Montana, Lott lead Hall class of '00

Steelers owner Rooney, Raiders' Long, old-timer Wilcox also selected

Pro Football

January 30, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- In a throwback to the era of dynasties in the NFL, three key figures on two of the sport's greatest dynasties were selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame yesterday.

Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, the offensive and defensive heart of the San Francisco 49ers teams that won four Super Bowls in the 1980s, were elected along with Dan Rooney, the president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four Super Bowls in the 1970s.

Their teams were among the best ever and are being matched by NFL Films in the Millenium Bowl, the second half of which will be shown on ESPN2 tomorrow night.

The two other members of this class were Howie Long, a defensive lineman with the Oakland-Los Angeles Raiders, and old-timer candidate Dave Wilcox, a linebacker with the 49ers.

Two other finalists, Lynn Swann, a wide receiver with the Steeler in the 1970s, and Jack Youngblood, a defensive lineman with the Los Angeles Rams, failed to get enough votes to make it.

The election of Montana, Lott and Rooney -- who also was selected for his tireless work on league affairs, including the negotiations of labor contracts -- was a salute to the era before free agency and the salary cap, when teams could stay together for a decade.

Montana and Lott, though, didn't spend their entire careers with the 49ers. Montana finished in Kansas City and Lott with the Raiders and New York Jets.

But they'll be remembered for their days with the 49ers when they dominated the 1980s.

Their elections the first time they were eligible was considered virtually automatic.

The owner of the team in their dynasty days, Edward J. DeBartolo, was on hand for the announcement although he is serving an NFL suspension after pleading guilty to a felony charge of failing to report a bribe attempt in a failed attempt to get a casino license .

In the pre-salary cap days, DeBartolo had an open checkbook that helped the 49ers stay on top. DeBartolo posed for pictures but didn't make any comments.

Montana, who said he'll have DeBartolo present him in the ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, on July 29, said: "Mr. D. drove us. If the team needed a kick in the rear end, if it wasn't Ronnie, it was Mr. D. who made it possible for us to compete."

Lott, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection at cornerback, strong safety and free safety, become emotional when he was asked to describe the time he told the doctors to cut off the tip of his pinkie finger so he could avoid surgery and keep playing in 1985.

He said he remembered Montana coming back from back surgery to play as he choked up and remembered the days when they'd pay any price to play.

Lott said he thought, "I'm going to let the that finger go and find a way to get on the field," as he fought to maintain his composure.

Lott said he was touched when he met Ray Nitschke, the late Green Bay Packers linebacker, at the dinner for the 75th anniversary all-time team and he told Lott, "You could play with me."

In discussing how the generations of football players pass on their heritage, he said his son has a Deion Sanders jersey hanging in his bedroom that Sanders signed, "Ronnie, you made it happen for us."

Montana, who never threw an interception in 122 Super Bowl pass attempts and directed 31 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career, seemed almost wistful that the election to the Hall of Fame is another sign that he'll never play again.

He said that when a pro football player retires, he can't play in the backyard with a few guys the way basketball players can.

"We have a hard enough time coming up on the stage, let alone getting 22 guys to play in the backyard. When it's over, it's over," he said. He noted he played organized football for 31 years.

When Lott was on the podium for almost half an hour, he never mentioned Bill Walsh, who coached the 49ers to the first of three Super Bowl triumphs. When Montana also failed to mention Walsh in his opening remarks, he was asked about the omission.

Montana said he had Walsh over for dinner recently, and he conceded "it's very difficult to have a great relationship" when he was playing. Their relationship was strained at times, especially when Walsh yanked him in a 1987 playoff loss to Minnesota for Steve Young.

Walsh said there are those who would argue that Montana and Lott are the best to ever play at their positions. He said, "I agree."

Long, who became the first player from Villanova to make the Hall of Fame, said: "I was shocked when I was drafted. I was shocked when I made the Pro Bowl. I'm shocked that I'm here. It means a lot to me. I could die tomorrow and I'm complete."

He said that when Rams coach Dick Vermeil asked him to address his team a week ago, he told them that when when they put their heads on the pillow at night, they should be able to tell themselves they gave it everything they had.

"I can always sleep well," he said.

Rooney joined his father, team founder Arthur J. Rooney, in the Hall of Fame, and they became the second father and son there. Tim Mara and his son, Wellington, are the first.

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