“Do I feel bad? Yes, of course I feel bad.”
— Randy Gradishar, February 2008, upon receiving word that he had missed induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his 20th year of modern-era eligibility, moving him to the senior pool
“There were tears coming down, tears from being discouraged and frustrated, just the natural human emotion of being disappointed. From being a modern-era finalist two different times and not hearing your name, from now being a senior candidate and not knowing if your name will be called, or if you will be left in the dark.”
— Randy Gradishar, January 2020, upon receiving word that he had yet again missed induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, now as a senior
Steve McMichael’s Hall of Fame wait continues.
On July 7, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced 25 senior candidate semifinalists for the Class of 2023, and McMichael’s name was not called. This is not unusual. McMichael’s final season was 1994, making him first eligible for the PF HOF in 2000, and making him senior-eligible in 2020. This is his fourth year of senior eligibility. Of the 36 players elected as seniors since 2004, the average wait time for induction was 18.2 years as a senior.
That means a player had his final season, waited his five years for eligibility, was not elected in his 20 years of modern-era eligibility, became a senior candidate and waited another 18 years. Just because McMichael was not elected this year does not mean his case is finished. But with his ALS diagnosis in January of 2021, his question is whether he will live to see his induction, should it come. According to ALS.org, the mean life expectancy after diagnosis is two to five years.
With help from Paul Lawrence, who has studied the Pro Football Hall of Fame process for more than two decades, and Ron Katz, who has been a major advocate for Broncos linebacker great Randy Gradishar, here is a look at where McMichael’s candidacy goes from here.
Let’s meet the Class of 2023 seniors
The Pro Football Hall of Fame started in 1963, 43 years into the league’s history, and the senior pool didn’t start until 1972. Those delays relative to the start of the league are part of what created the modern senior backlog that McMichael and others now have to climb.
As a starting point for understanding his road ahead, here are the 25 seniors who voters selected ahead of him this year for the Class of 2023:
- QB: Ken Anderson
- QB, pre-modern: Cecil Isbell
- RB: Roger Craig
- WR: Mark Clayton, Stanley Morgan, Sterling Sharpe, Otis Taylor
- End (pre-modern WR): LaVern Dilweg
- OL: Chris Hinton, Joe Jacoby, Mike Kenn, Bob Kuechenberg, George Kunz
- DL: Joe Klecko, Jim Marshall
- LB: Maxie Baughan, Randy Gradishar, Chuck Howley, Clay Matthews Jr., Tommy Nobis
- CB: Lester Hayes, Eddie Meador, Ken Riley, Everson Walls
- Returner: Billy “White Shoes” Johnson
The senior voting committee — a 12-person sub-committee of the full 49-person voting body — will soon reduce the list of 25 senior semifinalists down to 12. Those results will be announced July 27. A final meeting will be held Aug. 16 to determine the Class of 2023, which can be — and is expected to be — three people.
(Note: the seniors are no longer connected to the contributor/coach candidates. They have their separate pool.)
Steve McMichael was never a modern-era finalist or semifinalist. Does that matter?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: boy, it’s hard to say.
As I noted earlier, just because McMichael wasn’t selected as a semifinalist does not mean that his case is over. Nor does it seem to matter that McMichael was never a modern-era semifinalist or finalist. Of the 25 semifinalists, 13 were never a finalist or semifinalist: Baughan, Clayton, Hinton, Howley, Johnson, Klecko, Kunz, Meador, Morgan, Nobis, Riley, Sharpe, Taylor.
LaVern Dilweg’s entire career predated the Hall; had the Hall existed in 1920 when the NFL was founded, Dilweg (final season 1934) would have been a senior candidate in 1960. Dilweg’s fellow Packers old-timer Cecil Isbell was never a finalist; his modern-era eligibility ended in 1967 and the official finalist round started in 1970. (h/t Evan Nolan and his incredible spreadsheet work.)
Falcons tackle Mike Kenn was a semifinalist in 2015 and 2016, leaving nine players who made the finalist round as modern-era candidates:
- 8x: Kuechenberg (‘02-’09)
- 4x: Hayes (‘01-’04)
- 3x: Jacoby (‘16-’18)
- 2x: Anderson (‘96, ‘98), Gradishar (‘03, ‘08)
- 1x: Marshall (2004), Craig (2010), Walls (2018), Matthews (2021)
The modern-era semifinalist stage started in 2004; Craig (8x), Hayes (7x), Gradishar, Jacoby and Matthews (4x each) were all regular semifinalists. So they would seem to have the edge.
But one player with a ton of momentum behind him is Cowboys linebacker and Super Bowl V MVP Chuck Howley, who was modern-eligible in 1979 and never made the finalist round. Longtime Falcons linebacker Tommy Nobis has a lot of chatter, as does Packers legend Sterling Sharpe, and neither of them reached the modern-era semifinalist stage, either.
The reason I say that “it’s hard to say” is that the voting process is so different for seniors compared to the modern-era group. As Paul told me:
“I don’t think modern players elected is much of a guidance to how seniors are viewed and that process. Seniors have fewer slots, many more deserving and fewer voters making selections, (so it) gets really personal.”
What matters a great deal, Paul says, is having an advocate in the room. That would be Dan Pompei, who is the Chicago representative on the modern-era voting body and also one of the 12 voters for the senior committee. In the past five years alone, Dan’s talent for making a strong case has helped send Brian Urlacher to Canton on the first ballot, and made Bears two of the 10 players voted into the special expanded senior class in 2020: Jim Covert and Ed Sprinkle.
“Having a voter as advocate is really key (and) can’t be understated,” Paul told me. “Having Pompei really helps.”
In short, just because McMichael never got a serious look from the committee when he was a modern-era candidate does not mean he can’t make it in as a senior.
“There’s always a chance, even though it may take years,” Paul said.
Tell us about the two defensive line senior candidates: Jim Marshall and Joe Klecko
It’s hard to say what is or is not good news for McMichael. Obviously for Mongo, as he battles this horrific disease, that average senior wait of 18 years is a double-edged sword.
What I will say is that unlike linebacker (5 semifinalists), o-line (5), wide receiver (4 + Dilweg) and corner (4), the apparent wait for Canton at defensive line is short, at least for now. There are only two d-line senior semifinalists this year: Vikings iron man defensive end Jim Marshall, and versatile Jets “New York Sack Exchange” star Joe Klecko, who played end, tackle and nose tackle.
McMichael shares traits with each of them. Marshall retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in consecutive starts (270) and total games played (292); McMichael is well known for his Bears-record 191 consecutive games played.
Klecko led the NFL in sacks in 1981 with 20.5; while McMichael’s career best was 11.5 in 1988, McMichael’s durability helped him amass 95 career sacks to Klecko’s 78. If one or both Marshall and Klecko advance to the round of 12, that will indicate a greater chance that they will get into the Hall sooner than later.
If not, then it’s somewhat a clean slate for the 2024 vote.
The good news: McMichael does not necessarily have to wait for Marshall and Klecko
There is an ongoing debate among people who study the Pro Football Hall of Fame as to whether there is a “queue” — i.e. whether players can reliably advance from a nominee to a semifinalist (top 25) to a finalist (top 15) and then into the top 10 and finally into the Hall. Guys who make it to the modern-era finalist stage early in their eligibility make it in — hence what I wrote in January about Devin Hester.
On the other hand, 2023 senior semifinalist Bob Kuechenberg, a two-time Super Bowl champ with the Dolphins in the 1970s, was a finalist eight straight years and never made it in, while four-time Steelers champ L.C. Greenwood made the finalist round in his fifth year of eligibility, was a six-time finalist, did not reach the Hall and was not even named to the 2023 senior semis list.
So the debate is on as to whether voters “respect the queue” in their senior voting. A sign that they do not — which would be good for McMichael — is the 2020 centennial class of 20 finalists. Ten players were inducted, leaving 10 more, two of whom were inducted since then (Drew Pearson in 2021, Cliff Branch in 2022). Five of the 10 are semifinalists this year: Craig, Dilweg, Gradishar, Isbell, Nobis.
That leaves three players who were 2020 finalists and are not on the 2023 list: Ox Emerson, Verne Lewellen and Al Wistert. Those omissions were a surprise among Hall followers. A group of five historians recently held a senior draft, selecting a total of 35 players; they picked Lewellen 4th, Wistert 6th and Emerson 8th.
I think what’s important to remember here is that while the Hall’s board voted in April to expand the senior class for each of the next three years (2023, 2024, 2025) to up to three per year, each year is technically a clean slate. Reaching the round of 25 or 12 this year does not guarantee reaching that round next year, nor does missing out mean you’ll miss out again.
“(McMichael’s) advocates will need to press the 12 committee members next spring on his case so they consider him during next round of voting for seniors semifinalists,” Paul said. “(Advocates) just need to continue pushing — not sure there is any different alternative or more effective approach.”
A look at player advocacy from Randy Gradishar supporter and Broncos superfan Ron Katz: 6 best practices for pushing your guy
To finish my conversations about McMichael’s odds, I reached out to Broncos superfan Ron Katz, an official NFL Fan of the Year in 2021. Ron is a regular Super Bowl attendee, where he can be seen wearing a Broncos jersey of days gone by.
After seeing Terrell Davis inducted in 2017 and Pat Bowlen in 2019, along with a push that ended with Steve Atwater’s induction in 2020, Ron in 2019 shifted his attention to 1978 Defensive Player of the Year Randy Gradishar, a versatile tackle-machine of a linebacker who was the heart and soul of the famed Orange Crush defense of the 1970s.
The factors that held Gradishar back as a modern-era candidate included a relatively short career (just 10 years), a lack of a Super Bowl ring and a tough era of linebackers. His career overlapped with the Steelers dynasty and HOF LBs Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, and he missed out on an all-decade selection in the 1970s behind six future Hall of Famers: Ham, Lambert, Dick Butkus, Ted Hendricks, Robert Brazile and Bobby Bell.
Throw in a possible anti-AFL / anti-Broncos bias (the Broncos were founded in 1960, and the first Bronco to reach Canton was John Elway in 2004), and Gradishar has had a tough road.
But with Ron and others leading advocacy efforts, Ron’s confidence level that Gradishar will one day get in is a 7 out of 10. Here is Ron’s look at the ongoing push for Gradishar, including the most important lessons he’s learned (with bold takeaways from me).
1. Know your player’s case inside and out
Ron: “For success in the seniors process, it must be a thoughtful and respectful combination of player and process. Specific to player, it’s important to promote his worthiness, via specific known or maybe unknown accomplishments to increase awareness and, if applicable, validity.”
2. Stay positive — don’t knock down another player to build your up your guy
Ron: “But this must be on the positive side of things — never at the negativity expense of another all-time great.”
3. Don’t just argue for your guy — argue for the overall process
Ron: “Specific to process, using individual and fanbase voice to provide feedback that will benefit the Hall of Fame process can be very meaningful. For example, my earlier approach this year was to send a letter to the president of the Hall of Fame highlighting Randy’s situation but also asking that the senior class be increased to avoid the sad posthumous inductions (such as Cliff Branch’s family this month).”
4. Support other fanbases in their work to elect their team’s greats
Ron: “There is strength in numbers. We all want to see our true all-time greats in Canton, and multiple fanbases can partner together to this goal. I’ve done this with two to three other fanbases, supporting and promoting each other.”
5. Be respectful to the voters
Ron: “Along those lines, whatever is done must be respectful to the selectors. Yes, it’s always okay to promote the profile of “your guy,” but it is never okay to personally attack the selectors or their integrity. Most are exceptional people who truly want the best for Canton.”
6. Zero in on one guy at a time
With all this talk about McMichael, it’s easy to forget that he is hardly the only great Bears senior candidate worthy of Canton. Two of his ‘85 Bears teammates have great cases themselves: Jay Hilgenberg and Wilber Marshall. Hilgenberg is actually my #1 Bears senior, with his seven straight Pro Bowls and four All Pro seasons. Marshall’s dominant contributions to two championship teams (the ‘85 Bears and the ‘91 Washington team) warrants a harder look than he’s gotten.
And then there is pioneer kicking specialist and halfback Jack Manders, AKA “Automatic Jack,” who lit the league on fire in the 1930s with his powerful kicking leg. He was so great in 1934, leading the NFL in scoring, that the UPI added him to its All Pro team despite not having a traditional slot for him.
In December of 1962, newspapers published a list of 32 players who received the most consideration for the upcoming first PF HOF class. Of the 32, only four have not yet been elected, including Manders.
Likewise, Ron does not view Gradishar as the only worthy Broncos senior. As he explains:
Ron: “Other than the Centennial slate (of 2020), there have only been one to three seniors per year recognized. And there are 32 NFL franchises likely to have multiple all-time greats worthy of consideration.
“Therefore, yes Randy Gradishar is my sole focus strategically to avoid splitting the overall focus. ... Specific to the Broncos, there are a handful of other all-time seniors greats: Louis Wright, Karl Mecklenburg, Dennis Smith, Tombstone Jackson, etc. have a good case.”
Bear all of this in mind as you push for McMichael — or Hilgenberg, or Wilber, or Manders, along with the modern-era guys in Hester, Briggs, Olin and Peanut. Bears fans have been blessed with elite talent over 100 years, and many busts in Canton. Here’s hoping for a few more.
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.
As always, this article would not be possible without Newspapers.com and Pro Football Reference.
Thank you to Pro Football Hall of Fame analysts Paul Lawrence and Evan Nolan, Broncos superfan Ron Katz, and the entire Not in Hall of Fame crew.
I jumped onto the CHGO Sports show today to talk about the candidacies of Mongo, Peanut, Lance Briggs and other Bears. Fun times!