Richard Dent's journey ends in Canton
Former skinny kid from Tennessee State takes his place among NFL's greats
Looking for little more than to one day "be someone special" whom his family could admire, Richard Dent said he was inspired by the words of fellow Atlanta native Martin Luther King Jr. as he went from an unrecruited and unwanted college player to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"All I could do was dream," the former eighth-round pick of the Chicago Bears said Saturday upon becoming the first player from his college, the first from Atlanta and the fourth Bears player from the 1985 Super Bowl champions to be honored in Canton, Ohio.
His former Tennessee State coach Joe Gilliam Sr., who presented Dent for enshrinement, told the story of a skinny offensive lineman being dropped off with a suitcase in his hand at the team's practice field by his Murphy High School coach William Lester.
"But I didn't sign him," Gilliam told Lester.
"Well, you got him," Lester replied.
"William Lester told my mother, 'Look, I'm going to try to do something for him. I know he wants to leave the state of Georgia,'" Dent recalled.
Dent, who became a three-time All-American at Tennessee State at defensive end, thanked his late coach's wife, who was one of many of Dent's friends, family members and former teammates at the ceremony.
"William Lester and his wife gave me a ride [to school] for two years in a row," Dent said. "If it wasn't for Coach Lester, I couldn't be here today."
Dent thanked Scott Dean, his closest childhood friend, for giving up the band and persuading him to go out for the high school football team with him.
Dent also thanked his father, his eight siblings and two women from his neighborhood, one he addressed as Miss Payton, who gave him his first job and another, whom he called Miss Knight, 93, who "looked out for me."
"When you have dreams," Dent said, "it's very tough to say you do everything by yourself. None of us can get anywhere by ourselves."
I was so skinny when I came into the league. I was 228 pounds, had bad teeth, couldn't eat. I didn't know what was going to take place.” -- Richard Dent
Dent waved to a large contingent from Tennessee State, which included the school band, the university president and the former dean. He acknowledged heroes like Muhammad Ali and former Tennessee State greats and NFL Pro Bowlers Ed "Too Tall" Jones and Claude Humphrey.
Dent, a four-time Pro Bowler and MVP of Super Bowl XX, set a team record with 17½ sacks in '84, followed with 17 in '85 and finished with eight or more sacks for 10 straight seasons. He is tied for sixth on the league's all-time sack list with 137½.
Drafted 203rd overall in the '83 NFL draft, Dent played for 15 seasons, 12 with the Bears, one with San Francisco, one with Indianapolis and one with Philadelphia.
Dent acknowledged fellow Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, who was in attendance, as well as several of his Bears teammates and coaches who made the trip, including Jim Osborne, Emery Moorehead, Al Fontenot, Neal Anderson, Mike Richardson, Gary Fencik, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael and former line coach Dale Haupt.
He made special mention of former Bears executive Bill Tobin, who scouted Dent and put a second-round grade on him. "I was so skinny when I came into the league," Dent said. "I was 228 pounds, had bad teeth, couldn't eat. I didn't know what was going to take place."
Dent also thanked offensive tackle Jimbo Covert, who lined up against him each day in practice.
"Let me tell you, he made the game easy for me," Dent said of Covert, "because I knew I wasn't going to face a guy like him in the game. We definitely pushed each other."
Dent thanked Chicago fans. "It's such a great place to play," he said. "It means so much to me to have had the chance to play there, where a guy like Walter Payton and Dick Butkus played. ... It was a pleasure to get a chance to entertain them on Sunday."
Dent addressed his father directly, telling him, "Dad, you taught me some things about hard work." And he called his late mother "my heart. I couldn't be here without her. Everyone else was daddy's boys, I was mama's boy."
Dent told his children, Mary, Sara and R.J. "I love you to death" and encouraged them to continue his legacy through work with the Make A Dent Foundation, Dent's charitable organization dedicated to improving the lives of children.
Dent spoke of his late teammates Fred Washington, Todd Bell and Dave Duerson.
"But the guy who I tried to pattern myself after was the late great Walter Payton," he said of the Bears Hall of Famer. "Walter was the best of all. I loved watching this man go to work."
"Everything in sports I dreamed and could see myself accomplish," Dent said. "But I never thought about being in the Hall of Fame."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.