CANTON, Ohio — Willie Roaf was in an unfamiliar role — the center of attention in front of a large crowd, being singled out for something good.
No, make that something great.
With current Saints players standing and cheering, the former New Orleans offensive tackle led a charge of linemen into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, a six-man induction that tilted toward those who relish the less-than-glorious role.
Four linemen were included — Roaf, Chris Doleman, Cortez Kennedy and Dermontti Dawson, along with running back Curtis Martin and 1950s cornerback Jack Butler.
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Roaf led it off with a speech short and humble, fitting someone who played a stellar career appreciating the scrums rather than the spotlight.
“You know, it’s an offensive lineman,” said Roaf, who was very hard to get around on the field. “I didn’t get singled out in front of a large audience very often, and when I did, it was usually by a referee who was singling me out by saying, ‘Holding No. 77.’
“That’s not going to happen today. And it wasn’t too often when I played.”
Roaf was one of the greatest players in Saints history, so good that he regularly made the Pro Bowl even though New Orleans had only one winning season in his nine years there. His induction gave the franchise something to celebrate after an offseason clouded by its bounty scandal.
Saints players sat in the last three rows of seats on the field, wearing black T-shirts with Roaf’s No. 77 on the back. They’re in town to play Arizona in the Hall of Fame exhibition game tonight.
After Roaf left the podium, the rest of the enshrinement acquired a strong Pittsburgh flavor.
Hundreds of Steelers fans filled the field and stands, waving yellow “Terrible Towels” to celebrate the city’s starring role in the evening. Two of the new Hall of Famers played for the Steelers — Butler and Dawson. Martin grew up in Pittsburgh, where his mother forced him to play football to stay out of trouble in his rough neighborhood, and played the University of Pittsburgh. Doleman also played at Pitt.
A group of Butler fans sat in the front rows, wearing throwback uniforms.
“I also was fortunate to play in the city of champions,” Butler said.
No one is more popular there than Dawson, who succeeded Mike Webster as the Steelers’ center, then followed him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He played in 170 consecutive games, reached the Pro Bowl seven straight seasons.
In many ways, Dawson followed Webster’s lead.
“Mike was a leader whether he wanted to (be) or not because he led by example, and I tried to emulate everything Mike did,” Dawson said. “Mike had a profound impact on my life and even today, I try to lead by example and be like Mike.”
Jets running back Martin described growing up in a rough neighborhood in Pittsburgh, the son of an alcoholic father who would beat and torture his mother by setting her hair on fire or pressing burning cigarettes to her legs. His mother, Rochella, wiped tears from her eyes as he shared his story, occasionally pausing to collect himself.
“My greatest achievement in my life was healing my mother and nurturing my mother,” Martin said.
Doleman also traces his football roots to Pennsylvania, where he grew up and went to college. He recalled that his father had one rule: Finish what you start.
“Thank you for teaching me the importance of finishing what you started,” Doleman said. “And if it’s any indication today, I finished the game I signed up for.”
Butler, inducted second, took the most unexpected path to the Hall. He didn’t play football in high school, picked up the game in college at St. Bonaventure and entered the NFL as an undrafted player in 1951, just another player filling out the Steelers roster.
Butler was a force at cornerback during his nine-year career in the 1950s, finishing his career as the second-leading interceptor at that time.
Butler, now 84, thanked his family and friends for being in Canton for his long-awaited moment.
“Heck, I’m thankful I’m here,” he said. “I thank you all.”