CLEVELAND — Harry Carson was in awe.
There, sitting across from the former New York Giants inside linebacker in a private room designated for NFL Hall of Fame VIPs was his idol: Claude Humphrey.
“Claude Humphrey was one of my heroes. He was one of my role models as a defensive player,” a still partially starstruck Carson said. “I’m sitting there and I tried to tell him how much I tried to pattern my game after him.”
The football fan inside couldn’t believe it.
Other football fans were in amazement Saturday as they, too, met some of their gridiron heroes at the first of its kind Pro Football Hall of Fame Fan Fest at the International Exposition Center. The two-day event, featuring players such as Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Franco Harris, has been billed as the largest gathering of Hall of Famers outside of the annual enshrinement celebration each August in nearby Canton, Ohio. More than 100 Hall of Fame players were expected to attend.
Several of the former players who were present Saturday spoke with reporters about a variety of issues including Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban from the NBA, Johnny Manziel’s rock star status, the NFL’s emphasis on concussion safety, and Michael Sam’s anticipated debut as the league’s first openly gay player.
When it came to Sterling, Carson applauded the lifetime ban the league handed down after Sterling’s racist rant was publicized last week.
“I’m glad that at some point it eventually came out,” Carson said, “because I would not want to play for a team with an owner feeling that way. I may have played for coaches who may have felt that way, but they kept it to themselves. There are people who whenever they go home they might use that language, but don’t use that language in front of me.
“Once you put that uniform on, you’re not black, you’re not white. You are those colors but you’re out there fighting for one another.”
Former Vikings and Buccaneers offensive guard Randall McDaniel was somewhat critical in his remarks on Manziel’s off-field behavior in college.
“He needs to grow up a little more,” McDaniel said. “Yeah, he has a lot of talent, he has a lot of ability, but he still needs to mature a little more before he gets in this league.”
Len Dawson, a former Chiefs, Browns and Steelers quarterback, agreed when asked about the former Texas A&M quarterback, who is expected to be taken in the first round of next week’s draft.
“He’s a wonderful player, a very exciting player who can do a lot of things,” Dawson said. “His attitude maybe he ought to quiet down a little bit and have a little success at professional football before you tell everybody what you’re going to do.”
On Sam, Sanders said: “From the time that you’re a kid and you start playing, your major focus you’re almost programmed to look for is, OK, can a guy play or not? Once you get to the NFL, that’s well-ingrained in you.”
The fan fest wasn’t all about serious issues. There was fun, too.
“Well, I love this whole football thing, and Barry Sanders is one of my favorite players, so we signed up for the autograph session and we were able to get him to sign one of my cards,” 12-year-old Joe Dietrich said. “That was really cool.”
What might have been even cooler, though, was Dietrich’s trip to Cleveland from his hometown St. Paul, Minnesota. The flight he and his mother Jeanne Dietrich were on sat five Hall of Famers, including McDaniel. While waiting in the boarding area, Jeanne Dietrich took photos of Joe with the players on her iPhone.
The Dietrichs weren’t the only ones taking photos with the players. The players were doing the same thing with each other, pausing on occasion to take Hall of Fame selfies that Ellen DeGeneres would envy.
“Gale Sayers, that was my hero,” McDaniel said. “I did a book report on him when I was in school and I told him about that. And then you’re sitting there going, ‘Aw man, I can’t believe I just said that to him.’
“And then I grabbed him around the head and took a self-picture with him. But no, just to be around them, it’s like living history that you’re around and any time you get to be around those guys, it’s just great.”