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Family was prevalent theme at NFL Hall induction ceremony

Thurman Thomas waves as he is introduced as one of the Hall of Fame's Class of 2007. Thurman Thomas waves as he is introduced as one of the Hall of Fame's Class of 2007. (TONY DEJAK/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

CANTON, Ohio -- The Pro Football Hall of Fame induction became a family affair last night.

Michael Irvin lauded the Dallas Cowboys family for inspiring him to make it to Canton. Thurman Thomas asked his wife to marry him again. Charlie Sanders finally got to say, "Hi Mom."

Bruce Matthews campaigned to have his brother, Clay, join him in the Hall. Roger Wehrli praised the timing of his election because it allowed his grandchildren to share the special moment.

And Gene Hickerson's son, Bob, accepted on behalf of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Then Gene was brought onto the stage in a wheelchair guided by former teammates Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, and Bobby Mitchell -- all running backs he helped get into the Hall.

Irvin kissed his bust before he capped the riveting ceremony with preacher's intensity. His eyes wet, his words coming slowly and emphatically, he commended Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and fellow "Triplets" Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman for motivating him. He saluted Cowboys fans, but saved his most moving tributes for the relatives who stuck with him through three Super Bowl wins and all his difficulties away from the field.

Irvin pleaded no contest to felony cocaine possession and was put on probation for four years after a March 1996 arrest. Police crashed Irvin's 30th birthday party and found him, marijuana, cocaine, and strippers in a hotel room.

Yesterday, Irvin asked sons Michael, 10, and Elijah, 8, to stand.

"Help me raise them for their kids, so that they can be a better father than I," Irvin said about the prayers he says for his kids. "I tell you guys to always do the right thing so you can be a better role model than Dad.

"Look up, get up, but don't ever give up."

Thomas set a record by leading the NFL in total yards from scrimmage four consecutive seasons. The 1991 league MVP, he rushed for 12,074 yards in his career, and only all-time rushing leader Smith and Barry Sanders ran for more yards in the 1990s.

Thomas didn't kiss his bronze bust but rubbed the head when it was unveiled, and mentioned, "It's really, really scary up here."

He later turned to wife Patti, seated in the crowd of 12,787, and asked if, after nearly 20 years together, she would marry him again.

Finally, Thomas saluted the thousands of Bills fans in the crowd.

"In closing, to the fans of Buffalo," he said to a huge cheer, "every guy that probably has stood here in all these Hall of Fame jackets and said they had the best fans supporting you, I am here to say that's hogwash. No fans are like my fans, Bills fans.

"It was a ride that none of us will ever forget. Unfortunately, we can't buy tickets for that ride again, but we will always have those memories."

Citing what he called a "simple but memorable life," Charlie Sanders thanked a mother he never knew -- she died when he was 2 years old.

Noting how players often mug for the camera and salute their mothers, a teary-eyed Sanders said: "I thought it was something that was always special and I would want to do, but couldn't. So I take this time, right here and right now, in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to say, 'Hi Mom.' "

Bob Hickerson remembered his dad as "still leading the way for" Brown, Kelly, and Mitchell.

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