NEW YORK — Fifty years after the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors, a real Falcons player is finally going to be enshrined, having overcome the greatest obstacle of all: playing for the Falcons.
Claude Humphrey, the long-time defensive end who spent 10-plus years of his 13-plus NFL seasons in Atlanta terrorizing quarterbacks, finally was given a hall pass to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, Saturday. Humphrey was one of seven players announced as this year’s class and one of two that had been nominated by the Senior’s Committee (the other: punter Ray Guy from Thomson, Ga.).
Humphrey’s career (1968-81) predated when sacks counted as an official statistic. But a post-career review showed he had 122 sacks, including 94½ with the Falcons.
Fact is, he should’ve been in long ago.
“It’s been a long time,” Humphrey said. “I appreciated every day that I went out to play football in the National Football League.”
What has kept him out so long?
Here are three possible factors:
• 1.) He played most of his career with the Falcons, during which the team had a winning record only three times and made the playoff once (and even that came in Humphrey’s final Atlanta season in 1978, when the end walked out after four games because he was worn down by losing). The Hall is an individual honor but we’ve seen cases in all sports of great players on bad teams getting passed over, while average players on great teams often are overrated. It’s sad but true.
• 2.) Some of the Hall’s voting contingent (46 voters this year) might’ve held it against Humphrey that he quit the team during a season in hopes of forcing a trade in 1978. The Falcons didn’t comply and Humphrey sat out the rest of the year before being traded after the season to Philadelphia. He played on the Eagles’ 1980 Super Bowl team, leading the defense with 14½ sacks.
• 3.) Another former Falcons’ great, Tommy Nobis, has been snubbed by the Hall in the past and there’s a feeling in some corners — not this one — that he was more deserving of being enshrined than Humphrey. In other words, it’s the old, “I won’t vote for your guy until you vote for mine” scenario.
Stupid, I know, but these are the things that happen in voting chambers.
All I know is this: Anybody that doesn’t recognize Humphrey’s greatness isn’t qualified to vote. He was the centerpiece the Grits Blitz’ defense and as consistent a player as there ever was. Technically, he is the fifth ex-Falcon to make it into Canton, but some might consider him the first true Falcon.
Consider the other four: Cornerback Deion Sanders was obviously talented but he was somewhat polarizing and left after five seasons, going on to play for San Francisco, Dallas and Baltimore. Defensive end Chris Doleman played for two years after he spent nine in Minnesota. Running back Eric Dickerson was already broken down by the time he arrived in Atlanta and played only four games in the last of his 11 seasons. Wide receiver Tommy McDonald spent only one of his 12 seasons with the Falcons.
If you didn’t get a chance to read Steve Hummer’s terrific story on Humphrey last week, here’s a link. He addressed his ugly exit from the team, saying: “One day I was sitting in the locker room and said, you know, this thing isn’t getting any better. I put my stuff in the locker and left, it was just that simple. … I wasn’t mad at anybody because there was nothing I could do as a player but do what I did.”
We can certainly debate whether he made the right call to walk out. But his credentials, including five All-Pro designations and six Pro Bowls, are undeniable.