Rice, Smith top Hall of Fame class

Floyd Little (left) joins first-ballot selections Jerry Rice (center) and Emmitt Smith after they all were elected to the Hall of Fame. Little waited three decades to make it.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Here's how you stop Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith: Put them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and watch them break down and cry.

The men who tore apart NFL defenses couldn't handle the emotions yesterday when they were elected to the shrine along with John Randle, Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Floyd Little, and Dick LeBeau. Little and LeBeau were elected as senior committee nominees.

"They told me, 'Don't cry,' " Rice said, his eyes wet with tears. "It meant the world to me, just like winning a Super Bowl. On draft day, I didn't take that for granted. I didn't take this for granted."

A nominee needs 80 percent approval from the 44 media members who vote - one from every NFL city, plus various at-large members - and Rice and Smith were slam-dunks in their first year of eligibility. Vote totals aren't announced.

"I am just honored . . . to stand up there with greatness," Rice added.

Smith teared up when speaking about his father and how "I was living his dream."

"We are blessed to achieve this level of greatness together," he said, referring to Rice.

The seven will be inducted in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 7.

Smith, the NFL's career rushing leader, darted for 18,355 yards and 164 TDs for Dallas and Arizona.

"This is almost perfect," Smith said. "I don't think even Steven Spielberg could have written a script this nice. So many people said I could not do it."

Rice, the NFL's career receiving leader, played 20 seasons for San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle. He made 1,549 catches for 22,895 yards, had 14 1,000-yard seasons, and scored 208 touchdowns.

His presence on the ballot may have hurt the chances for three other finalists who were receivers - Tim Brown, Andre Reed, and ex-Eagle Cris Carter - as their numbers paled in comparison. Tight end Shannon Sharpe was also a finalist, and his omission from the class was a bit of surprise.

The other finalists were Roger Craig, Dermontti Dawson, Richard Dent, Charles Haley, Cortez Kennedy, and former coach Don Coryell.

Jackson, a do-everything linebacker with a great burst off the line, finished his 15-season career for New Orleans and San Francisco with 128 sacks. A six-time Pro Bowler, Jackson sparked the first turnaround by the Saints from Aints to contender, in the late 1980s.

Now, as the Saints appear in their first Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts, Jackson is Canton-bound. One little glitch: He was announced yesterday as "Randy" instead of "Rickey."

Randle was that rare defensive tackle who was a premier pass rusher. An undrafted free agent out of Texas A&I, Randle had 1371/2 sacks for Minnesota and Seattle, tied for sixth overall and most for his position. He played in seven Pro Bowls.

Grimm, a member of the Washington Redskins' famed Hogs offensive line, won three Super Bowls. A guard, he made four Pro Bowls and was selected to the all-decade team of the 1980s. He had been a Hall of Fame finalist five times before.

LeBeau, the current defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is considered one of pro football's great defensive innovators as a coach. But he was voted in for his outstanding work for the Lions from 1959 to 1972. He finished with 62 interceptions.

"They say anything worth having is worth waiting on," LeBeau said. "It has been a long wait. I can't imagine anything else that could be any more rewarding."

Little starred for the Denver Broncos in the AFL and NFL, leading the NFL in rushing in 1971 with 1,133 yards and in touchdowns rushing in 1973 with 12. He waited 30 years to get elected.

"It's been a long journey. This is truly my dream," Little said.

Of note. Dent was a finalist for the sixth time. The only others who have been finalists six or more times and not made the Hall as of yet: Charley Conerly, Jerry Kramer, Bob Kuechenberg, L.C. Greenwood, Johnny Robinson, and Ray Guy. . . . Little is the third ex-Syracuse running back in the Hall, joining Jim Brown and Larry Csonka. He is also only the third longtime Bronco, after John Elway and Gary Zimmerman. . . . None of the inductees played for the Eagles, but LeBeau was an Eagles assistant coach from 1973 to 1975 under Mike McCormack.