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This year's Hall class a modern one, but not short on pioneers

If you're in college now this Hall of Fame class is for you. You love NFL Films, so you love the inclusion of Ed Sabol, who founded the institution. You might have even seen Deion Sanders, Marshall Faulk and Shannon Sharpe as players, not just pregame show talking heads.

So it's a fairly modern class, even with one old-timer (linebacker/guard/kicker Les Richter), a linebacker from the '70s (Chris Hanburger) and a pass-rusher from the '80s (Richard Dent). Yet for as modern as the class is, four of the men blazed trails and will be shown by history as difference-makers on an alltime level.

The seven-man class of 2011 will be inducted Saturday at 7 p.m., in Canton at Fawcett Stadium. Tonight is always one of the really fun events of the weekend -- the Hall of Fame enshrinees dinner at the civic center in downtown Canton. Fun because good stories get told, the seven new members get their gold jackets, and the locals sit with the heroes. Eighty Hall of Famers, at least, are due in town for the weekend, and the Hall puts them at tables around the cavernous venue so people can break bread with some of the greatest ever.

Sanders, as a player and personality, made cornerback a starry position. By playing such a clinging-and-baiting style, Sanders showed you could be an offensive player on defense. In his prime, Prime shut down great receivers, returned punts and interceptions for touchdowns better than any of his peers and had the kind of personality you loved or hated but couldn't ignore. He was the first diva corner in history (that includes Lester Hayes), and he came into the league that way because he realized that's how he could make the truly big money -- by combining flair with great ability. It worked.

Faulk wasn't the first man to be a dual threat out of the backfield; Roger Craig and Thurman Thomas did it well too. But Faulk's the best multi-purpose back of our time. Seven 1,000-yard seasons, five 80-catch seasons ... he averaged a 109-yard rushing/receiving game in his 12 NFL seasons. The short pass in the flat became a perfected extended handoff, and Faulk did that 767 times in his career with the Colts and Rams.

I'll never forget the Patriots' game plan in the Super Bowl a decade ago: Crush Faulk. Hit him hard every play, and hit him some more. Kurt Warner? Great player, but New England cared about Faulk far more, and Faulk's scoreless game was a big reason for the stunning Patriot win.

Sharpe was the kind of athletic power-forward we take for granted now at tight end. It's unfair to say he was the first great one; Kellen Winslow preceded him. But Mike Shanahan used Sharpe (and Brian Billick later did) on more deep routes than the average tight end, and thought of him as another wide receiver in game plans. The tight ends that came after -- Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten -- are not field-stretchers the way Randy Moss was, but they, like Sharpe, are consistent mismatches if you cover them with linebackers.

And Sabol ... well, the NFL wouldn't be the same without his brand of storytelling and incisive cinematography. The league realized early on that Sabol could be a brand-maker, a stadium-filler, and allowed him where coaches previously had hated intrusions -- in huddles, in locker rooms, in the homes of coaches and players.

But by carefully managing the information that got out from this early form of reality TV, Sabol and son Steve drove more people to watch the games, in person and on TV. What a monster he created.

When I tweeted a couple of weeks that there would be no training camp "Hard Knocks'' show this year because of the uncertainty of labor, you'd have thought people's dogs had died. Oh, the horror! The Sabols' mastery of giving people insight from the inside, and doing it artistically, has been one of the joys of watching football over the years.

The drama of the weekend will surround the only non-player in the class. Ed Sabol, 94, waited years for this, and he hasn't been in great health. Shortly after getting the word that his dad made the Hall, son Steve, the face of NFL Films for a generation, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and immediately began undergoing chemotherapy. His prognosis is uncertain. But he'll be in Canton this weekend. Wouldn't miss it for the world.

"For a company that prides itself on telling good stories,'' Steve Sabol told me in April, "this is one hell of a story. I mean, isn't it? Dad makes the Hall of Fame. Son's going to be his presenter. Son gets a brain tumor. Now the story is, Is the son going to be there? Will the son make it? What a great story this is going to be, however it turns out.''

A great weekend -- even without the football game -- will have a great subplot. It's a good way to kick off a compelling season.

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