Todd Helton’s wrong was finally righted.
Now It’s time to do the same for Randy Gradishar.
Past time, now that you mention it. Like decades past.
While the kids in the Grading the Week offices were toasting No. 17’s overdue entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame this past Tuesday, we got to talking. And thinking. And hoping.
First off, cards on the table: the GTW team isn’t the biggest fan of the voting system for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For one, it’s sort of an Iowa caucus model to everybody else’s primary, with open politicking an active part of the voting process. Which is fine, except that the pool of selectors is comparatively small and closed compared to its baseball counterpart.
For another, some of the stories we’ve heard from those selection meetings in Canton are cringe-worthy. Let’s just say “name” writers and analysts from both coasts sometimes dismiss cases made on behalf of players who did the bulk of their good works on flyover teams from flyover states. Especially if those good works happened on teams in the ’70s and ’80s … and who also happened to be in the AFC. And happened to be on franchises that got their bells rung in the Super Bowl during the NFC’s championship stranglehold on the sport 35-40 years ago.
Which brings us back to Gradishar. And why we’re openly praying for a miracle.
Gradishar’s HOF bona fides — A-.
Nobody asked us to make a case for the heartbeat of the Orange Crush, who’s a senior finalist for the first time. But if we did, we’d start by reminding the esteemed selectors of this:
Only five other HOF-eligible inside linebackers were named to more Associated Press All-Pro teams in their careers than Gradishar’s five selections. Just five, and they were all beasts: Ray Lewis (10), Mike Singletary (eight), Jack Lambert (seven), Dick Butkus (six) and Patrick Willis (six). All but Willis, who retired in 2015, have a bust in Canton.
Gradishar’s five All-Pro nods are tied among retired defenders with Brian Urlacher, Ray Nitschke, and Bill Bergey. Urlacher and Nitschke are in. Bergey — who was the AFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1969 and played his first five seasons with the Bengals — is not.
We could throw out No. 53’s stats all day — 20 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries, 151 games over 11 seasons, the kind of reliability you could set your watch to during a particularly brutal and physical time in NFL history.
But we’d add this to his case, too, and it matters: Gradishar was one of the lead horses in helping to turn a franchise’s sheer culture around. Over his 11 seasons in Denver, from 1974-83, the Broncos posted a losing record just twice. They made the playoffs in four of those seasons and rode Gradishar and the Crush to their first Super Bowl in 1977-’78.
And why did that matter so much? Context. In the 11 seasons before Gradishar joined the Broncos, Denver faithful sniffed a winning record just once — 1973, the fall before he showed up. Broncos Country cowboyed up through seasons of nine or more losses eight times from 1963-73. During the Gradishar Era, they witnessed seasons of nine or more victories on six different occasions.
No. 53 didn’t just upend running backs for fun. He upended perceptions and expectations of a franchise forever. John Elway might be the face most people see when they look at Denver on the NFL map. But it was Gradishar who helped to stick that pin there in the first place.