Head of the class
Irvin, Thomas among 6 inducted into Pro Football HOF
MIAMI (AP) -- Michael Irvin was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday despite a troubled past, though voters denied entry to retired NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
The former Dallas Cowboys receiver, who won three Super Bowls in the 1990s, got in on his third try.
Irvin pleaded no contest in 1996 to felony cocaine possession. Four years later, he was arrested on drug possession charges, but they were later dropped.
The 40 Hall voters were criticized by two of Irvin's former teammates, Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman, for previously bypassing the wideout, who retired in 1999.
They didn't ignore him this time.
Tagliabue was eliminated in the first round of voting.
Also voted in were running back Thurman Thomas, offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, defensive back Roger Wehrli and two nominees of the veterans' committee -- tight end Charlie Sanders and guard Gene Hickerson.
Inductions will be Aug. 4-5 in Canton, Ohio. The Steelers and Saints will play in the annual Hall of Fame game.
Irvin finished his career with 750 receptions for 11,904 yards and 65 touchdowns. He was selected to five straight Pro Bowls and picked for the NFL's all-decade team of the 1990s.
Thomas was the league's most valuable player in 1991, when he gained more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage. His 13 seasons with 50-plus receptions, nine of them in a row, are exceeded only by Jerry Rice. He joins Jim Kelly, who made the Hall of Fame in 2002, from the Buffalo teams that won four straight AFC titles before losing in each Super Bowl.
"Wow. I don't know what to say," Thomas said. "It's just a beautiful day for my wife, for my kids, the Buffalo Bills organization, the fans of Buffalo. Like I've always said, we didn't win a Super Bowl, but this is my Super Bowl gift to the Buffalo Bills fans."
Matthews, the only player in his first year of eligibility, spent 19 seasons with the Oilers/Titans franchise, playing more games than any positional player in NFL history when he retired in 2001. He did it as a guard, tackle and center. Matthews never missed a game because of injury.
"I never had to grow up, could play like I was a kid, played till I was 40, and now you are telling me I am in the Hall of Fame," he said by phone from Texas. "I hadn't been nervous about it until I saw my family and they were ready to melt down."
Wehrli was a five-time All-Pro cornerback who played 14 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, starting as a rookie in 1969. He once intercepted three passes by Roger Staubach in a win over Dallas and made the league's 1970s all-decade squad.
"Something like this puts a cap on it. It's a dream come true," Wehrli said, speaking by phone from St. Louis.
Sanders spent a decade with the Lions and was one of the few outstanding receivers among tight ends on his way to seven Pro Bowls.
"This has been a journey," he said. "The last few days have been very nerve-racking, not only for me but my family and, I know, a lot of my friends. This is a blessing."
Hickerson played 15 seasons for the Browns as the lead blocker for three Hall of Famers -- Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, Bobby Mitchell -- and has been eligible for 29 years.
"I am honored to be joining such an elite group of individuals and to be remembered as one of the best linemen of all time," Hickerson said.
Tagliabue's legacy was strong, including labor peace throughout his 18 seasons as commissioner; enhancing diversity in coaching and front-office hirings; television deals that now bring the NFL more than $25 billion in revenues; expansion to 32 teams; establishment of the NFL Network; and a rising global presence.
But it wasn't enough to sway the voters this year.