And now there are 28 – 26 from the modern-era and two seniors nominees – and five of them accumulated their credentials while wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its list of semifinalists at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, and included among those who have advanced into the next round of voting are Dermontti Dawson, Jerome Bettis, Donnie Shell and Kevin Greene among those designated as modern-era candidates, plus Jack Butler, who was one of two nominees by the Seniors Committee.
There are no standard, specific criteria used during the process ending with induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but some voters on the panel have admitted that election usually is tied to a player being the best at his position during an extended period of his career and/or doing things to change the way his position is played.
Dermontti Dawson did both, and that's why he again is being considered for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dawson was a finalist in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and he now has gotten into the semifinal round for the Class of 2012.
"What Dermontti did, which is what Mel Blount did, was change the game," said ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, who was a running back on teams where Dawson was the center from 1989-93. "You never had a center pull until Dermontti Dawson. He revolutionized and changed how teams ran the football in the NFL. I played with Mike Webster in my first year with the Steelers, and I never thought I would be able to say someone was better than Mike Webster at center. But Dermontti changed how we ran the ball. Who knows if the Steelers would have evolved to where they are today in terms of running the football? It was because of him.
"When I went to Chicago (as a free agent after the 1993 season) they asked me to show them how we ran the football. I drew it up and said, 'We pull the center.' They said, 'We can't do that.' I told them, 'Well then you can't run the ball like we did it in Pittsburgh.'"
Dawson was drafted by the Steelers in the second round in 1988 from Kentucky. He played his entire 13-year career with the Steelers, and he took over for Webster at center in his second season and remained a force at the position throughout his career.
"He had all of the physical tools that were necessary, balance, strength, everything," said CBS color analyst Dan Dierdorf, himself a Hall of Fame offensive tackle. "The one thing that always impressed me was his ability to handle a nose tackle by himself. The majority of centers that play the game almost always need some sort of a double team, or a rub from the guard next to them. The great centers, and there aren't many of them, block the nose tackle all by themselves and Dermontti was one of those guys. That's what makes him so special."
Dawson had a streak of 170 consecutive games played, which is second all-time in Steelers history. One of his strengths that allowed him to be so durable was his athleticism.
"He was one of the best players that we have ever played against at that position," said Bill Belichick, who had to face Dawson when he coached in Cleveland in the 1990s. "He had exceptional quickness. I think that really the measure of a center is his ability to play against powerful guys who are lined up over him and try to bull-rush the pocket and collapse it in the middle so that the quarterback can't step up. Dawson had great leverage and quickness with his hands and his feet where he did a great job of keeping that pocket clean for (Neil) O'Donnell and those guys who played behind him.
"The other thing that I think was a key to the Pittsburgh running game for years is when the nose tackle or the defensive tackle is offset to the play side. If you are running to the right and the nose tackle is lined up in the center-guard gap on the right, or sometimes even on the inside shoulder of the guard, that is a very hard block for the center to get. Defensively, you feel like they should not be able to cut him off from the center position, but Dawson made that block consistently.
"Without him making those blocks inside, a lot of those runs for (Jerome) Bettis and (Barry) Foster would not have been able to get downhill like they did. As great as those Steelers' running games were over the last decade-and-a-half that I played against them, the effectiveness of the center position has had a lot to do with that. Dawson was outstanding; as well as his protection in the passing game."
Dick LeBeau has been in the game for 53 years, all of them either playing or coaching defense, and Dawson consistently amazed him.
"He's the first guy I ever saw as a center pull and lead sweeps," said LeBeau, who coached against Dawson and with him. "And they would lead Dermontti on what we called the 'plus nose tackle,' the guy who sat outside his shoulder with the play going to that side. His blocking assignment was to cut that guy out of that onside gap, almost impossible. But Dermontti could do it because of his quickness. You just don't see that very often."
Dawson was named to seven Pro Bowls and chosen first-team All-Pro six times before he retired in 2000. He also earned first-team honors on the NFL's Team of the Decade for the 1990s.
"Dermontti could just crank you," said former Steelers tackle Tunch Ilkin. "He had the ability, the explosive strength and the athleticism to do it, to just knock guys out. He also had that stability to just take on guys. He was strong enough to just absorb a 320-pound nose tackle and not give ground."
Ilkin is speaking from experience when it comes to his knowledge of great centers. He played with one of the best in the game in Webster, a Hall of Famer, and also was familiar with Dwight Stephenson, another Hall of Famer, who played for the Dolphins in the 1980s.
"The argument used to be back in the early 1980s about who was better, Mike Webster or Dwight Stephenson," said Ilkin. "Dwight was a great center because he was so athletic. Webbie was a great center because he was so strong and tough and smart.
"You put those two guys together and you have Dermontti Dawson."
If it is true that it takes one to know one, well then, Franco Harris is definitely one who would know.
Franco Harris was a big back with sweet feet, a 230-pound man who ran for 11,950 yards and scored 91 rushing touchdowns during a career that was good enough to make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He was the prototype running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the MVP of Super Bowl IX and a guy who played best in the biggest games.
Bettis didn't directly follow Harris in the Steelers backfield, but their careers with the Steelers had many similarities.
"He had a brilliant career, made big plays and was a big factor in the run the Steelers had," said Harris. "It's tough to last with the running style he had. Running backs don't last a long time. He ran tough and ran well. He told me later on in his career he started to put some moves in there. I didn't see them, though."
Bettis, a favorite among his teammates and Steelers fans, began his career with the Los Angeles Rams in 1993 but had his best days once he was traded to the Steelers on draft day in 1996. Bettis rushed for 10,571 yards with the Steelers, and amassed 13,662 career yards, ranking him fifth overall in NFL history. And he capped his career in fairytale fashion when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL in Bettis' hometown of Detroit, and he announced his retirement from the podium with the Lombardi Trophy in his hands.
"What Jerome has given to the game, and our battles go back to Stanford-Notre Dame, has been great," said John Lynch, who played safety in the NFL for 13 seasons. "He is one of those guys you always had the ultimate respect for because he was immensely talented and handled it the right way. He always had that smile on his face. In the most intense moment of the game. Bus would have a smile on his face. Jerome is one of the favorite guys I ever competed against. He was one of the most popular guys in the game for a long time. He did so much for the game."
Bettis was the Steelers leading rusher from 1996-2001 and in 2003-04. He amassed 50 100-yard games with the Steelers, for which he ranks first in team history.
"I played with Jerome in Los Angeles, St. Louis and Pittsburgh," said former tackle Wayne Gandy. "It will always be my honor to have played with him. He is one of those guys who gave his all to the game, played hard. You can always tell the great players because they motivate other guys to play harder. Jerome was one of those types of guys. We knew if we blocked and blocked hard he was going to get the extra yards, and we would make each other look good. His personality is great. He was always appreciative of his line.
"He definitely deserves (to be in the Hall of Fame) with his style of running and to play that long and physical. He helped bring Pittsburgh the first Super Bowl in 26 years. That cemented it in my mind."
Bettis was voted to the Pro Bowl six times and was named first-team All-Pro twice.
"Jerome Bettis to me was a great player and great ambassador for the Steelers," said Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount. "His play was reminiscent of the Steelers of the 1970s when we ran the ball, pounded it and threw it when we had to. We lived and breathed and depended on the running game. That is championship football. You have to be able to run the football, and Jerome did it superbly."
"There's no question that some of my teammates have gotten overlooked because of the politics of having too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame. That whole offense and defense could go in. In particular, it's hard to explain why L.C. Greenwood is not in the Hall of Fame. How can Donnie Shell, who intercepted more passes as a strong safety that any player in the history of the league and has four Super Bowl rings, not be a Hall of Famer? It's hard when these are people I know, whom I played with and witnessed all they did, to see some other guys get in while my teammates are not. It would make my whole Hall of Fame experience better if they were in with the others and me. It really diminishes the whole meaning of what is means to be in the Hall of Fame when politics starts to play a role in who gets in."
Mel Blount cannot be described as an impartial observer by any means, but there also is something to be said about the vantage point of lining up next to a man in the same defensive backfield for nearly a decade. During that time, Blount saw what kind of player Donnie Shell was, and as a member of the Hall of Fame himself, Mel Blount knows what one looks like.
It was 1978, and Earl Campbell was a 233-pound running back by trade, and inflicting pain was part of his business. That season, Campbell would finish with 1,450 yards, a 4.8 average and 13 touchdowns, but on Dec. 3 with the division title at stake, he met his match in Donnie Shell.
In the first quarter, Campbell was spinning out of a tackle trying to get extra yards, when the man nicknamed "Torpedo" came flying up to the line of scrimmage and delivered a blow that could be heard in the upper reaches of the Astrodome.
Campbell left the game with a broken rib, and the Steelers beat the Oilers, 13-3, in a season that ended with the third Super Bowl championship in team history.
Shell was an undrafted rookie in 1974 because he played linebacker at South Carolina State, but through hard work and dedication he made himself into an All-Pro who finished his career with 51 interceptions, still the most in NFL history for a strong safety. Shell was a five-time Pro Bowl player, who had at least one interception in each of his 14 NFL seasons.
It is said that defensive backs often choose between making a play on the football or making a play on the receiver. Jack Butler did both.
Described by former Pittsburgh Press sports editor Pat Livingston as "having the face of a choirboy and the heart of an arsonist," Butler played nine seasons with the Steelers and recorded 52 interceptions in 103 games, and the guy who once studied to become a priest accomplished that in a most uncharitable way.
"The best pass defense is the respect of the receivers," said Butler. "If they know they're going to get hit as soon as they touch the ball, they're not so relaxed catching it."
When Butler's stellar career ended, only Hall of Famers Dick "Night Train" Lane and Emlen Tunnell had more interceptions than him. Butler never played high school football, and only tried out for the sport at St. Bonaventure College as a lark.
Father Dan Rooney, a priest at St. Bonaventure, recommended Butler to his brother, who just happened to be Art Rooney Sr., the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1951, the Steelers invited him in for a tryout.
"I thought, 'Hey, this is a terrific way to spend my summer. I won't make the team, but it will be a great way to pass the time,'" Butler recalled. "I never went back to school."
The Steelers initially intended to use Butler as an undersized defensive end, but injuries in the secondary led the team to try him at cornerback. At 6-foot-1 and about 200 pounds, he was a natural at his new position, and he was even better later in his career when he was moved to safety. In the final game of the 1953 season, Butler intercepted Redskins quarterback Eddie LeBaron four times to tie an NFL record that still stands. In the fourth quarter, he returned the last one 5 yards for the winning touchdown in a 14-13 victory.
"The Rooneys have always had an uncanny knack for knowing just the right touch when it comes to relationships," said Butler. "The Chief would come to practices and come into the locker room and make you feel like he really cared about you. At the same time, he never got too close to compromise his responsibility as an owner. Dan was the same way. Some owners are meddlesome, some are too remote. The Rooneys understood the fine line and maintained the perfect distance."
Said Dan Rooney, "Jack was one player that could have played with the great Steelers teams of the 1970s."
When the NFL adopted free agency for the 1993 season, the Steelers' initial philosophy was to use it sparingly, mostly as a tool to replace guys they lost via free agency.
Going into the 1993 season, outside linebacker Jerrol Williams was a restricted free agent the team wanted to keep. But San Diego offered him a guaranteed contract, which the Steelers declined to match, and Williams was gone.
That opened the door for Kevin Greene, whose career had hit a lull because of a decision by the Los Angeles Rams to switch to a 4-3 defense. Greene was built for the 3-4, and he flourished in the attacking style the Steelers were implementing at the time. He finished his three seasons with 35.5 sacks, ninth on the team's all-time list, and was voted to two Pro Bowls.
The Class of 2012 will be determined at the Selection Committee's annual meeting on Saturday, Feb. 4, in Indianapolis on the day before Super Bowl XLVI. The election results will be announced during a one-hour NFL Network special, live from the Super Bowl media headquarters.