Pro Football Hall of Fame's Centennial Class gives overlooked players their spot in Canton (2024)

Tucked inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s enshrinement weekend will be a deep dive into NFL history. On Saturday, video tributes and presentations will recognize the talents of the senior members of the Hall’s Centennial Class, a group of former players who were selected by a special panel to help honor the 100th anniversary of the NFL in 2020.


The class includes players who started their careers in the 1920s and the 1940s. Some straddled the NFL and AFL merger. All had stellar credentials, but for a variety of reasons, valid or not, never made it into the Hall of Fame.

“The Hall looked at it as an opportunity to enshrine a special class,” Pro Football Hall of Fame spokesman Rich Desrosiers said. “We considered guys dating back to the earliest formation of the league that might have been overlooked.”

The blue-ribbon panel of selectors included longtime NFL journalists, but also respected veteran coaches such as the Patriots’ Bill Belichick and longtime NFL defensive coordinator (and Hall of Famer) Dick LeBeau; personnel executives such as Bill Polian and Ron Wolf, and football historians.

The result was a new look at some forgotten NFL players, and 10 new Hall of Famers: Harold Carmichael, Jimbo Covert, Bobby Dillon, Cliff Harris, Winston Hill, Alex Karras, Donnie Shell, Duke Slater, Mac Speedie and Ed Sprinkle.

They join modern-era Hall of Famers Steve Atwater, Isaac Bruce, Steve Hutchinson, Edgerrin James and Troy Polamalu; coaches Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher; and contributors Steve Sabol, Paul Tagliabue and George Young to make up the full 20-member Centennial Class. The modern-era group will also be enshrined Saturday.

The eight senior members who were elected posthumously were officially enshrined in a special ceremony in April when family members unveiled the busts and placed them on display. Those families will be back in Canton, Ohio, this weekend, along with the rest of the 2020 and 2021 classes. Last year’s ceremony was postponed due to COVID-19.

The Athletic has been documenting the stories of the 2020 and 2021 Hall of Famers over the past two weeks, including tales on senior members Harold Carmichael, Jimbo Covert and Donnie Shell.


Here’s what you need to know about the other senior members of the Centennial Class.

Bobby Dillon, safety: Green Bay Packers, 1952-59

Career highlights: Dillon was one of the defensive stars of the pre-Vince Lombardi Packers, with 52 career interceptions (including three seasons with nine interceptions each) and four first-team All-Pro selections. These facts are all the more impressive because Dillon had vision in only one eye (his other eye was glass) because of a childhood accident. Dillon died in 2019 at age 89.

The wait: Dillon played just one season for Lombardi, in 1959, when the newly hired coach convinced Dillon to delay retirement for a year. Had he been just a few years younger, he could have been part of the Packers’ dynasty and a shoo-in Hall of Famer along with the greats of that era. Instead, he played for largely losing teams.

Cliff Harris, safety: Dallas Cowboys, 1970-79

Career highlights: Harris has one of the most impressive football resumes for an undrafted player. He signed as a free agent with the Cowboys in 1970 after a college career at NAIA school Ouachita Baptist in Arkansas. He intercepted 29 passes, including two in his second career game, and was a All-Pro pick for four consecutive seasons from 1975-78. He retired in 1979 after playing in five Super Bowls, winning two.

The wait: Harris was a Hall of Fame finalist just one other time, in 2004. He likely got caught up in a backlog of safeties, a position that only recently has seen an influx of modern enshrinees. Despite his impressive stats and on-field presence, he was overshadowed by bigger stars on his own teams, and now becomes the fourth Cowboys defensive player from the 1970s (along with Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro and Randy White) to earn a bust in Canton.

Winston Hill, offensive tackle: New York Jets, 1963-1976; Los Angeles Rams, 1977

Career highlights: Hill, an ironman who started 174 consecutive games, protected Joe Namath’s blindside for 10 years, including when the Jets won Super Bowl III. He went to Los Angeles with Namath but retired after three games with the Rams. The Jets retired Hill’s No. 75 in 2009 and he died in 2016 at age 74.


The wait: Hill was the most decorated Jets player of his era, but he played an unglamorous position and spent most of his best years in the AFL. That, combined with playing on just three winning Jets teams during his 14 years with the franchise, meant Hill was largely overlooked.

Alex Karras, defensive tackle, Detroit Lions 1958-62; 1964-70

Career highlights: Karras was one of the most dominant interior defensive linemen of his era. He made four Pro Bowls and was a three-time first-team All-Pro selection and a member of the 1960s All-Decade team despite missing one full season while suspended for betting on NFL games. He was an accomplished actor in his post-football career, and died at age 77 in 2012.

The wait: Karras was a character, and his outsized and unorthodox personality and public battles with then-commissioner Pete Rozelle and team management might have hurt his Hall of Fame case. The gambling suspension didn’t help, either, though the Packers’ Paul Hornung, who was also suspended in 1963 for betting on NFL games, did not have to wait nearly as long to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Hornung was enshrined in 1986.

Duke Slater, tackle: Milwaukee Badgers, 1922; Rock Island Independents, 1922-25; Chicago Cardinals, 1926-31

Career highlights: A two-way lineman for a decade, Slater was a trailblazer, starting more games and playing more seasons than any other Black player from 1920-45. He also blocked for some of the most accomplished skill position players of the 1920s, such as Jim Thorpe, Ernie Nevers, Fritz Pollard and Jimmy Conzelman. The NFL’s unofficial ban on Black players began two years after Slater retired in 1931. He earned his law degree during his playing career and went on to serve as a judge in Chicago. He died in 1966 at age 67.

The wait: Slater was a three-time finalist for the Hall of Fame, from 1970-72. There is no way to look at Slater’s extended wait for election without considering racial bias in the selection process in the decades after he retired, because his accomplishments and legacy during the earliest years of the NFL rivaled the best players of the era.

Mac Speedie, receiver, Cleveland Browns, 1946-52; Canadian Football League, 1953-55

Career highlights: A multisport athlete at the University of Utah, Speedie’s professional football career was delayed by World War II. He joined the Army in 1942 and kept up his football skills while playing on a military base in Wyoming. He switched from defense to offense with the Browns and helped Cleveland become the best passing offense of the 1940s alongside quarterback Otto Graham and receiver Dante Lavelli. He died in 1993 at age 73.

The wait: Speedie was a Hall of Fame finalist in 1970, 1972 and 1983, and likely was overshadowed by Lavelli (who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975) and by the challenge of evaluating his play as a receiver at the start of the first great passing era in pro football.


Ed Sprinkle, end/defensive end: Chicago Bears, 1944-55

Career highlights: Sprinkle was a nasty player, with a signature move called “The Claw” that would certainly be outlawed in the modern NFL. He was also one of pro football’s first true pass rushers. He made four of the first six Pro Bowls (the all-star game was revived in 1950 after a hiatus for World War II) and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 1940s. He moonlighted as a receiver and caught seven touchdown passes in his career. He died in 2014 at age 90.

The wait: Statistics weren’t kept for sacks, quarterback hits and forced fumbles when Sprinkle played, so it’s difficult to measure one of the first great pass rushers with those who played later. He was also somewhat undersized and had an unheralded arrival in the NFL, coming out of Hardin-Simmons University and the U.S. Naval Academy.

(Photo: Rich Graessle / PPI/ Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Pro Football Hall of Fame's Centennial Class gives overlooked players their spot in Canton (1)Pro Football Hall of Fame's Centennial Class gives overlooked players their spot in Canton (2)

Lindsay Jones is a senior writer for The Athletic covering the NFL. She previously wrote about the NFL for USA Today and The Denver Post, and covered high school and college sports at The Palm Beach Post. She is a native of Ft. Collins, Colo., and a graduate of Emory University. Follow Lindsay on Twitter @bylindsayhjones

Pro Football Hall of Fame's Centennial Class gives overlooked players their spot in Canton (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Margart Wisoky

Last Updated:

Views: 6561

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (58 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Margart Wisoky

Birthday: 1993-05-13

Address: 2113 Abernathy Knoll, New Tamerafurt, CT 66893-2169

Phone: +25815234346805

Job: Central Developer

Hobby: Machining, Pottery, Rafting, Cosplaying, Jogging, Taekwondo, Scouting

Introduction: My name is Margart Wisoky, I am a gorgeous, shiny, successful, beautiful, adventurous, excited, pleasant person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.