Randy Gradishar must have better chances than a coin flip.
The best player on one of the most iconic defenses in NFL history, a large Broncos inside linebacker who was both a prolific tackler and playmaker, Gradishar is one of 20 senior player finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s special Centennial Class to honor the NFL’s 100th season.
Ten of these senior players will find out early Wednesday morning whether they have been elected into the Hall of Fame, and 10 will be rejected one more time.
“I’m a little nervous, but excited,’’ Gradishar said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I’ve been through this before. It’s been a lot of fun being part of the 20 with a 50-50 chance of getting in. I’m hoping and praying that this time my name will be called tomorrow morning.”
Former Raiders’ deep-ball receiver Cliff Branch, who played the 1970-71 seasons for the Colorado Buffaloes, and former Broncos coach Mac Speedie, an end for the Cleveland Browns in the post-World War II years, are also among the 20 senior finalists.
Former Broncos coach Dan Reeves was one of eight Hall of Fame coach finalists, but it has already been revealed that Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson were the two coaches elected for the Hall of Fame’s special Centennial Class that was formed to help celebrate the NFL’s 100th season.
Gradishar, the top tackling force of the famed Orange Crush defense from the time he was the Broncos’ first-round draft pick out of Ohio State in 1974 until he retired after John Elway’s rookie season of 1983, was a top 15 Hall of Fame modern-era finalist in 2003 and 2008. But 25 years after he retired, he was transferred to the pool of “senior candidates.’’
With apologies to Jack Lambert, Gradishar was the NFL’s best middle linebacker in the seven-year period from 1975-81. Lambert played at 225 pounds, spread over a 6-foot-4 frame. Gradishar was 6-3, 240. Who would rather get hit by?
Yet, Lambert was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990 while 30 years later, Gradishar still waits.
“As good as there ever was,’’ Tom Jackson, who played on the outside right of Gradishar in the Orange Crush’s four linebacker set, said in the book The 50 Greatest Players in Denver Broncos History.
“And I don’t say that lightly. His competitive spirit. His ability to tackle – I don’t think there’s anything more important in football. He also collected, out of a ‘’30’’ defense, 20 interceptions. Over 100 tackles every single year of his life.’’
Gradishar was a seven-time Pro Bowler in his 10-season career with two first-team All Pro selections in 1977-78, which was the height of the Orange Crush defense. He was also the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1978 – the only Bronco player to ever receive that distinction.
“He had the best instincts of any football player I’ve ever been around,’’ said Steve Foley, who played right cornerback and free safety during Gradishar’s heyday. “He was phenomenal getting to where the ball was going. And never missed tackles. Just did not miss.
“And short yardage, goal line? I don’t care who was coming through, this guy – and I got to watch him first-hand because I played a yard away and a yard back on short yardage and goal lines – he had free reign and I’d help clean up the alleys and I couldn’t believe the plays he made. Going over the top, coming through, I don’t care if the running back was 240 pounds, Chuck Muncie, 250 -- they weren’t going anywhere.’’
Despite all his accolades and accomplishments, Gradishar said nothing topped the 1977 season when the Denver defense allowed a franchise-best 10.6 points per game. The Broncos went 12-2 in the regular season and beat the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers and defending Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders to earn the first trip to the Super Bowl in Denver history.
You had to understand the birth of Broncomania to understand what the team meant to city of Denver and Rocky Mountain region.
“Yes, that season was probably the highlight of my pro career,’’ Gradishar said in the top 50 Broncos book. “All of the sudden we’re 12-2 and going in to our first playoffs. Playing the divisional game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the whole Super Bowl champion mystique they had with Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, their Steel Curtain defense. We had no chance from the media standpoint. There was no way we could ever win that game.
“We end up winning that game and play for the AFC Championship. That was a memorable milestone game, playing against Ken Stabler -- a Hate-the-Raiders guy. Media-wise there was no chance for us to win that game and certainly no chance to win the Super Bowl. Of course we didn’t win that game (lost 27-10 to Dallas).
“But I always tell people we laid the foundation, our defense, for many years after ‘77, that Orange Crush. We laid the foundation for the John Elway era, and then eventually winning some games and winning some Super Bowls. Took a lot of pride in that era. Because we played together six, seven, eight years. We weren’t the Orange Crush for one year, but for seven or eight years.’’
The 10 new senior player Hall of Famers, along with three contributors, will be announced during the NFL Network’s Good Morning Show that runs from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. Mountain time Wednesday.
Gradishar, 67, will watch from his Denver-area home with his wife Barb just like everyone else to find out if he made it. (He hasn’t been told if he will get a phone call from a Hall of Fame representative before its announced on the show).
Gradishar met Barb while he visited California to say goodbye to his former teammate Norris Weese, who was dying of cancer in 1995. Barb was Weese’s home-care nurse. The Gradishars have now been married 21 years.
Today, Gradishar works in corporate communication for Phil Long, the No. 1 auto dealer in Colorado. The company branched out to the Mount Carmel Center of Excellence, which helps military veterans and their families in wellness and transitional services after they serve their commitment. Gradishar spends 70 percent of his busy schedule with this endeavor.
On game days he serves as the Broncos’ uniform inspector. Retirement can wait. But the wait for the Pro Football Hall of Fame has already been way too long for one of the best players in Broncos history.
If elected, Gradishar would be the eighth Bronco elected into the Hall of Fame, following Elway, Gary Zimmerman, Floyd Little, Shannon Sharpe, Terrell Davis, Champ Bailey and owner Pat Bowlen. Former Broncos safeties Steve Atwater and John Lynch are among the 15 modern-era finalists hoping to be among the five elected in a Hall of Fame committee vote on February 1 in Miami.
The 20 senior player finalists (Mike Klis' 10 choices in bold):
WR, Cliff Branch
WR, Harold Carmichael
OT, Jim Covert
RB, Roger Craig
S, Bobby Dillon
E, LaVern Dilweg
LB, Randy Gradishar
S, Cliff Harris
QB Cecil Isbell
DT, Alex Karras
LB, Tommy Nobis
WR, Drew Pearson
S, Donnie Shell
OT, Duke Slater
DE/LB/E, Ed Sprinkle
OL/DL, Al Wistert
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