HOUSTON - Moments before publicly accepting their nominations for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, John Elway and Barry Sanders talked about what life would have been like had the two lined up in the same backfield.
"We would have been fighting over that pigskin, there is no question about that," Elway said. "But I would have been glad to give it to him."
While Elway, who spent 16 seasons as the Denver Broncos' quarterback, and Sanders, who spent 10 years as the Detroit Lions' running back, never even got the chance to play in the same conference, the two will now be linked as the headliners of the Class of 2004.
Both garnered enough votes from the Hall of Fame's 39-member Board of Selectors to make it in their first years of eligibility (five seasons since the end of their careers), joining offensive tackle Bob Brown and defensive end Carl Eller.
Brown played for three teams in his 10 seasons, while Eller played 15 of his 16 years with the Minnesota Vikings.
The day, though, belonged to Sanders and Elway, who recounted some of the best and worst memories he had as a player. In a 25-minute session, Elway talked about "The Drive" - the most memorable of his 47 game-winning or tying drives, when he took the Broncos on a 98-yard touchdown march in the waning minutes of the Janary 1987 AFC championship game against the Cleveland Browns to set up an eventual overtime win - and retiring after throwing for more than 300 yards to win his second Super Bowl.
Elway also recalled the three Super Bowl losses earlier in his career, a disastrous opening game in which he was benched in the first half and his controversial power play to get out of playing for the Baltimore Colts, who originally drafted him in 1983. Elway refused to play for the Colts and forced a trade to the Broncos.
"I really felt like I was in a situation as a quarterback, along with my father, to be in the best situation that I could to be successful," said Elway, who still lives in the Denver suburbs and owns the local Arena Football team. "As I said so many times before, it never had anything to do with Baltimore."
In Denver, Elway threw for 51,475 yards, the second-most in NFL history behind Dan Marino. He was selected to nine Pro Bowls and was the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1987. Elway, 42, is the first Bronco to go into the Hall of Fame.
"It's a great honor, but there are a heck of a lot of other great Bronco players that should be standing here with me," Elway said.
Instead, it was Sanders, who made a rare public appearance since his abrupt retirement after the 1998 season.
In fact, it was the first time Sanders fielded questions in a public forum on why he left the game while on the verge of becoming the league's all-time leading rusher.
Sanders rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his 10 seasons and finished with 15,269 yards, 1,457 yards short of Walter Payton's then-NFL mark.
Instead of playing the 1999 season, Sanders faxed his retirement letter to the Lions and has rarely been heard from since. He still lives in Michigan with his three sons and announced yesterday that he has been talking with the Lions about a return in some capacity, possibly in the team's front office.
"Simply put, it was time to move on," Sanders said of his retirement. "I'd experienced a lot of wonderful things in the game, and really I just wanted to move on with my life."
Sanders, one of the most electrifying runners in league history, said his father will be the presenter at the induction ceremony.
"To go in with the greatest quarterback that played the game is something I never imagined," Sanders, 35, said.
Brown spent his first five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles (1964-68), before playing two with the Los Angeles Rams and the last three with the Oakland Raiders. He was widely recognized for playing the game with the attacking style of a defensive lineman, once describing himself as being about as "subtle as a 16-pound sledgehammer."
Eller was with the vaunted Minnesota Vikings' "Purple People Eaters" defense from 1964 to '78 before ending his career with the Seattle Seahawks.
While it was generally assumed Elway and Sanders would make it as soon as they were eligible, Brown and Eller both had to wait several years. Brown's nomination, after 26 years, came by way of the veterans' committee.
Brown was named to six Pro Bowls.
"This is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me," said Brown, 62, who lives in Oakland and restores cars on a part-time basis.
"A lot of the reporters and the people who were around when I was playing are long gone, and I knew it would be difficult to be recognized by some of the people who are voting now. But it was a wait worth waiting on."
Brown and Eller had numerous battles over the years, and both expressed a tremendous amount of respect for the other yesterday. Eller, 61, played before sacks were an official statistic, but he does have six Pro Bowls to his credit.