An emotional and invigorating Hall of Fame weekend in Canton, Ohio, came to a grinding halt Sunday night when the Indianapolis Colts-Green Bay Packers game was canceled because of poor field conditions.
One day after Brett Favre led the eight-member class that included former Indianapolis Colts Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison into the hall, its president, David Baker announced the cancellation after discussing problems with the turf with both teams. He said it was a safety issue and that all fans would be fully refunded for ticket purchases, which will cost the hall several million dollars.
"This is a hard decision, but we know it is the right decision," Baker said. "In some respects a hard decision because of the impact it has. This is an important game to the people in Canton."
The NFL and NFL Players Association said in a written statement: "We are very disappointed for our fans, but player safety is our primary concern, and as a result, we could not play an NFL game on this field tonight."
Baker noted that the field was new and had been approved when inspected after its first installation. But paint congealed at midfield and in the end zone, hardening those areas. Workers used a variety of equipment to smooth the artificial surface. Rubber pellets used in the turf came loose and were scattered in several spots and needed to be removed, as well.
"We know a lot of you came a long way," Baker told the crowd, which booed when his name was announced. "Here at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, we have the greatest respect for players and for player safety. As a result of some painting on the field today, some questions arose."
Team physicians also were consulted.
"We thought we would be able to remediate it by delaying the game for as much as an hour," Baker added. "But in the end, if it's remotely close to unsafe, we conferred with the league, we think the best thing to do is respect the safety of the players. It's the only thing to do.
"I can tell you, I had a son who played in this league. If it happened with him on the field, I would have wanted someone to make the same decision."
This was not the first cancellation of an NFL exhibition game — the Hall of Game contest was not played in 2011 because of the lockout — but it was the most high-profile preseason match to be called off.
In 2001, a new artificial surface at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium was deemed too dangerous for the Eagles to play the Ravens.
Both teams walked onto the field at 8 p.m., moments before the game would have kicked off, and the players saluted the crowd. When the hall's class of 2016 was introduced the stands remained relatively full for that. But then many fans departed the stadium even though the halftime show featuring Lee Greenwood was held.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano said he was disappointed but understood the cancellation. He was looking to "find out about a lot of these young players."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy saluted the many Packers fans who came to Canton to see Favre inducted into the hall.
"We really were looking forward to performing tonight," McCarthy said. "You get tired of practicing against yourself and you get to play a real game."
Many of the thousands of Packers fans in Canton returned Sunday to Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. They sat watching highlights of Favre's speech and of Friday night's concert featuring Tim McGraw before they were told about the game's cancellation.
Besides Favre, Dungy, and Harrison, other inductees were Orlando Pace, Kevin Greene, Ken Stabler, Dick Stanfel and Ed DeBartolo Jr.
The first black coach to win an NFL championship, Dungy has been and a mentor to dozens of players and fellow coaches. Instead of concentrating on his role as a pioneer, he paid homage to those before him.
"Many of them never got the chance to move up the coaching ladder like I did, but they were so important to the progress in this league," Dungy said of the 10 African-American assistant coaches in the NFL when he broke in as a player in 1977. "They were role models and mentors for me and my generation ... without those 10 laying the groundwork, the league would not have the 200-plus minority assistant coaches it has today.
"And we would not have had Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy coaching against each other in Super Bowl 41. I feel I am representing those 10 men and all the African-American coaches who came before me in paving the way, and I thank them."
Dungy led the Indianapolis Colts to the 2006 NFL title. He also has a coaching tree that has featured Mike Tomlin, Herman Edwards, Jim Caldwell, Rod Marinelli, Leslie Frazier and Smith.
A disciple of Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, for whom he played on a Super Bowl winner, Dungy went 139-69 in 13 seasons, including 85-27 with the Colts from 2002-08. Before joining Indianapolis, Dungy turned around a perennial loser in Tampa Bay, taking the Buccaneers to the 1999 NFC title game.
"Be uncommon, not just average," he added before paying tribute to former NFL coach Dennis Green, who recently passed away. "That thought has stuck with me throughout my life."
Harrison's 143 receptions in 2002 are an NFL record. He retired in 2008 with 1,102 catches, now third behind Jerry Rice and Tony Gonzalez, 14,608 yards and 128 touchdowns. He had eight consecutive seasons with at least 1,100 yards receiving as Peyton Manning's prime target.
Harrison made eight Pro Bowls, was a three-time All-Pro, and missed only 18 games in 13 NFL seasons.