- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 8, 2009

CANTON, Ohio | Practically giddy with excitement over his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Ralph Wilson greeted Bruce Smith in the middle of a hotel ballroom to pose for a picture Friday.

“It’s been fun,” said the 90-year-old Buffalo Bills owner, who pointed to Smith, his former star defensive end. “It’s been fun because of him.”

Smith was quick with a response.

“I think it goes both ways,” he said. “And now we’re going to be part of an elite class.”

That’ll happen Saturday, when Wilson and Smith are formally inducted with linebacker Derrick Thomas, defensive back Rod Woodson, guard Randall McDaniel and receiver Bob Hayes. Thomas’ career was cut short in 2000 when he died after a car accident, and Hayes died in 2002 at age 59.

Thomas’ induction is expected to be among the most poignant moments of the ceremony. He was regarded as one of his generation’s most charismatic players.

What’s also hard to miss about this group are the Bills connections, which will give the weekend a distinct Buffalo flavor. Not only are two Bills being enshrined, but the team will be playing Tennessee in the Hall of Fame game on Sunday, when Terrell Owens makes his debut in a Buffalo uniform.

As of Friday evening, Hall officials reported that 30 percent of enshrinement tickets sold have been purchased by fans with Buffalo area codes. That’s no surprise to Smith.

“It will be exciting. It will be loud,” said Smith, recalling how 80,000 fans would fill Ralph Wilson Stadium in blizzard-like conditions. “It’s going to be incredible to see all of them out again.”

Smith, the No. 1 pick in the 1985 draft out of Virginia Tech, was one of the league’s most dominant pass-rushers and will be inducted in his first year of eligibility. In 19 seasons with Buffalo and Washington, he registered a league-record 200 sacks and played a pivotal role in helping the Bills make a still-unmatched four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s.

Though Smith’s induction was a lock, he still finds the honor overwhelming.

“This has been an incredible ride,” the two-time defensive player of the year said. “Tomorrow still hasn’t set in emotionally.”

The opportunity to enter the Hall with Wilson makes it even more special.

“I’m thrilled,” Smith said. “For him to be around, and for him to be able to enjoy this moment, it brings this whole family atmosphere back full circle.”

Wilson was one of eight owners to establish the American Football League in 1959, and he played a significant role in the AFL-NFL merger. His talks with then-Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom set the framework of the merger because it included revenue sharing, which NFL owners had been against.

Wilson, who earned the title “Conscience of the NFL,” was also an active member on numerous influential NFL committees that helped fashion the rules of the modern game.

Not in his wildest dreams did Wilson ever envision his $25,000 AFL franchise fee would lead to this.

“I thought that during my lifetime I was a member of an exclusive club, but nothing like the Hall of Fame,” Wilson said. “It’s a fraternity. And to be a member of it, hey, there’s no words to express it.”

Wilson also provided several laughs.

When asked if he has completed his induction speech, Wilson replied: “No. I’m going to ham-and-egg it.”

Asked whether he’ll stick to the suggested 12-minute time limit, Wilson said: “I got 50 years, and they give me 12 minutes.”

Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw, who played for the Bills in the 1960s, spent part of the day with Wilson and said: “He’s like a little boy right now with a new candy bar.”

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