CANTON, Ohio — They opened the gates to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday and made a place for Commissioner Pete Rozelle and four former players: halfback O.J. Simpson of Buffalo and San Francisco, quarterback Roger Staubach of Dallas, center Frank Gatski of Cleveland and Detroit, and another quarterback, Joe Namath of the New York Jets and, briefly, the Rams.
Rozelle, in his acceptance speech, quipped: "I wish I could have gone in with a more illustrious class."
The biggest crowd in Canton history didn't get it, so, later, Mayor Sam Purses explained: "This is the most distinguished group we've enshrined since the first one (which honored Sammy Baugh, Bronco Nagurski and 15 others) 23 years ago."
The new members thanked mothers, teammates, deities, fans and others, and Simpson said it best.
Talking about a family vacation when he was 8 years old, he said his mother had taken two weeks off from her job in San Francisco to drive the group to Las Vegas. Five days later, Simpson remembered he had a chance to play in a Little League game for the first time, and, he said:
"(Because) I was moping around, she drove me 700 miles back to San Francisco so I wouldn't miss the game."
Then, turning to the future, Simpson addressed his fans.
"The thing I'll miss the most (in retirement)," he said, "is the sound of your applause."
Staubach, introduced to the crowd by his former coach, Tom Landry, explained how he and Landry got along so well:
"I let him call a few plays, and he let me run."
Namath, in the course of his 12-minute acceptance speech, broke down only when he started to say a few words about his Alabama coach, the late Paul (Bear) Bryant.
Close to tears, Namath said, haltingly, "Coach Bryant, Mrs. Bryant, wherever you are, we miss you."
The five inductees had been elected last winter.