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Hall of Famers sound off on state of the game and NFL draft at Fan Fest

NFL Hall of Famers discuss Johnny Manziel, Michael Sam, NFL Draft, more at Fan Fest 'Everything goes in cycles,' HOFer Barry Sanders said in regard to the decline of the NFL running game. (John Biever/SI)

CLEVELAND -- The Pro Football Hall of Fame isn't just a place for the heroes of the game, it exists as a sort of fraternity for various levels of players to interact and discuss the past, present and future of the league. At the Hall's Fan Fest last weekend, roughly 100 Hall of Fame members went to Cleveland's IX Center over Saturday and Sunday to interact with fans, take pictures, do interviews and participate in roundtable discussions. But they also talked to each other, allowing that bridge between various generations to stay healthy and connected.

It was a bit awe-inspiring seeing the respect players and coaches gave to someone like Don Shula. Every player who walked by him basically paid him a sort of tribute as if he was a mafia Godfather. His impact is still felt today, and seeing such big names recognize that throughout a schedule filled with handlers telling them where to go and when was striking.

The NFL is undergoing a lot of change, and who better to comment on that than the game's legends? Here is what a few Hall of Famers had to say on some of the issues facing the game today.

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RB Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions, HOF Class of 2004

On the running game in the NFL:

“Everything goes in cycles. This year we saw a good number of teams that did well running the ball. Good offensive coordinators will figure out how to run, and those who care to will figure it out. There aren’t just teams that ran the ball well, but individuals. I do think that because so much of what happens in the NFL trickles down even in college and high school, you may not see as many guys run the ball a certain way. At the same time I think that you’ll see those teams like the Niners who run the ball well, even Seattle who has a very adequate running game and a couple others in there. It’s just a matter of who really wants to prioritize it.”

On Michael Sam:

“I don’t see there being any problem. I think from the time you’re a kid when you start playing this game your major focus, you’re almost programmed really to just look for whether a guy can play or not. Once you get to the NFL that’s well ingrained in you. I’m pretty sure every guy in this league has been around gay individuals before and I don’t think it’ll be different."

RB Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers, HOF Class of 1990

On the diminished role of the running back in the NFL:

“Are there still running backs in the NFL? I thought that was extinct. You really don’t see that running game anymore. It’s so infrequent that people are focusing on the running game and making it a dominant part of the game. I think it’d be really interesting if a couple teams would say ‘You know what, our game is the running game. We’re going to totally dominate teams by the running game.’ That would freak everybody out. Defenses wouldn’t know what to do with that. Look at the Steelers of the ‘70s. We were so well balanced, to have the running game and the passing game that we had. That was something that you really don’t see all the time, to have both dimensions at that level.”

On the possible unionization of college football players:

“I have to admit when I was in college we got $15 a month. That meant a lot to me. That was the only money I was really able to have, and also we were allowed to sell our tickets. Then the NCAA took all that away. It looked like all they did over time was take, take, take, take, take and did not really look at the situation of players, the background of players and help in that sort of way. I heard something the other day that they were allowed to get a bagel free if it had jelly, but if it had cream cheese they can’t. I’m saying, ‘What?’ It’s so ridiculous. What can I say? ... I look at it where when I was there I was not allowed to have a job because I played football. If I didn’t have the ticket money and the $15 a month, I could have the best game I wanted to and I couldn’t go out and buy a pizza that night or go out and buy toothpaste because I didn’t get one dollar from my parents my whole four years of college. I just feel that they lost touch with what was going on.”

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QB Len Dawson, Kansas City Chiefs, HOF Class of 1987

On playing rookie quarterbacks right away rather than sitting:

“I’m for playing. This comes into coaching. How are you going to coach this guy? He’s a rookie. You have to understand you can’t complicate the thing too much for a young quarterback. You have to kind of hand-feed him. If you’ve got him and you drafted him No. 1 and you expect him to be a great quarterback, he’s got to play. You have to be in the fire. The only way you’re going to learn is to put him in there.”

On Johnny Manziel:

“He can make plays. He goes back there, he can improvise, he can do things, he can throw on the run. You’re concerned, I’m sure, about him getting hurt, but the thing is you have to learn to go with the flow and not try to fight somebody and get an extra yard when you’re 190 pounds or whatever it is. He can throw, he’s accurate and he has an attitude. He believes he can play. If you don’t really believe you can play at this level of competition, you’re not going to be able to do it. I would expect whoever drafts him to give him a chance to play and do that.”

OG Randall McDaniel, Minnesota Vikings, HOF Class of 2009

On his draft experience:

“Draft day was different back in my day. I sat at home in someone else’s apartment, waiting for them to make a phone call. The only guy they brought to New York was the guy they were sure was going No. 1, and that was Aundray Bruce when I came out. It’s different nowadays. It’s still the draft. You’re anxious, you’re excited, you’re wondering what’s going to happen on that day, and you can’t take that part away. Today everybody’s there. When we were getting drafted, it was sit back and wait for a phone call and you’ll get it done. It was 12 rounds back then, and they got it all done. I wish they could do it a little quicker.”

On the NBA and Donald Sterling:

“It is kind of disturbing that it’s still going on. The league stepped in doing the right thing and it's dealing with it. Hopefully everybody can learn from that lesson and know that you gotta change. It’s time to start changing and moving on and not living back in the past. [Sterling] can’t. I’m glad the league stepped in and did what it did and did it quickly.”

CB Lem Barney, Detroit Lions, HOF Class of 1992

On how to cover Calvin Johnson:

“Megatron is a tremendous, great receiver. I would rate him in the class with his size and his speed with Harold Carmichael, Charley Taylor, rangy wide receivers with great leaping ability, great moves, great speed. If I was covering Megatron one-on-one -- particularly in blitz -- I’d rather play him blitzing where I had him one-on-one rather than playing zone or in combination coverage, I’d take the inside away from him and make him beat me from the outside. That’s the way I would play him. That’s the way man-to-man is really designed, take away the inside routes and make them beat you outside.”

CB Emmitt Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs, HOF Class of 2008

On how the draft has changed over the years:

“It’s scrutinized so much better now. When I came everyone had 20 picks, and now each team has seven rounds they pick guys in. The athletes are better now, they’re bigger, there are more scouts, more general managers. It’s a great atmosphere out there.”

DE Carl Eller, Minnesota Vikings, HOF Class of 2004

On his biggest draft memory:

“The biggest memory from the time that I was drafted was the fact that I actually got drafted by the Vikings. It was what I was hoping and it worked out. I just had a really good feeling then that my career was going to be a good career.”

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