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For this weekend, Canton is South Buffalo

2/4/2011

CANTON, Ohio -- There was little doubt what anyone who stepped to the microphone needed to do to get a reaction from the crowd at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday night in Fawcett Stadium.

Roger Staubach is no dummy. When he wanted to generate more applause for Bob Hayes' family, he announced they were from Buffalo. They aren't, but Staubach knew his audience.

Carl Peterson, the former Kansas City Chiefs executive who spoke for the late Derrick Thomas, made it a point to remind everyone Marty Schottenheimer played for the Buffalo Bills back in the day. Schottenheimer, already an emotional mess from listening to the memories of the great linebacker, trembled even more when the fans cheered.

And when Rich Eisen tried to tell some jokes about Rod Woodson and heard crickets, he should have just pumped his fist into the air and screamed "Buffalo!" Then he would have gotten a response. A big one.

Canton is the new South Buffalo this weekend.

Fans made the four-hour drive to watch two more of their Bills -- founder Ralph Wilson Jr. and defensive end Bruce Smith -- get inducted.

On Sunday night, the current Bills will play the Tennessee Titans in the annual Hall of Fame Game. It will be the Bills debut for future Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens.

Of the 12,695 fans in attendance Saturday night, a third reportedly hailed from the 716 area code.

Not even a steady afternoon rain would deter them. Diehards wearing jerseys of almost every former Bills star you could imagine streamed into town to hear Wilson and Smith deliver speeches in their yellow jackets.

"Certainly feels like a home game," Smith said with a smile after he walked to the lectern. Calls of "Bruuuuuuuuuce" cascaded from the concrete bleachers.

Wilson and Smith bookended the evening. Wilson's presenter, ESPN's Chris Berman, played to the crowd by asking them to recite their favorite catchphrase with him: "No one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills."

After Randall McDaniel, Hayes, Woodson and Thomas were honored, Smith went last.

His presenter, former Bills defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, asked all the Bills who played on those Super Bowl teams to stand. Of course, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton and Marv Levy were on the stage. Mixed among the crowd were Darryl Talley, Andre Reed, Steve Tasker, Kent Hull, Will Wolford and others.

Bills fans, who haven't seen their team in the playoffs since the 1999 season, wistfully cheered each name as it was announced.

Smith's speech was wonderfully paced. He paid homage to his family and his mentors. He thanked the Washington Redskins and his agent. He mentioned each of his doctors by name.

Then, about 12 minutes into his speech, when he was supposed to be wrapping it up, he really got started, heaping praise on Buffalo.

"What a ride it was," Smith said before ticking off the accomplishments: four straight AFC titles, the K-Gun offense, the Comeback Game.

"And the record-breaking attendance set by the greatest fans in the NFL," Smith said.

Fawcett Stadium erupted.

"Thurman Thomas, you're undoubtedly the most complete running back of our era," Smith said while lauding his former mates. "My life would be a little less right if I didn't have you to laugh and joke with.

"P.S. I hid your helmet."

Fawcett Stadium erupted again. Without so many Bills fans in attendance, the crickets probably would have resumed chirping.