CANTON, Ohio -- Practically giddy with excitement over his upcoming induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Ralph Wilson greeted Bruce Smith in the middle of a hotel ballroom to pose for a picture Friday afternoon.
"It's been fun," said the 90-year-old Buffalo Bills owner, who then pointed to Smith, his former star defensive end. "It's been fun because of him."
Smith was quick with a response. "I think it goes both ways," he said. "And now we're going to be part of an elite class."
That'll happen Saturday, when Wilson and Smith are formally inducted along with Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, defensive back Rod Woodson, offensive guard Randall McDaniel and receiver Bob Hayes. Thomas, whose career was cut short in 2000 when he died following a car accident, and Hayes, who died in 2002 at age 59, will both be inducted posthumously.
And Thomas' induction is expected to be among the most poignant moments of the ceremony, because he was regarded as one of his generation's most charismatic players.
What's also hard to miss about this group are the Bills connections, which will give this weekend a distinct Buffalo flavor. Not only are two Bills being enshrined, but the team will be playing Tennessee in the Hall of Fame game on Sunday, when Terrell Owens makes his debut in a Buffalo uniform.
As of Friday evening, Hall officials reported that 30 percent of enshrinement tickets sold have been purchased by fans from Buffalo telephone area codes.
That's no surprise to Smith.
"It will be exciting. It will be loud," said Smith, recalling how 80,000 fans would fill Ralph Wilson Stadium in blizzard-like conditions. "It's going to be incredible to see all of them out again."
Smith, the No. 1 pick in the 1985 draft out of Virginia Tech, went on to become one of the league's most dominant pass-rushers and will be inducted in his first year of eligibility. In 19 seasons with Buffalo and Washington, he registered a league-record 200 sacks and played a pivotal role in helping the Bills make a still-unmatched four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s.
Though Smith's induction was considered a lock, he still finds the honor overwhelming.
"This has been an incredible ride," said the NFL's two-time defensive player of the year. "Tomorrow still hasn't set in emotionally."
The opportunity to enter the Hall with Wilson makes it even more special.
"I'm thrilled," Smith said. "For him to be around, and for him to be able to enjoy this moment, it brings this whole family atmosphere back full circle."
Wilson was one of the eight original owners to establish the American Football League in 1959, and played a significant role in the AFL-NFL merger. His talks with then-Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom set the framework of the merger deal, because it included revenue sharing, something NFL owners had been against.
Wilson, who earned the title "Conscience of the NFL," was also an active member on numerous influential NFL committees that helped fashion the rules of the modern game.
Not in his wildest dreams did Wilson ever envision his $25,000 AFL franchise fee would lead to this.
"I thought that during my lifetime I was a member of an exclusive club [of owners], but nothing like the Hall of Fame," Wilson said. "It's a fraternity. And to be a member of it, hey, there's no words to express it."
Wilson also provided several laughs.
When asked if he's completed his induction speech, Wilson replied: "No. I'm going to ham-and-egg it."
Asked whether he'll stick to the suggested 12-minute time limit, Wilson said: "I got 50 years, and they give me 12 minutes."
Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw, who played for the Bills in the 1960s, spent part of the day with Wilson and said: "He's like a little boy right now with a new candy bar."
The same goes for McDaniel, who didn't expect to be inducted after playing such a low-profile position.
"I didn't have big goals. My goal was mainly to win a starting job and get to play," said McDaniel, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection during a 14-year career, most of it spent with Minnesota. "
"I'm standing off to the side and there's [Roger] Staubach and [Tony] Dorsett, when you realize you're coming in with these guys," he added. "It's a humbling experience, but an honor."
Woodson, inducted in his first year of eligibility, was an 11-time Pro Bowl selection. He was a triple threat at cornerback, safety and as a kick returner. Woodson appeared in three Super Bowls with three different teams -- Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Oakland -- and won one with the Ravens in 2001.
Thomas was a fierce pass rusher, who registered the most sacks of any player in the 1990s. A nine-time Pro Bowl selection during an 11-year career, Thomas still holds the NFL record for most sacks in a game, seven, and his 126½ sacks rank fourth among linebackers.
And then there's Hayes, who earned the nickname "The Bullet," and helped revolutionize the receiver position during an 11-year career -- the first 10 in Dallas, and one in San Francisco -- that ended in 1975. A star track athlete who won two gold medals at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Hayes' 71 career touchdown catches remain a Cowboys' record.
Hayes' speed was immeasurable and forced opposing defenses to come up with schemes to contain him, recalled Hall of Fame defensive end Willie Davis.
"Every adjustment you could imagine related to speed, he kind of created. Guys playing off further, more help," Davis said. "You know what they say all the time, `Speed kills.' And that fear alone was very healthy for the Cowboys."