If the knock came on their Atlanta hotel room doors, then they would know: They had been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“It caught me off guard when they say the knock is going to be a big, boisterous knock; they weren’t lying,” said Kevin Mawae, who played center for three NFL teams. “It was thunderous. I was supposed to have my wife record the emotion, but I threw my phone across the room, and I think I had a higher vertical today than I did at the draft. It’s overwhelming. It really is.”
The class of 2019 will have eight inductees: Tight end Tony Gonzalez, cornerback Champ Bailey and safety Ed Reed, all in their first year of eligibility, join Mawae, cornerback Ty Law, safety Johnny Robinson, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and former scout and executive Gil Brandt.
The group was announced during the taping of NFL Honors, a two-hour prime-time awards special held at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.
There were 18 finalists for this year’s class: 15 from the modern era; one senior finalist in Robinson; and two contributor finalists in Bowlen and Brandt.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s current bylaws stipulate that between four and eight new members are to be chosen each year. No more than five modern-era finalists can be elected in a given year.
To be eligible for enshrinement, modern-era players and coaches must have last played or coached more than five seasons ago. Contributors do not need to be retired to be eligible. Senior finalists are determined by the Seniors Committee, which reviews the qualifications of those players whose careers ended more than 25 years ago.
To be elected, a finalist must receive a minimum positive vote of 80% during the annual selection meeting, which was held Saturday in Atlanta.
Gonzalez, Reed, Bailey elected in first year of eligibility
Gonzalez, in his first year of eligibility, played for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons over 17 seasons. He recorded more than 50 receptions per year in each of his last 16 seasons (which is second most all-time) including 14 seasons with 70 or more catches. He ranks behind only Jerry Rice in career receptions. His streak of 211 straight games with a catch from 2000-2013 is the longest ever by a tight end.
“From when I retired and found out they were going to have the Super Bowl here, I was like, well, that times out if I could be a first ballot — if I’m lucky enough to be a first ballot — it’s going to be in Atlanta!” Gonzalez said. “How great would that be?”
Reed’s career spanned from 2002-2013, the majority coming as a Baltimore Raven. He became the second player in NFL history to lead the league in interceptions three times, in 2004, 2008 and 2010. In his career, he had 64 interceptions returned for an NFL-record 1,590 yards and seven touchdowns. He was named NFL defensive player on the year in 2004 and was a leader on the Ravens when they won Super Bowl XLVII.
“It’s a blessing to get that knock on the door,” Reed said. “I got an early knock from housekeeping that started my day off. I was like, ‘Not yet.'”
A Georgia native, Bailey’s career started with the Washington Redskins before he was traded to the Denver Broncos in 2004. He was a key member of the Broncos’ secondary, leading the team to five playoff appearances and four division titles. In his 15 seasons, Bailey had 52 career interceptions returned for 464 yards and four touchdowns.
“This is home, and the timing was just right for it,” Bailey said. “Having all my family around, the Bowlen family go in as well, I never dreamed I would be in a class like this.”
Bowlen was elected as a contributor. In his tenure as Broncos owner, Bowlen’s teams amassed seven Super Bowl appearances and three titles (Super Bowls XXXII, XXXIII and 50). Bowlen ceded control of the team to Broncos president Joe Ellis in July 2014, when he announced that he has Alzheimer’s disease. In June, Bowlen’s wife Annabel announced she also has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
His daughter, Annabel, was at NFL Honors to represent him.
“We Facetimed him to tell him the great news, and he was so thrilled to hear,” Annabel Bowlen said.
Mawae and Law each were in their fifth year of eligibility and third year as finalists.
Law’s career spanned 15 seasons, with the New England Patriots, New York Jets, Chiefs and Broncos. He led the league in interceptions in a season twice (1998, 2005). Voted to five Pro Bowls, Law won two Super Bowls with New England, including scoring on a 47-yard interception return in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams 17 years ago.
“This is incredible,” Law said. “You couldn’t write a better script.”
Mawae, who played 16 seasons, anchored the New York Jets offensive line that led the way for 44 100-yard games and seven 1,000-yard seasons by Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin. Mawae started his career with the Seattle Seahawks and finished with the Tennessee Titans, being named All-Pro six times and voted to play in eight Pro Bowls.
Robinson, a leader on the Chiefs team that won Super Bowl IV in 1970, played 12 seasons with the Dallas Texans and Kansas City.
Brandt, also elected in the contributor category, was the vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-1988. Since 1995, he’s been a contributor for NFL.com.
“When you start a new team that went 0-11-1,” said Brandt of the beginning of the Cowboys organization, “and to get where I am today, it’s pretty special.”
Game changer Shaquem Griffin
In addition to the Hall of Fame announcement, the NFL and the Associated Press named their annual award winners at NFL Honors. Included in those awards, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was named the league’s Most Valuable Player as well as offensive player of the year.
“It’s a hard award to win,” Mahomes, who just completed his second season, said. “Hopefully the next one I can get is a Super Bowl.”
Other notable award winners included Matt Nagy of the Chicago Bears for coach of the year, while New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley won offensive rookie of the year.
Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald garnered defensive player of the year honors. Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard won defensive rookie of the year, and Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was named comeback player of the year:
Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long was named Walter Payton Man of the Year. It’s the second time he’s won the award. Notably, back in his 10th NFL season, Long had donated his entire year’s salary, roughly $1 million, to support educational initiatives in the cities where he has played — St. Louis, Boston and Philadelphia.
Additionally, Shaquem Griffin won the game changer award. Griffin, a Seahawks linebacker, was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, a condition in which is left hand developed irregularly. At age 4, Griffin had his left hand amputated.
That didn’t hold him back from playing professional sports together with his twin brother, Shaquill Griffin. The brothers played college football at the University of Central Florida, and both now play for the Seahawks.