Why Denver's Karl Mecklenburg deserves one last shot at the Hall of Fame

Clark Judge

Over half of the 25 semifinalists for the Hall-of-Fame's modern-era Class of 2019 are defensive players, and hallelujah. In an era where the NFL has handcuffed defenses with rules changes, interpretations and flags galore, it's refreshing to know Canton still recognizes that side of the ball.

So there are 13 defensive players up for election -- one defensive lineman, four linebackers and eight defensive backs -- and all are Hall-of-Fame worthy. But there's one guy I'm pulling for, and that's because this is everything for him.

And that's former Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg.

He's never been a finalist, which isn't all that unusual. Thirteen of the 25 semifinalists -- including first-year candidates Champ Bailey, Tony Gonzalez and Ed Reed -- haven't been there before. But Mecklenburg stands apart because he'll never be there again.

Not as a modern-era candidate he won't.

That's because he's in his 20th -- and last -- year of eligibility, which means if he's not elected now he moves to the back of the class -- a.k.a. the seniors category, or "the abyss," as our Ron Borges calls it, because too often it's where Hall-of-Fame worthy candidates go to be ignored.

And then die.

You think I'm kidding? Our Rick Gosselin tells me there are 80 all-decade choices from the 1920s through the year 2000 who aren't in Canton, and that includes safeties LeRoy Butler and Steve Atwater, first-team choices from the 1990s and two of the 25 semifinalists for the Class of 2019.

So root for them, too.

But root hard for Mecklenburg because, unlike Butler and Atwater, his eligibility as a modern-era candidate expires after February. So this is it. Much like this was it a year ago for defensive back Everson Walls and tackle Joe Jacoby, both Hall-of-Fame finalists (Walls for the first time) and both discarded when the cut was made from 15 to 10.

But at least their cases were heard, discussed and dissected. So they had their chances.

And that's what I'd like for Mecklenburg. Like Walls a year ago, he's never been a Hall-of-Fame finalist. I know, hard to believe for a six-time Pro Bowler, four-time first-team All-Pro and member of the Broncos' Ring of Fame. The guy was what Borges once termed "the defensive equivalent of a Swiss Army knife," able to line up and play anywhere.

And he often did.

"My position is strange," he said on a Talk of Fame Network broadcast, "because I played all seven front positions. One of the challenges I face in having an opportunity of going to the Hall of Fame is that, statistically, people don't know what to do with me."

Well, not exactly. Each year voters know to make him a Hall-of-Fame semifinalist. In fact, this is eighth consecutive tour. But then each year they stop there. Only I hope this time it's different. Because Karl Mecklenburg deserves nothing less than to have his case heard.

"Karl is absolutely worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame," said former teammate John Elway. "The combination of the positions he played … no one else did."

No need to sell me. I covered the Chargers for a decade and saw Mecklenburg at least twice a year. And what I saw was a defensive standout on a club that won 60 percent of its games, went to the playoffs seven times, won five AFC West titles and three AFC championships.

Look, I'm under no illusions here. I saw what happened to Walls a year ago when he became a finalist, and it was quick. Voters never responded to him. I saw what happened to Jacoby, too. That was quick, too. Two years after he was a Top-10 finalist and in his last gasp as a modern-era candidate, he was kicked to the curb in favor of five candidates who had a total of eight years of eligibility among them.

Jacoby was in his 20th.

So here's hoping Karl Mecklenburg gets his shot. No, I'm not arguing for his inclusion … though he's Hall-of-Fame worthy, just like the rest of this group. What I am saying is he deserves to have that chance, which means he deserves to have his case heard.

Now more than ever. Because if it's not, voters may never hear Karl Mecklenburg's name again.


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