. Yes, boys and girls, the Gophs once dominated the land. But that is not the story Barbara's brother wrote. Sandy was the first African-American to play quarterback for a major university.

Sandy died in 2000 at 59 years of age. On Tuesday, Barbara wore a yellow Minnesota V-neck sweater that had belonged to her brother.

"Sandy was all about opportunity. This was the pinnacle of success for him," Barbara said. Her voice began to crack.

"He always said, 'Just give me the opportunity to play quarterback. If I'm not the best, I don't need to be out there. If I am the best, nothing else should matter.'"

It did matter, of course. When Sandy Stephens played, the Southeastern Conference and the Southwest Conference were lily-white. In Baytown, Texas, near Houston, a young boy named Gene Washington heard about Stephens and allowed himself to hope.

"We didn't have a lot of televisions but I knew who he was," Washington said. As a wide receiver, he idolized Paul Warfield at Ohio State.

"My wish was to be able to do that," Washington said, "but I realized I had to leave the state. They were two of my role models, I'll tell you that. Most importantly, they were playing in an integrated situation."

Washington, who played in an all-black league of high schools, made that trip north to play, too. He starred on the Michigan State team that shared the 1965 national championship with Alabama. The next year, both teams finished undefeated but finished behind Notre Dame. Many Alabama fans believe the segregation battles of the day cost the team votes in the polls.

One look at the rosters today illustrates how much time has passed.

"He would be very pleased," Foster said of her brother. "He wanted it to not be a phenomenon that there was a black quarterback. ... Before, there would be a black quarterback and we would say, 'Oh! We're really rooting for that team.' Now, they both have them, so we really have to see who's good."

Some struggles have nothing to do with political systems or civil rights. They are universal, although no less painful for being so. Jake Scott played safety at Georgia from 1967 to '68. He played nine seasons in the NFL, starting 123 of 126 games. Scott lives on Kauai, the westernmost of the five islands of Hawaii. He spent 30 years there being a recluse, running a charter fishing business and stiff-arming his alma mater as well as the entire sport.

Earlier this year, Scott received a phone call from Jim Mandich, his teammate with the Miami Dolphins. Mandich suffered from bile duct cancer.

"Jim Mandich called me," Scott said. "He was in the hospital. He passed away [in April]. He said, 'Would you do me a favor?'

"I said, 'Jim, I would do anything I can do for you.' I thought it would be something simple.

"He said, 'If you get in the College Football Hall of Fame, would you go?'

"I said, 'Yes, I'll go for you, Jim,'" Scott said. "That's essentially what happened."

In the lives of the Class of 2011 of the College Football Hall of Fame, we see the passage of time and how far we have come as a society. The stories Barbara Stephens Foster and Jake Scott told delivered a more valuable lesson. In order to look back, you have to be lucky enough to get old.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.