THE NFL careers of Rayfield Wright and Harry Carson overlapped only four seasons, and as a right tackle for the Dallas Cowboys and an inside linebacker in the New York Giants' 3--4 defense, respectively, they seldom met head-on even then. Their teams were NFC East rivals who squared off eight times from 1976 through '79--Dallas won every game--but Wright usually blocked a defensive end, while Carson was manhandling the center, a guard and sometimes a blocking back to boot.
They will forever be linked, however, when they enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame shoulder-to-shoulder on Aug. 5. It was a painful road to Canton for Wright, 60, and Carson, 52, and enshrinement has been hailed by their peers as long overdue.
Wright, nicknamed the Big Cat for his size (6'6", 255) and quickness, played from 1967 through '79, went to the Pro Bowl six times and was a member of the NFL's all-decade team for the 1970s. He appeared in six NFC Championship Games and five Super Bowls, winning two titles.
Carson was a ferocious run-stopper from 1976 through '88, leading the Giants in tackles five times. He was named to nine Pro Bowls, was a two-time All-Pro and in 1987 captained the defense that held the Denver Broncos to 2.7 yards per carry in a 39--20 Super Bowl XXI victory.
Despite those credentials, they didn't get the necessary votes for admission to the Hall until last February. Each year the 39 media representatives who make up the Hall of Fame selection committee submit their nominations. In January the list is cut to 15 finalists, whose names are made public. On the Saturday before the Super Bowl the committee gathers to discuss each finalist, vote and winnow the list to 10. Another vote reduces the nominees to six, which are announced. Those candidates are then voted on individually and must be approved by 80% of the committee to be elected.
Beginning in 2000 Carson was among the final 15 every year. His hopes, as well as those of family and friends, would be raised--and then dashed when the inductees were announced. "I saw what it was doing to the people who cared about me," says Carson, who lives in Franklin Lakes, N.J., and cohosts a Giants pregame TV show. "I'd have to take them out to dinner and tell them everything was O.K. People started thinking of me not as the player I was, but as the guy who couldn't get into the Hall of Fame. I didn't want to be known as the Susan Lucci of football."
After another disappointment, in 2004, Carson decided that he didn't need his football career validated by a group of sportswriters. He believed the selection committee should include former coaches and players. He knew what his teammates and opponents thought of him, and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who had been Carson's position coach for a time in New York, had said that Carson was the best all-around linebacker he'd ever coached. So Carson wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame asking that he not be nominated again. He waited two weeks before mailing the letter to see if his feelings would change, but they didn't. "Every year they roll out a list of nominees, and it's like jerking people around," Carson says. "L.C. Greenwood. Bob Kuechenberg. Claude Humphrey. Ken Stabler. I wanted to draw attention to the process. That's what I objected to, not the Hall of Fame itself. I didn't mind being the person who fell on his sword."
Despite his written appeal, Carson was a finalist again in 2005. "No player had ever tried to remove himself from consideration," he says. "No mechanism was in place for me to do that. So I went to Maui with my fiancée, Maribel Solis, the weekend of the Super Bowl. I tuned it out. I turned off my cellphone and didn't watch TV or listen to the radio. I didn't want to waste time worrying about things I had no control over."
When the vote was announced, Carson had fallen short of 80% again.
WRIGHT, TOO, felt the sting of rejection. Overlooked by the committee for years, the humble, soft-spoken Wright, who's president of PetroSun Drilling Inc., a provider of oil field services, and CEO of Wright Sport & Nutrition, a health-supplement company, became a finalist for the first time in 2004. "I got a call telling me I was a finalist, inviting me to Houston for the Super Bowl--at my own expense--which was when they were going to make the announcement," says Wright, who lives in Willow Park, Texas. "With the Cowboys, we didn't look at individual accomplishments or awards. The game we played was based on total execution. But then you start thinking, Maybe I did play well enough to deserve this honor. And then I was one of the final six. But they only voted in four. Bob Hayes [a Cowboys wideout] and I were the two who didn't make it. That was pretty devastating."
No one from the Hall of Fame called him with the news. "No 'Sorry you didn't make it, maybe next time,'" Wright says. "That hurt. My mom, who's 87, told me not to put myself in that situation again. If they select me, they select me. If not, life goes on."
As it happened, in 2006, the next time Wright was a finalist, he was scheduled to be in Detroit the week of the Super Bowl to promote his autobiography, Wright Up Front. When the announcement was made that he had at last been elected to the Hall of Fame, the Big Cat exploded. "I got pretty emotional," Wright says. "We were all yelling and screaming. I'm the first offensive lineman in the history of the Dallas Cowboys to make it to the Hall of Fame. That's overwhelming."
AND CARSON? As he'd done the year before, he booked a flight to Hawaii the week of the Super Bowl and was in the air when the announcement was made that he'd finally been elected. He got the news from a stranger while he waited at baggage claim, but Carson, who'd been mistakenly congratulated many times before by well-intentioned friends, didn't believe it. Even after he learned the news was true, he took it in stride. "I'm happy," he says. "Not so much for me as for everyone else. The man I'm happiest for is the late [Giants owner] Wellington Mara. He was one of my staunchest supporters, and every year I didn't make it in, he'd be upset. It had crossed my mind to turn my back on the honor, but if I did that, I'd be disrespecting something Mr. Mara wanted for me so badly. So that wasn't an option.
"I have no regrets about writing that letter. None. Pride can be deadly, but my pride helped me become the player I was. I'm touched by the reactions of people who followed my situation. I've gotten congratulatory e-mails from soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait, from fans in Australia and Switzerland. But I'm the same person I was a year ago. My life hasn't changed as a result. When it takes 10 or 12 years to get in, it takes a little of the luster off the honor. It's not quite as bright as it would have been a few years ago."