An excerpt from The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL (September 2014) by Jackson Michael. Join the conversation on Twitter using #GameBeforeMoney during the first week of NFL football on why you coach, play, or watch.
Pro Football Hall of Fame member Elvin Bethea
You put everything you got into it each play. The game’s physical, but it’s mental, too. It was a mental challenge of focusing on the individual in front of me. “What is he going to do? What play are they going to run?”
It’s about going out there with a mental attitude and knowing when a play is over, it’s over. Get back up, now here we go again.
I get down in my stance and try to figure out what keys they’re giving. The guard would give away if it’s a sweep by how he put his hand down. If it was going to be a pass, he’d just put his hand on the ground. If it was going to be a run play, he’d have it solid. You’d always watch where his foot was. You’re talking a split second, now.
There’s so many things on that field that you blank out the crowd. I’m looking at the guy in front of me and at the same time I’m looking at the ball in my peripheral view. I’m anticipating the count, but I don’t hear the quarterback going, “Hut, Hut, Hut!”
He can “Hut!” all he wants, but until that ball moves, I can’t jump, otherwise I’m offsides.
I have the defense that they called in the huddle, now I got to think about the linebacker calling “Red! Red! Red!”, or “Strong Left!” or “Zip! Zip! Zip!”.
I’m listening to all this back here, and at the same time my outside linebacker Robert Brazile and I have our own call going among ourselves. If he calls, “X-X-X!”, I’ll go upfield first. If he doesn’t call it, I’m covering his area and he’s taking my position. Now, if my mind is not there and I don’t hear it, we’ll both go inside and somebody goes around and scores.
At the same time, I’m looking to see where the back is lined up, if the tight end is on my side, and worrying if that tight end and guard are going to double team me. You’re like a computer watching all these things happen in split seconds.
. . .
People started to tell me, “You’re going to be in the Hall of Fame.”
I’d say, “I don’t know what the Hall of Fame is.”
I honestly didn’t know. Then I’d see all these other guys going in and think, “I know I was better than him, I went to 8 Pro Bowls and this guy only did this.”
Still, I never thought in a hundred million years that I would go in. If you didn’t play in New York or California, don’t even think about it. How many from Dallas had even gone until the past few years? I played on teams that were 1-13 two years in a row. I said, “There’s no way.”
I never really paid attention until 2003. I was working with Budweiser and going to a meeting in St. Louis. I got a call from a friend of mine at channel 26 in Houston. He said, “You made it in.”
I said, “Made it in what?”
He said, “The Hall of Fame.”
I said, “Don’t play with me. I’m in a cab in St. Louis and I’m headed to a meeting right now.”
He said, “I need you to go to the Fox news station there.”
I said, “I don’t have time for all this.”
He said, “Go put your clothes on and get down there.”
I said, “You’re not kidding me now? I’m going to have to put my stuff in the hotel and check in before I go there.”
I went to the station. They interviewed me and told me I was one of fifteen finalists for the Hall of Fame.
They named the inductees at the Super Bowl, which was in California that year. They asked me to fly out there and I said, “I’m not spending the money to go out there for you to tell me I didn’t make it. I’ll stay home.”
The Monday before the Super Bowl, they sent the finalists a round trip ticket for you and your wife to go to Hawaii, to introduce you as a Hall of Famer at the Pro Bowl. All 15 of us got a letter with a first-class ticket to Hawaii to use if you were chosen. I had a whole week to look at that ticket sitting on my desk.
The afternoon of the voting, a reporter came over and asked, “Can I sit in your house and wait for the call?”
I said “No.”
My wife said, “Definitely no.”
He sat outside.
A call came. The caller ID said, “Pro Football Hall of Fame.” I picked it up and heard, “This is John Bankard. I’m head of the Hall of Fame and wanted to tell you you’re the 181st football player to go into the Hall of Fame.”
Everything that’s led up to this—all the injuries, all the 1-13s, all the training camps—all of that has come down to this and you’re saying, “I can’t believe this.”
I held that ticket and I said, “We can hold on to this ticket now. We’re going to Hawaii!”
The thrill that gives me goose bumps today is the presentation in Canton. Ah man, it gives me bumps every time I think about it. You go up on the stage, the entrants come in and you’re on the stage with the other inductees.
You’re standing there with your sports jacket on, and as the proceeding goes on, each of every Hall of Famer that’s there comes up on stage. That’s when you feel like you want to melt right through to the ground.
They take that jacket off you and put the Hall of Fame jacket on. I think that’s the highlight. Then every Hall of Famer comes up and shakes your hand to welcome you to the club.
Deacon Jones shook my hand and said, “It’s the one team you can’t be cut from.”
It can’t get any better than that.