CANTON, Ohio — At one end of the room sat Tony Gonzalez. All the way across it was Ed Reed.
Sometimes in the past, that’s as close to each other as the two new Hall of Famers cared to be.
Same thing for Champ Bailey and Ty Law when it came to covering Gonzalez, the game-changing tight end and matchup nightmare for defensive backs.
They’re all part of the class of 2019 that will be inducted tonight. On Friday, they spoke about each other — and the honor of entering the pro football shrine together.
“It was a hassle dealing with Tony,” said Reed, a five-time All-Pro for Baltimore as a ball-hawking safety and member of the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, as were Gonzalez, Bailey and Law. “Tony was tough. You needed somebody else to help you. I’d tell Terrell Suggs, ‘You got to hit him before you pass rush.’
“Tony was crafty, big, tough to get around, a basketball guy.”
True. Gonzalez was a two-sport star at Cal. Clearly he chose the right profession, making six All-Pro teams, catching more passes (1,325) than anyone except Jerry Rice, and becoming the most accomplished tight end in NFL history.
Entering the hall with three exceptional DBs was striking for Gonzalez, whose ability to outrun linebackers and outmuscle or even outjump safeties and cornerbacks made him a dominant performer for 17 seasons.
“I loved it because he was the best,” Bailey said of his matchups with Gonzalez while both were in the AFC West, the tight end with Kansas City, the cornerback with Denver. Rarely did defensive coordinators ask cornerbacks to take on Gonzalez, but Bailey had the smarts, skill and temperament to do so.
“Tony was not necessarily fast, but fast enough. It was kind of refreshing for me to go against a bigger guy, not one of those (tight ends who play like wideouts). I knew if the ball ever came his way, I had to worry about that big body (Gonzalez played at 6-5, 250, Bailey at 6-0, 195) and try to make a play. I never got a pick on him. He was one of the best.”
Gonzalez echoed those thoughts about Reed, Bailey and Law, who was a teammate in Kansas City in 2006-07.
“Ed was the only safety (of the three), and he was a top guy,” Gonzalez said. “I loved going against him and seeing how I stacked up. I won some and lost some.
“I went the most against Champ, twice a year, because the Broncos would match him against me a lot. Man, that was tough.
“Ty was my teammate for a while and I learned a lot, how hard he worked at the game.”
The four were joined in an interview session by fellow enshrinees Kevin Mawae, a dominant center for 16 seasons — and, yes, a player on the 2000s All-Decade team — Johnny Robinson, Gil Brandt and the family of late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen.
All of them conveyed the same message: never back off from your goals.
“I never took my eye off the process,” said Bailey, who spent his first five pro seasons in Washington. “What was it going to take to succeed? But I dreamed big from the beginning.”
Bailey was mentored by a Hall of Famer, Darrell Green during his time in Washington. He also spent some time with Deion Sanders, also a Canton enshrine, as a Redskin.
“How did I get all this greatness around me?” he wondered. “It set my foundation.”
Law spoke of his roots in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, mentioning how his grandparents set him on the correct path when he could have strayed and wound up “six feet under.”
“Everything I have faced in my life, I can go back to Aliquippa and the lessons I learned,” he said.
Brandt, who from 1960-89 was the personnel director of the Cowboys and recently has been a league consultant for the draft, will lead off the induction ceremony on Saturday night. One of football’s great story tellers, he promises to leave plenty of time for the others on the docket to speak.
“It’s kind of surreal,” the 86-year-old Brandt said. “I have been at the hall since 1965; one of my jobs was getting helmets and other things signed. You always hope for something to happen, but it’s almost impossible to happen.”
On Saturday, the hall’s doors will open to Brandt and the other members of the 2019 class.
“Very special,” Brandt concluded. “Very.”