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Fennelly: Sapp joins immortals as players, fans flock to Canton

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Published:   |   Updated: August 2, 2013 at 08:33 AM

CANTON, Ohio - The pilgrimage is on at 2121 George Halas Drive N.W. The brotherhood is returning, as it does each summer. It's Induction Week. And according to Joe Horrigan, a vice president at the Pro Football Hall of Fame who has worked here 36 years, "This one is going to be one for the ages."

It's the Hall's 50th anniversary. Many of its 162 living members are expected back, a record number. They'll embrace new teammates, including that chatty one, Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp.

"He's one of us now," said Billy Shaw, a Hall of Famer who played guard for the Buffalo Bills in the 1960s. "It's a life changer. (Warren) is part of the fraternity. I was never in one, but it's like a fraternity, our little world. And this is our fraternity house."

The fraternity house covers roughly 118,000 square feet and will, with seven 2013 additions, house 280 bronze busts. Jim Thorpe is here. Jim Brown is here. So are Crazy Legs, Deacon and Night Train and the rest. Lee Roy Selmon is here. And, now, so is Warren Sapp.

The Suggs, they're here, too.

Liz and Chris from Zephyrhills, married nearly 23 years, wed to the Buccaneers since 1976. Hall of Famers aren't the only ones who make this journey. Chris wore his old No. 99 Sapp jersey. Liz held Hall and Sapp souvenirs, shirts and earrings, during a gift shop blitz.

"This is our second honeymoon," Liz said. They went to the Keys on their first one, not right away. The day after their September 1990 wedding, they went to a Bucs game.

Liz is an X-ray technician. Chris is a manager at an electric motor rebuilding shop. It took two days driving to get to Canton for the very first time.

"It was on our bucket list," Liz said.

"It's Buccaneers history," Chris said.

They soaped the windows on their pick-up truck. They wrote 99 and QBKILLA - Sapp's trade name - and HOF 2013 all over their ride. Money is tight, so they saved for the trip, bit by bit. But they had to be here for Saturday night's induction ceremony.

"I wanted to thank him," Liz said. "He gave a lot on the field. I want him to know that Tampa appreciated him."

"A lot of people say he had a bad attitude," Chris said. "He wasn't there to be my friend. He was there to do a job. And he did it."

It's induction time, and the legends are prowling the Hall. Former Packers linebacker Dave Robinson, a member of the incoming 2013 class, was seen shopping in the gift shop, where, it should be noted, Hall of Famers get a 40 percent discount.

But you can't put a price on what the Hall means.

"It opens doors," said Billy Shaw, who was in the gift shop with his wife, Patsy. He wore his Hall of Fame ring. "I never take it off."

The Hall, he said, "makes all the aches and pains go away." He's 74. His knees are bad, his back is hurting from nine years playing offensive guard in the old AFL.

His final season with the Bills was 1969, as Buffalo welcomed a sensational rookie running back: O.J. Simpson. In 1995, Simpson was the first Bill to make the Hall. First ballot.

Billy Shaw had to wait and wait, 30 years after he was done playing, nearly forgotten. It made him appreciate it all the more.

Shaw aims to welcome first-ballot guy Warren Sapp. No one is bigger or better than anyone else in this house.

"You can't put it in words," Shaw said. "You make relationships that last a lifetime."

Sapp, like all other Hall of Famers, has been told to try to keep his induction speech to 10 minutes. Fat chance.

Which brings us back to Billy Shaw - and what Hall members lovingly call "The Billy Shaw Rule."

"Always remember who to thank," Shaw said.

During his induction speech in 1999, Shaw was standing at the podium making his speech when the little green light in front of him turned red, meaning: wrap it up.

"I wasn't even halfway through," Shaw said. "I hurried through it."

He sat down. He looked at his family. His oldest daughter drew her hand across her neck in a throat-slashing gesture and mouthed three words to Billy:

You forgot Mom.

Billy was mortified. Then, genius. Eric Dickerson, the running back, was next up. Billy leaned over.

"I say, 'Eric, we all screw up. I need your help. I forgot to thank my wife. Would you do it for me?'"

Dickerson laughed. Anything for a frat brother. And so it was, at the beginning of his induction speech, Eric Dickerson recognized and thanked Patsy Shaw.

"He saved my life," Billy said.

In the gift shop, a family asked Billy to pose with them for a picture. One of them was a teenage boy with Down syndrome. Billy Shaw reached for the Hall of Fame ring he said he never takes off ... and took it off. He put it on the boy's finger. Everyone smiled. Photo done, the boy hugged Billy, then hugged him again. Billy's eyes glistened.

You can't put it in words.

Just another day at Warren Sapp's new home.

Liz and Chris Sugg will be at the Hall of Fame parade Saturday morning in downtown Canton. Enshrinees ride in open cars. Liz and Chris will wave to Warren Sapp even if he doesn't wave back.

"Just to thank him," Liz said.

Liz and Chris' 21-year-old daughter, Morgan, is getting married next March.

"That's another big event, too," Liz said.

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