John Wooten played his last college football game for Colorado 55 years ago, Art Shell his last for Maryland State 46 years ago and Steve Bartkowski his last for California 39 years ago.
Their long waits for admission to the College Football Hall of Fame ended Wednesday night when they were among 24 former players and coaches enshrined during a ceremony in a packed ballroom at the Omni Hotel in downtown Atlanta, next door to the site where the Hall of Fame’s future home is under construction.
“The wait was long, and I’m excited I’m still alive when it happened,” Shell said. “I’m as happy as anybody.”
“Each year they’d announce the class, and I’d think, ‘Well, I guess I’m kind of one of the forgotten items,” Bartkowski said. “Lo and behold, I got the call this past year.”
Wooten, one of the first black players recruited by Colorado, said the wait ended at exactly the right moment for him: on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“To be remembered as a pretty good football player is very meaningful, and it’s even more meaningful in terms of what today is — the 28th of August,” said Wooten, 76. “I remember so clearly where I was on Aug. 28, 1963. I was with the Cleveland Browns. We were out in California (for exhibition games). Jim Brown and I were roommates. And I remember all of us gathering together in our room and sitting on the floor, on the beds, everywhere, watching Dr. King’s speech.
“I feel blessed and privileged that I have seen our country go from where we were in the ’50s and ’60s to where we are today. Still got a long way to go, but look at the great strides that have been made. So all of this here today, the 28th, is just a real celebration for me.”
Of the former players celebrated in Wednesday night’s enshrinement ceremony, Wooten was the longest removed from his playing days. He played offensive guard at Colorado from 1956-58 and with the Browns for nine years, followed by a long front-office career in the NFL, including 17 years as the Dallas Cowboys’ director of pro personnel.
But many others also waited decades for enshrinement, including former Falcons quarterback Bartkowski.
“I’d pretty much given up,” said Bartkowski, 60, who led the NCAA in passing in 1974 and was the No. 1 overall pick of the 1975 NFL draft by the Falcons. “There are so many great players who come through the college ranks.”
The enshrinement meant so much to Shell — even after all these years and a celebrated NFL career on the Oakland Raiders’ offensive line — that he brought his college coach, now 80 years old, to the ceremony with him.
Roosevelt Gilliam was the Maryland State (now called Maryland Eastern Shore) coach who came to Charleston, S.C., in 1964 to recruit Shell. Shell vividly recalled Wednesday the first conversation Gilliam had with his father.
“He said, ‘Mr. Shell, I want to take your son to school, and I can promise you one thing: If he applies himself, he’ll graduate in four years,’” Shell said. “Dad said to me, ‘Start packing your bags. You’re going with this man.’ Because he talked about education.
“He got me prepared to play college football and to move on in life,” Shell said of Gilliam.
Bartkowski and Shell live in or near metro Atlanta — Bartkowski in Johns Creek and Shell in Monroe — but others came from all over the country for the enshrinement ceremony, which will become an annual Atlanta event with the Hall of Fame scheduled to open here in August 2014.
Among those enshrined Wednesday were a number of college stars from the 1970s, including LSU running back Charles Alexander, Rice quarterback Tommy Kramer, Syracuse wide receiver Art Monk, Notre Dame tight end Dave Casper and Purdue running back Otis Armstrong.
“I was just hoping that if it happened I wouldn’t be 90 years old,” said Alexander, the first player in SEC history to surpass 4,000 career rushing yards. “I just wanted to have my kids be around and enjoy it.”
The National Football Foundation, whose 14-member “honors court” selects the Hall of Fame class each year, said the long waits are largely a function of math. Less than one out of every 4,000 people who have played or coached college football are in the Hall of Fame.
“Sometimes it just takes a while to get to them,” said Steve Hatchell, the National Football Foundation’s president and CEO.
Said Alexander: “All things happen at the right time.”