Class of 2006 among the best ever

Just looking at who didn't get into the Hall of Fame this year tells you all you need to know about how great the Class of 2006 is.

Updated: August 4, 2006, 8:11 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

As a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame board of selectors, I've been spoiled.

For a little less than 20 years, I've had the good fortune to discuss and promote some of the greatest players in history. Each year, the board meets the Saturday before the Super Bowl for more than three hours to whittle a list of 15 candidates down to the four to six players who will be enshrined.

Troy Aikman
George Rose/Getty ImagesTroy Aikman helped lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles.
There had never been a meeting like this past February's marathon -- a session that produced the incredible 2006 class that includes linebacker Harry Carson, quarterback Troy Aikman, quarterback Warren Moon, tackle Rayfield Wright, defensive end Reggie White and former Raiders coach John Madden.

In my opinion, this has to go down as the one of the greatest classes in history because it comes from the greatest group of 15 ever put before the board. Former Bills running back Thurman Thomas might have made it as a first-ballot Hall of Famer had it not been for the selection of two senior candidates -- Madden and Wright.

The list of players who didn't make it is almost as impressive as the list of those who did. Look at the backlog at defensive end with both L.C. Greenwood and Claude Humphrey failing to get in. Former Chiefs great Derrick Thomas was one of the best pass-rushers in the history of the game. He didn't make it. Neither did former Vikings and Broncos left tackle Gary Zimmerman.

It was hard to keep out former Redskins guard Russ Grimm, one of the original Hogs. Former Dolphins center Bob Kuechenberg had, as always, a lot of support in the room. Then, there was what has become a fierce battle between Michael Irvin of the Cowboys and Art Monk of the Redskins. The two wide receivers tend to take votes away from each other in much the same way John Stallworth and Lynn Swann of the Steelers took votes from each other until Swann was selected. Stallworth then followed.

Of course, this weekend's ceremonies are a celebration of the game, so the focus should be on the six guys going into the Hall.

The Madden selection was what I would call a pleasant upset. It's hard for coaches, contributors and owners to make it in when they go against players, particularly a group of players as great as these. The Madden push started from the Senior Committee, which meets each summer in Canton and goes through long, extensive lists of candidates to make sure those who are deserving get in.

Three years ago, the Hall made a slight change that opened the door further for senior candidates, who are defined as nominees whose active career has been completed for at least 25 years. Prior to 2004, the Senior Committee nominated one candidate, and selectors usually voted yes. In 2004, the Hall launched a three-year experiment that put two possible senior candidates in the final 15 and had them voted on with the others.

Everyone loves Madden. Those who covered the sport loved him as a coach. He got the most out of some of the greatest Raiders characters of all time, and he helped bring the Raiders "Commitment to Excellence" to a new generation of Raiders fans in the 1970s. His battles with the Steelers were classics. His energetic personality was visible on the sidelines as he reacted to plays and tried to motivate the team. Maybe it helped that Madden is considered the best game analyst in pro football history, but his merits on the field as a coach were enough to put his bust in Canton.

During a recent visit to Raiders camp, Madden couldn't hold back his excitement.

"Willie Brown came up to me and said, 'It's getting close now."' Madden said. "And I swear to God I had this tingling go through my body. From my toes all the way up. I went, 'geez' it can't get to me now."

It got to him.

Wright might need some introduction to young football fans. The former Cowboys tackle was the prototype for what you see in today's NFL at left tackle. He was big and his feet were quick and agile. Wright could dominate a defensive end, and usually did.

Carson's frustration at being on the list seven consecutive years without being selected was not a factor in his enshrinement. Emotionally, it's tough for a player to wait each year to hear if he is selected. It's also gut-wrenching for a selector to see worthy candidates denied, but only four to six gain entry into the Hall each year, so 9 to 11 players each year have their candidacies end in disappointment.

Carson was exactly what teams look for in a defensive leader. Lawrence Taylor came up with the great plays. But Carson came up with the smart ones.

Troy Aikman didn't need much discussion. He produced three Super Bowl rings in four years for the Cowboys. As the first pick in the 1989 draft, he was part of Dallas' rebuilding process from the very beginning. Early in his career, on Cowboys teams that weren't very good, Aikman was pounded. But as the talent around him improved, Aikman became unstoppable.

Reggie White was another easy first-ballot selection. His acquisition by the Packers is considered the greatest free-agent signing in history. After a great career with the Eagles, White brought the winning tradition back to Green Bay. Religious and talented, White literally was the Minister of Defense. White's 198 sacks were a record when he retired and now place him No. 2 on the list behind Bruce Smith.

The first-ballot selection of Warren Moon will go down as one of my personal favorites. My journalism career started at a young age covering the Steelers during their Super Bowl years. At that time Terry Bradshaw was the standard for big-game quarterbacks. Watching Bradshaw throw in practice was a thrill. Each practice pass was a picture of art. The ball sailed forever in a tight spiral. It was like watching the perfect golf shot every day, every play.

Moon came to Seattle (where I live) in his 40s and watching him with the Seahawks allowed me to relive the thrill of seeing those perfect Bradshaw passes. Moon was a perfectionist. He did drills since his teens to constantly improve how he threw the ball.

Unfortunately, the NFL wasn't ready in the early 1980s for an African-American quarterback. Moon took his strong arm to Canada and won five Grey Cups. He was probably the best player in CFL history.

In 1984, he had a chance to come back to Seattle and play for Chuck Knox and the Seahawks or go to Houston. The Seahawks ownership group restricted the front office from doing big guarantees in contracts. The Oilers didn't have that problem and signed him. Moon is the first African-American quarterback to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. To do it in the first ballot makes it even more special.

You see, I'm spoiled.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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