CANTON, Ohio – The moment, the evening, belonged to Edgerrin James.
His family, friends and former teammates – Immokalee High, The U, the Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals, you name it – milled about and shared memories at The Still, a venue on the sprawling, upscale Gervasi Winery Saturday night. Just a few hours earlier, James saw his bronze bust unveiled at the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 enshrinement ceremony.
Dreads and all, of course.
“Rockin’ the same dreads they said I shouldn’t,’’ James boasted during one of the most stirring acceptance speeches in recent memory.
James was a late arrival to his own reception. Post-ceremony responsibilities demanded his attention at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
When he arrived, wearing the gold jacket and forever smile, those family, friends and former teammates gravitated to the man of the night. Warm, emotional hugs. Enthusiastic high fives. Cameras clicked incessantly; one selfie after another. He posed in front of the 1975 Chevy Caprice customized for Saturday’s parade – it will be auctioned off for charity, and will command a hefty bid – with long-time friends from Immokalee and The U.
Jim Irsay presented James for enshrinement and helped uncover the bronze bust that has a permanent resting spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He made clear the special bond the two share during the introduction video.
“He represents to me so much about what the American dream is about, so much about what we aspire to be,’’ Irsay said.
“If I had a son, I’d want it to be him.’’
Irsay and James found each other at the reception and the sincerity of their connection was clear.
As James went on to bounce from one photo op to another – his bronze bust sat in the middle of the room and proved to be a natural rallying point – Irsay sat down and reflected on the occasion of yet another franchise icon gaining NFL immortality, and in this instance, a player and person that has made such a lasting impression.
“It’s hard to put into words. It’s really powerful,’’ he said. “It’s almost like this mystic aspect of that time in your life when you’re 62 and you’ve lived a long time, but you still feel your youth and you’re still thinking the best chapter or two is yet to come and you witness these dreams and visions you hoped for and you see them come true.
“But you really see the bigger picture of what kind of guys you’ve got. To hear Edgerrin tonight, I mean I’m left speechless from his wisdom, his leadership for this country, just for humanity because he’s really that perfect mix of being principled but open-minded, of being, ‘OK, you’re not going to pull me anywhere, but hey, I’m not raising a fist towards you. You’re not changing me.’
“It was really special.’’
As Irsay drifted from philosophical to pragmatic, the magnitude of the room radiated.
The gauntlet of James’ former teammates and coaches who sought him out was a Who’s Who? of recent Colts’ history. That included three other gold jacket recipients: Peyton Manning, who’ll be enshrined Sunday evening as a member of the Class of 2021, along with Marvin Harrison and Tony Dungy, members of the Class of 2016. A dislocated hip kept Bill Polian (Class of 2015) from attending.
One after one they approached him, embraced and squeezed tight: Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Jeff Saturday, Dallas Clark, Tarik Glenn, Adam Meadows, Gary Brackett, Marcus Pollard, James Mungro, Gene Huey and on and on.
“It’s so special because I think about what the Colts mean and what these guys mean,’’ Irsay said. “It’s such a popular team and Edgerrin is the guy. You could talk to Marvin, talk to Peyton, talk to Freeney, talk to Jeff Saturday, talk to Tarik. Everyone knows Edgerrin’s kind of like our guiding light. His goodness and his purity is so profound and real that you can’t deny it.
“That’s the way he’s always been since I’ve known him. You just step back and go ‘Wow.’ That just seems almost too good to be true until you get to know him and realize he’s really better than you thought as a human being. Not one person has ever come up to me – not one – and said, ‘That Edgerrin James, I’m not so sure about him.’’’
Those sharing the special evening with James spilled outside of the Colts organization. Gold jacket recipients roamed the room: Marshall Faulk, Emmitt Smith, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Michael Irvin, John Randle, Champ Bailey. Irvin took time to autograph James’ ’75 Chevy. Dozens already adorned the backseat.
“The best of the best,’’ Irsay said.
There will be another reception Sunday evening for Peyton Manning, and Irsay hopes there are more to come. Wayne is in his third year of eligibility and has reached the Final 15 the past two years. Robert Mathis is in his first year of eligibility. Next year, it’s Freeney. In a few more years, it’ll be Adam Vinatieri.
History matters to Irsay. Leaving positive footprints, now and later, is imperative.
He considered the former Colts in the room and smiled.
“When great talent meets great character and great brilliance of mind and faithful spirit, all of those things have to happen for the Horseshoe to have gone where it’s gone,’’ he said. “We believe in the Horseshoe and believe what we have going here is the best of the best.’’
Shortly after James knocked ‘em dead with his acceptance speed, Irsay talked with general manager Chris Ballard.
“He’s got to keep our ship moving forward,’’ he said. “He listened to Edgerrin’s speech, and he knows what it means to our guys when they see Edgerrin and they see him say those things and represent those things. It makes my job and Chris’ job and Frank’s job that much easier.
“It’s so special because you know that good stuff brings more good stuff, momentum creates more momentum. You just don’t want to lose it.
“It’s so memorable.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.