PHOENIX — One by one, the newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame stepped onto the stage as their names were called. When the eighth man elected Saturday, the late Junior Seau, was announced, his two sons stood with the group.
“I wish,” 25-year-old Tyler Seau said later, “he was here in person with us.”
A field-covering, hard-hitting linebacker, the charismatic Seau, who committed suicide at age 43 in 2012, was the only first-time eligible candidate in the Hall’s class of 2015. Also getting in Saturday, a day before the Super Bowl, were modern-day players Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Charles Haley and Will Shields, contributors Bill Polian and Ron Wolf, and senior selection Mick Tingelhoff.
“It’s hard when you come into a group of men that have done what they’ve done, at their caliber, and they’re sharing stories and memories that they had together and playing against each other,” Tyler Seau said. “It makes you emotional.”
Researchers who studied Junior Seau’s brain said it showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease connected to repeated head injuries, including concussions.
His death, less than 2 1/2 years after the end of his playing career, resonated among players in the league, raising worry about the physical and emotional toll the sport takes.
Junior Seau played in the NFL for 20 seasons, the first 13 with the San Diego Chargers, followed by three with Miami and four with New England. He was Defensive Player of the Year for San Diego in 1992, made six All-Pro teams, and was a member of the league’s All-Decade team of the 1990s.
“He never really needed an award to solidify how good he was. This kind of stuff was more for his family, for his mom, his dad, his brothers. Just to make them proud, make his family proud,” Tyler Seau said. “For him, he knew what work he put in. So he knew where he was and where he stood amongst these men. And he’s rightfully in.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said this week he “loved” having Seau on his roster.
“I can’t imagine having a Professional Football Hall of Fame without Junior Seau in it,” said Belichick, whose team plays the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“I’d say the one word that comes to me when I think about Junior and football is ‘passion.’”
Bettis was a burly running back nicknamed The Bus who began a 13-season career by earning Rookie of the Year honors for the Rams. He capped it by winning the 2006 Super Bowl with the Steelers in a game played in his hometown of Detroit.
His 13,662 yards rushing rank fifth in history.
“To think a little fat kid who had never played football until high school,” Bettis said, “to think I can ascend to this level, this is something I never thought of, never dreamed of.”
When Brown retired after the 2004 season, he ranked No. 2 in NFL history with 14,934 yards receiving, No. 3 with 1,094 catches, and No. 3 with 100 touchdown catches. This was his sixth year of eligibility.
“You know you have to wait your turn,” the 1987 Heisman Trophy winner said. “I came in this year hoping for better things.”
Haley, a defensive end and linebacker, needed to wait 11 years to get in after becoming the first player in NFL history to play on five Super Bowl-winning teams. He called the late 49ers coach Bill Walsh “a father figure to me.”
Shields was a guard for Kansas City from 1993-2006, never missing a game in his 14 seasons. He was a first-team All-Pro three times, a second-team All-Pro four times, and was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s.
Polian and Wolf were general managers who built Super Bowl champions. Tingelhoff retired in 1978 after starting all 240 games of his career as the center for the Minnesota Vikings.
Five nominees were eliminated in Saturday’s final vote: Tony Dungy, Kevin Greene, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace and Kurt Warner. Earlier in the day, the 46 members on the selection committee reduced the list of 15 modern-day finalists by cutting players Morten Andersen, Terrell Davis and John Lynch, and coaches Don Coryell and Jimmy Johnson.
A candidate needs 80 percent of the vote to get in.
The induction ceremony is in August at Canton, Ohio.