DENVER — Randy Gradishar’s omission never felt right. Every year in August, Broncos Country would find itself thinking about the snub, about why the former linebacker remained outside Canton’s doors with no key because of voters and committees with no clue.
Finally, last August, the signature member of the Orange Crush defense, the team that pinned Denver’s location as a legitimate sports city, was one of three players from the senior pool nominated by a 12-person Hall of Fame subcommittee. On Thursday, Gradishar’s name goes before 50 voters on the final selection committee with 80% of the vote needed for enshrinement.
There is inevitability to immortality.
This stage has long been a formality, ending Gradishar’s long, painful, confusing wait to return to Ohio where he starred at Champion High School and at Ohio State for legendary coach Woody Hayes.
“The possibility of getting there was always about God’s timing in my mind,” said Gradishar when named a finalist. “It took a little while, but I am very, very glad and very happy to have this experience. I cannot remember the last time I was this happy.”
The Hall of Fame, cast with preserving legacies, forever made Broncos fans squirm. For too long, it seemed like an Airbnb for members of the Bears, Packers, Giants and Cowboys. John Elway’s election shone a light on an overlooked franchise. There has been a stream of players since, including cornerback Champ Bailey, safety Steve Atwater and running back Terrell Davis, eight in all who played their primary years in Denver.
There are players from the beginning like Floyd Little. There are players from the best teams in the 90s like tight end Shannon Sharpe and offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman. But there is a donut from the 1970s. No Louis Wright, a shameful snub. And no Gradishar.
Gradishar, 71, has been a finalist four times, including as a seniors candidate in 2020. The longer the wait – 34 classes in all -- the harder it became to understand. And it also removed him from the conversation in a society that lives in moments, snackable videos and 140 characters.
When Gradishar gets elected Thursday – and he better if common sense still exists – it brings honor to the franchise and a stroll through the archives that produces smiles and confusion.
The accolades scream he belongs among the 1 percent who have ever played. And cast doubt on why his candidacy existed in the margins. Gradishar played 10 years, earned seven Pro Bowl berths – the most by a linebacker not in the Hall of Fame -- and made multiple All-Pro teams. He never missed a game in his career, playing in 151 counting the postseason. He won Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in 1978, the only Broncos player to accomplish the feat. No player during his era was better at short yardage stops, his force vanquishing a ball carrier’s will, usually at the goal line.
Before The Orange Rush of Super Bowl 50, there was The Orange Crush in 1977. That defense defined the Broncos, leading the team to its first Super Bowl, captivating a region. Gradishar provided the pulse and the force. Yet being on the sport’s biggest stage did not resonate with national writers. Gradishar was viewed suspiciously. The one statistic that should have rubber stamped his Hall of Fame candidacy stumped it. Gradishar logged more than 2,000 tackles in his career. He averaged more than 200 per season. Nobody does that. Not Ray Lewis, Jack Ham, or Mike Singletary.
And for years nobody believed it.
Tackling stats from the 1970s are unofficial. So, when Gradishar flirted with 20 tackles in a game, it was dismissed as fantasy. Ask yourself, why would esteemed defensive coordinator Joe Collier goose the numbers? He has nothing to gain. His scheme funneled ball carriers to Gradishar, who devoured them like Pringles.
Gradishar passed the decades by working, spending the past 26 years as an ambassador at Phil Long Ford in Denver in the communications department. He has spent 10 seasons as a uniform inspector for the NFL, which is how most modern Broncos know him.
They chide him about possible fines, but with the announcement in August a new appreciation for Gradishar emerged. This was not a good player, as Sports Illustrated Hall of Fame voter Paul Zimmerman tried to convince others for too long. This was an all-time great, whose career seeped between the cracks, became lost to memory.
Gradishar, of course, never needed the highlights to remind of him of what he did, of who he was.
He paid a huge price for his dominance. He has had his knees and shoulders replaced. The agony of the Hall of Fame brought pain, too. More than a decade ago, when Gradishar spoke about the potential honor, he leaned on his faith. When he learned he was within arm’s reach of the finish line in August, he called it a “blessing.”
On Thursday night, the wait will/should/must end.