CANTON, Ohio — Willie Roaf recalled the first time he visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He was somewhere between 10 and 12 years of age, looking for any Pittsburgh Steelers great that was enshrined since that was his favorite team.
“I just remember going through here as a little kid and being in awe,” Roaf said. “You never really think you have a chance to be in the Hall of Fame, but I remember being here and, like every little kid, seeing how big the guys were. I was just excited playing football as a little kid.”
Tonight, some three decades after that visit, the 1988 Pine Bluff High School alumnus will be enshrined, capping a successful football career with the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs.
“I guess this is what you call my Super Bowl,” he said. “This is the final chapter of all my hard work of playing football. It’s my life. It’s great to be going in with these guys and this class I’m going in with.”
His father Clifton will introduce him before his bust is unveiled. He and his son shared an emotional moment together Friday night, with Clifton brought to tears while giving Willie a long hug after Willie received his Hall of Fame gold jacket at a dinner in the Canton Memorial Civic Center.
A former Michigan State defensive lineman, Clifton Roaf was with Willie during that first visit to Canton.
“It might be a bigger deal for him to be with these guys,” Willie Roaf said. “A lot of them are his peers, too, and to be a part of it … I think that’s what makes it special that you have a lot of family here with you.”
Also special for Roaf is the fact he’s going in with another Arkansan, Rivercrest graduate and former Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy.
“Me and Cortez have been ragging on each other. He always calls me and talks about his party, how many people he’s got,” Roaf said. “We always talk on the phone every week. I think we’re the first two Arkansas guys going in together, so it’s great going in with him.”
Kennedy, whose 1985 Rivercrest team defeated Dollarway in the AAA state championship game, said he couldn’t ask for anything better than being an Arkansas guy in the Hall. He recalled his and Roaf’s reaction when they saw each other the day after being selected for induction in February.
“When we saw each other at the Super Bowl, we just hugged each other because we were in Oxnard, California, taking a Saints picture together (during training camp),” Kennedy said. “He’s a great man. I love Willie.”
Also going into the Hall are former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Jack Butler, Steelers center Dermontti Dawson, Jets running back Curtis Martin and Vikings defensive end and linebacker Chris Doleman, who ranked Roaf as one of his top three offensive linemen in the NFL.
“If I had to rank my offensive linemen — these three guys are in the Hall of Fame, (Anthony) Munoz, Gary Zimmerman and Willie Roaf — all three of them were definitely the best in the business when I played against them,” Doleman said. “I think it validated everything I did, and on the other side, it validated their work as well.
“When push comes to shove, we’re all winners for the simple fact we’re all inducted in the Hall of Fame right now.”
Roaf attributed his success to the start he had to his professional career. He never missed a snap during his All-Rookie season of 1993.
“My main thing coming into the league was coming into camp on time, and I got to camp in time,” Roaf said. “I got off to a real good start, and when you get off to a real good start, it just sets the tone for your career. Me getting in and starting as a rookie set the tone for me to play well in the NFL.”
Payton to watch ceremony
Tonight’s ceremony is as big a deal for Arkansas as it is for the Saints. Kennedy now works as a consultant with the Saints, who will open the NFL slate of preseason games Sunday night against the Arizona Cardinals in the Hall of Fame Game at Fawcett Stadium. And their head coach, Sean Payton, has received permission from the NFL to attend the enshrinement ceremony, but he cannot attend the game. Payton is suspended for the season for his role in the Saints’ bounty program.
Roaf and Kennedy are both happy Payton is coming to the ceremony.
“I talked to Sean a couple of months and he said, ‘Cortez, I hope I get permission to come to your Hall of Fame,’” Kennedy said. “I said, ‘Coach, when you come here, I’ll take care of you.’ He’s a great man.”
Kennedy said he will mention Payton in his enshrinement speech because the coach helped him win a Super Bowl ring as a consultant in the 2009 season. “I’m just returning the favor because he’s a great guy,” Kennedy said. “He’s going to be missed with the Saints this year.”
Roaf will be just the second player inducted as a Saint, following former linebacker Rickey Jackson in 2010.
“It just shows the team and the organization, the history is being built and the tradition is being built, and these guys will be here and see me go in as a team,” said Roaf, who finished his career with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2005. “… It’s great to see the history for the Saints getting bigger and bigger.”
Four of tonight’s inductees were linemen, making this group “a blue-collar class,” Roaf said.
Some had one-on-one battles with each other on the field. Roaf recalled some of his battles with Doleman when Doleman played with the San Francisco 49ers.
“Doleman was an excellent guy, using his hands and his leverage,” Roaf said. “He was tall and athletic, and he really knew how to use his hands and his speed. We went at it a lot. Some guys are just speed guys and not as big as Doleman. Guys with long arms and had some power, if they had long arms, I might have had some problems with a guy like that.”
Kennedy was often lined up on a different side from Roaf when their teams hooked up, so their one-on-one battles didn’t intensify much.
“That’s a big, powerful, strong man, and Im glad I didn’t have to play against him every down,” Kennedy said of Roaf. “He’s that good.”
What the others said
— Martin on being drafted after missing his senior season at the University of Pittsburgh with an ankle injury: “That was my way out (of football), and I just chose not to take it. I wasn’t trying to prove anyone wrong. I just felt I would be wasting what I was blessed with, because not everyone was capable of running the ball the way I was.”
He gained 14,101 yards and scored 90 rushing touchdowns in his pro career.
— Dawson on being one of four linemen in the Hall: “A lot of it is playing on a high level on a consistent basis for a long time and also what you have contributed to the game. Those are some of the things people need to be evaluated on.”
— Butler on ending the long wait to enter the Hall at age 84: “I can’t say I’m relieved because I never really thought about it. I always looked at it as if, hey, if it happens, it happens. I just know I liked the game, I played the game, I enjoyed the game. And I think I had a good career.”