CANTON, Ohio – After waiting years to reach this weekend, Andre Reed finally felt like a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Reed sat silently at the Ray Nitschke Luncheon on Friday afternoon because first-year inductees aren’t allowed to talk. In a room filled with only Hall of Famers – not even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is allowed to attend – legend upon legend rose to speak about what the honor means to them.
“It felt like I was in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ or something,” Reed said. “I’ve been trying to get to the Emerald City, and the Emerald City was right in that room.
“You can’t pay your way into that room.”
Reed was a Hall of Fame semifinalist seven times before getting approved in February. Six months later, he was at a table with Buffalo Bills mates Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, James Lofton and Marv Levy.
“Those guys are so happy for me because their puzzle wasn’t done until I got in,” Reed said. “Now their puzzle’s done.”
The Nitschke Luncheon is one of the touchstone moments of induction weekend.
Hall of Famers debate when the actual moment they become official happens.
Some consider their first Nitschke Luncheon. Many point to Friday night’s gold jacket ceremony. New inductees walk a gauntlet of Hall of Famers to reach the stage at the Canton Memorial Civic Center.
Levy, Reed’s presenter, helped the Bills’ all-time leading receiver out of a black suit coat and then slipped the gold jacket over his shoulders. Reed pumped his fist and saluted the cheering crowd.
New York Giants all-timer Harry Carson vividly recalled how his wife, Maribel, cried at the sight of him putting on his gold jacket the day it arrived for fitting.
“For her, that is the epitome of being a Hall of Famer,” Carson said. “Once you put on that gold jacket, that seals the deal. You take on a title you can never get rid of. Not just anyone can wear this jacket.”
Others claim it got real when they walked onto the Fawcett Stadium stage, as Reed will tonight, and their bronze bust is unveiled.
“Putting the jacket on is cool,” said Seattle Seahawks legend Steve Largent, “but when somebody unveils your bust and says ‘Welcome to the Hall of Fame,’ that’s when it started to sink in.”
Ray Guy, who tonight will become the first punter elected into the Hall of Fame, cried when he put on his gold jacket Friday night. Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks took a knee in prayer after getting his.
Hall of Famers also are presented with a ring at one of their teams’ games during the regular season.
“There’s a million kids that play football every year, all the way from Pop Warner up to the NFL,” Reed said. “Then you look at the 95 years of the league, and 25,000 or 30,000 guys have come through.
“Only 287 get a jacket, a bust and a ring and get to sit in that room. It’s pretty overwhelming.”
At the Nitschke Luncheon, veterans came up with odds and took bets on which rookie would cry first tonight. Reed said they seemed to consider him the favorite.
Even if he’d been allowed to speak, he wouldn’t have disputed.
“It’s going to be very emotional, a great deal of anxiety, a great deal of anticipation,” Smith said. “From my understanding, he’s going to have more fans here than anybody else that’s going to be inducted. That’s going to show a lot of class from our fans’ part.”
Reed lamented the absence of Bills founder Ralph Wilson, a 2009 inductee along with Smith.
Wilson’s death in March, however, was a reminder to cherish every moment and soak in this weekend. Kelly’s presence drove home that point even more for Reed.
Kelly, his hair still thin from radiation and chemotherapy treatments, was in the gold-jacket gauntlet, fourth on the right behind Billy Shaw, Eric Dickerson and Marcus Allen. When Reed got to Kelly, they embraced. Reed got emotional, cupping his hand behind his quarterback’s head.
“When I saw him today, I almost broke down and cried,” Reed said after the Nitschke Luncheon. “He’s been through so much in his life. He’s had to battle so many different things. He’s the toughest individual I’ve ever seen, and he was just upbeat, smiling.
“Just him being with all those Hall of Famers, all those brothers, there’s nothing better. Three months ago we didn’t even know if he was going to be here. My heart beat pretty fast when I saw him.”
As Friday wound down and Reed had his gold jacket, he appeared exhausted. On a Civic Center concourse, he took several dramatic breaths and hugged his people.
Reed estimated about 400 family members and friends will attend tonight’s ceremony in addition to throngs of Bills fans, but on Friday he marveled at the limited fraternity he now belongs to.
“They tell you what it means to be a Hall of Famer,” Reed said. “You’re not just introduced anymore as just Andre Reed. You’re Hall of Famer Andre Reed. For the rest of your life.”