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Sunday, August 3
Updated: July 5, 9:46 AM ET
Stram limited by diabetes, other health issues
By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

Editor's note: Hank Stram died Monday at the age of 82. The following story was written for his induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

CANTON, Ohio -- He never spoke. He never stood up and walked over to the wooden podium to address the waterlogged crowd. And that says something, for Hank Stram was one of the most colorful, vibrant personalities the game of football has ever seen.

But on this day, plagued by diabetes and a host of other health problems, the 80-year-old was unable to waddle to the front of the makeshift stage and do one of the things he used to do best -- talk.

Instead, he sat in his wheelchair and watched a series of video highlights as Hall of Fame organizers blasted a pre-recorded acceptance speech over the PA system. It was the first time in the Hall's 40-year history that an attending member didn't give his acceptance speech.

But it didn't matter. In this case, words were cheap. Everything you needed to know about Stram was visible in his former players' faces here Sunday. And if that wasn't enough, the emotions were evident across Stram's own wrinkled skin.

For the players, it was a never-ending stream of tears. For Stram, an endless smile that seemed impossible to wipe away.

"There wasn't a dry eye amongst one of us," former Chiefs running back Ed Podolak said. "And anybody who didn't cry probably has something wrong with them."

On a weekend in which Marcus Allen and James Lofton, two of the premier players from football's modern era, were formally enshrined into football immortality, one where 115 of the 221 Hall of Fame members were in attendance, one in which Allen's stirring acceptance speech reduced him to tears, it was Stram's story that stole the spotlight.

On Saturday night, as each current Hall of Fame member walked across the Canton Memorial Civic Center stage to greet the Class of 2003, Stram cried. At the event's conclusion, when Allen, Lofton, Elvin Bethea and Joe DeLamielleure surrounded Stram in a tight group hug, prompting a thunderous standing ovation, each of the men wiped away more tears.

Stram doesn't say much these days. But this weekend, he didn't need to. That Saturday night moment -- enveloped by four of the greatest football players to ever live, formally ended a 25-year stretch in which the Hall of Fame voters kept the coach from football's permanent resting place.

"It was very emotional for me," Bethea said of the hug. "He has waited so long, oh so long. And I felt good for him. For all he did, for all he built and he stood for -- he finally got his moment in the sun. When he broke down, I did, too. Everybody did. They couldn't help it."

And it was just the beginning. On Sunday, some sixteen years after Stram introduced Len Dawson prior to the quarterback's Hall of Fame induction, Dawson returned the favor.

"This is harder than the day I stood up here and talked about myself," Dawson said.

As Dawson spoke of his former coach's passion, ingenuity and hunger to succeed, Stram sat patiently, smiling up at his former offensive leader.

"I wear a Super Bowl ring on this hand," Dawson said, pointing to his right hand. "And I wear a Hall of Fame ring on the other hand. And I can tell you that I wouldn't have either one of them without this guy, Hank Stram."

When Dawson's speech and the video tribute both concluded, Stram struggled out of his wheelchair, stood upright and hugged Dawson. He smiled to his wife Phyllis in the front row.

"You can just see how much he's enjoying this," Stram's son Henry said afterwards. "He's just so happy today."

Many of Stram's former players had planned to join him for his 80th birthday in January, but instead decided to make the trip to Canton. After the induction, Henry Stram walked around the stadium with a vintage Chiefs helmet, asking any and every former Chief he could to sign the hat, "for Dad."

There is not one person that was more deserving of being here than him. The second we heard that he was in, all of us made our plans to be down here.
Former Chiefs running back Ed Podolak, on coach Hank Stram

Each interaction preceded a flood of memories. Like when Henry bumped into former defensive back E.J. Holub, who reminisced about giving Stram's son chewing tobacco.

"We used to give those kids a hard time," Holub said. "And they just loved hanging around all the football players."

After spotting Holub, Henry immediately grabbed him and walked him over to his father, who was sitting in his wheelchair surrounded by his family. "You gotta see Dad," Henry said. "He'd love to see you."

Holub leaned over, gave his former coach a hug and teased that he still had a bag of chewing tobacco if coach knew anybody who wanted some. They laughed. Smiled. And as Holub walked away, he cried.

"It's hard. It's emotional," Holub said, wiping away a tear. "But if something ever does happen to him, at least he's got this moment. At least he knows how much he meant to all of us.

"That man was more than a football coach. More than a friend. He was like a father. He was such an icon for our football team."

Joining Stram's family and his former players was Gene Kilroy, the former business manager and close friend of Muhammad Ali. Ali and Stram have been friends for 30 years and the former heavyweight champion had hoped to support Stram in person, but his own health issues kept him at home in Michigan. So he sent Kilroy instead.

"The man has a ton of friends," Holub said.

Stram, the winningest coach in AFL history, developed the moving pocket and the two tight-end set. He coached the Chiefs to a 23-7 victory over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV, a win that solidified the importance of the AFL-NFL merger. To a younger generation, he's known as the charismatic creature that became the first head coach to wear a microphone during a game.

Stram allowed NFL Films to mike him for Super Bowl IV and the coach's lively personality didn't disappoint. He picked on referees. Laughed when the Chiefs scored a touchdown. And told his players to, "pump it in there."

Ultimately, he exposed an aspect of the game that was previously undiscovered to the outside world.

There were no such unveilings on Sunday. Just the ultimate overflowing of appreciation for a man who was able to bring gridiron giants to tears.

When it was all said and done, when Allen wrapped up his speech and the 3½-hour ceremony came to an end, Stram was nowhere to be found. Rolled out of the stadium in his wheelchair shortly after his speech, he missed the final ovation for the Class of 2003.

But it wasn't a problem. Stram was likely resting somewhere with his family, hoping to find some energy in his reserve tank to shake hands and enjoy the company of everyone around him.

"There is not one person that was more deserving of being here than him," Podolak said. "The second we heard that he was in, all of us made our plans to be down here. And now we're going to make the most of it."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com.