The long wait to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is finally over for several deserving candidates.
In a year with no sure-fire first-ballot candidates, the panel of voters opted to choose five players who have waited years — or even decades — for the honor with offensive lineman Tony Boselli, linebacker Sam Mills, defensive back LeRoy Butler, and defensive linemen Bryant Young and Richard Seymour all getting the nod in results announced Thursday night.
The five had all come up short as finalists in previous years and been out of the game for between the last nine and 24 seasons but that didn’t diminish their remarkable accomplishments that will send them to Canton for induction on Aug. 6.
"You really don’t know how you’re going to react because all of us have been waiting a long time for this,” Butler said.
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Three others who also have endured long waits were voted in by the panel with former Raiders speedster Cliff Branch getting in as the senior candidate, Super Bowl winner Dick Vermeil in the coach category and longtime head of officiating Art McNally as a contributor.
Mills was in his final year of eligibility and the diminutive linebacker who starred for New Orleans and Carolina after beginning his career in the USFL got voted in nearly 17 years after he died of cancer at age 45.
Mills packed plenty into his 5-foot-9 frame over his 12 seasons in the NFL. He became a key cog on elite defenses in New Orleans that helped the Saints shake their rough early history and then helped build the expansion Panthers into a contender when he arrived there in 1995.
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Mills retired following the 1997 season and began coaching in Carolina and inspired the team’s Super Bowl run in 2003 with his mantra to “keep pounding” during his battle with intestinal cancer.
“Every player looked up to him, and I think that he had all of the qualities that you look for in a football player,” said former Panthers coach Dom Capers, who also was an assistant in New Orleans when Mills played for the Saints.
"I’ve had the good fortune to coach multiple Hall of Fame players, and he fits right in with that group. He was a great football player, but he was an even better person, and no one deserves this honor more than Sam.”
It took Boselli until his 16th year of eligibility and sixth time as a finalist to get in as voters rewarded him for his dominance over seven seasons and sent him to Canton despite playing only 91 games.
He was the first pick ever by the expansion Jaguars in 1995 and was the face of the franchise in the early days. He was a three-time All-Pro and helped the Jaguars make four straight playoff berths starting in their second season, including a trip to the 1996 AFC title game.
“If I have any regret, it’s because I probably took it for granted," Boselli said. "I’ll play 15 years, I’ll retire when I’m done. And this game’s unforgiving in that matter because you never know when it might be the last time.”
Butler also took until his 16th year of eligibility to make the leap to Canton as the originator of the Lambeau Leap and a dynamic defensive back for the Packers of the 1990s.
Butler had 38 career interceptions, was a four-time All-Pro and helped Green Bay win the title in the 1996 season.
“I was the kid that got bullied, that didn’t get the sleepovers but my teachers kept me focused," Butler said. "If it wasn’t for my teachers, I wouldn’t be on this stage today.”
Young, in his 10th year of eligibility, was a stalwart for the 49ers for 14 seasons, joining as a rookie toward the end of the dynasty in 1994 and playing through darker times later in his career. But his play rarely ever slipped.
He helped San Francisco win the title as a rookie, had 89 1/2 career sacks, won Comeback Player of the Year in 1999 following a broken leg and was a two-time All-Pro.
“I don’t want to go out and demand anything. I want to work to get something," Young said. "That was instilled in me from my dad. Every opportunity I had to go out on the field, I never took it for granted and made sure I was prepared. I played the game with utmost respect for my opponent. That was important to me.”
Seymour had the shortest wait of that group, having retired following the 2012 season and being in his fifth year of eligibility. He joins Ty Law as the only players on the Patriots' first three title teams in 2001, ’03 and ’04 to get voted in so far with others like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick sure to follow.
Seymour was a rookie on that first team and was an integral part of the New England defense for eight seasons before being traded to Oakland. Seymour was a first-team All-Pro from 2003-05, had 57 1/2 career sacks and was member the 2000s all-decade team.
“Being drafted by Coach Belichick, who I feel is one of the premiere minds in all of football, he instilled so much confidence in me,” Seymour said.
Branch epitomized what late Raiders owner Al Davis sought in a wide receiver with his blazing speed providing the vertical threat that helped the Raiders win three titles in an eight-year span in the 1970s and ’80s.
Branch, who died in 2019, is the ninth player from the Raiders' first title team in 1976 to get voted into the Hall, along with Davis, coach John Madden and assistant coach Tom Flores.
Branch’s Raiders denied Vermeil a title in Philadelphia in the 1980 season. Vermeil burned out a couple of years later and took a 14-year hiatus, mostly as a broadcaster, before returning as coach of the Rams in 1997 and leading the “Greatest Show on Turf” team that delivered the franchise’s only Super Bowl title in the 1999 season.
“My job was not so much to win football games but to make each player the best player he can be," Vermeil said.
McNally, considered “The Father of Modern Officiating” in the NFL, became the first former on-field official to get voted into the Hall. McNally spent nine years as a field judge and referee before serving as the NFL’s Supervisor of Officials from 1968-91.