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Pro Football Hall of Fame primed for supersized enshrinement weekend

NFL Network will have live coverage of Pro Football Hall of Fame weekend Aug. 7-8 as the classes of 2020 and 2021 are enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

  • Aug. 7: Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. ET leading up to the class of 2020 enshrinement ceremony at 6:30 p.m. ET.
  • Aug. 8: Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET leading up to the class of 2021 enshrinement ceremony at 7 p.m. ET.

Football fans are getting a chance to celebrate one of the game's great traditions this week for the first time in two years.

Canton, Ohio, will welcome fans for an event that will be the biggest in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's history. Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker is calling it the "greatest gathering in football," and for good reason.

The Hall is enshrining a mega-group of football greats that includes the 2021 class and 2020's special Centennial Class. In total, 28 individuals will enter the hallowed halls of Canton's football shrine, more than three times the size of a typical class. The historic weekend -- which begins with Thursday's Hall of Fame Game featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys (8 p.m. ET on FOX) -- comes after the enshrinement of the Centennial Class was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, Baker and his group of decision-makers opted to combine the two classes into one massive, double-enshrinement weekend that begins with the Hall of Fame Game on Thursday and ends with the induction of the 2021 class on Sunday.

"Our phrase has been 'twice the fun in '21' because we had to cancel the fun in '20," Baker said by phone during a recent interview.

The 2021 class includes modern-era selectees Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Calvin Johnson, Alan Faneca, John Lynch, as well as senior committee choice Drew Pearson, coach Tom Flores and contributor Bill Nunn.

The Centennial Class includes five modern-era selectees: Steve Atwater, Isaac Bruce, Steve Hutchinson, Edgerrin James and Troy Polamalu. The rest of the class is comprised of NFL Films administrator/president Steve Sabol, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, executive George Young, coaches Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher, and 10 players: Harold Carmichael, Jimbo Covert, Bobby Dillon, Cliff Harris, Winston Hill, Alex Karras, Donnie Shell, Duke Slater, Mac Speedie and Ed Sprinkle.

The sheer amount of new entrants would theoretically make for one incredibly long enshrinement ceremony. To remedy this issue, the Hall split the enshrinements into two days: Saturday is for the Centennial Class, while Sunday is reserved for the newest group. Speeches will be limited to eight minutes, with awards show-style orchestral music ready to play an enshrinee off.

"They're giving us their speeches ahead of time," Baker said, adding that Manning has already informed the Hall he's writing a six-minute speech. "I think we've got all but like, four? If they're within 15 or 20 seconds, we're not going to do it. But if it just ends up being rambling, it might be a YouTube moment of me going out there and grabbing somebody and pulling them from the podium [laughs].

"... It's something we had to do because you've got 19 enshrinees over two days, but it's also something we've always wanted to do. And I think for the most part with our guys it's been received very well."

The Centennial Class, created to honor the NFL's 100th anniversary, is placing some deserving members into the Hall after they'd spent years -- or in many cases, decades -- slipping through the cracks, narrowly missing out on enshrinement. Nine members of the classes being celebrated this weekend have passed away, and the Hall held a special ceremony for the late legends in April. For the first time in history, family members were given the opportunity to place their relatives' bronze busts into their display locations inside the Hall's bust room. Video tributes to the men who are being inducted posthumously will play between live speeches on Saturday, ensuring they're each recognized. They'll certainly be viewed by a most prestigious group of gold jacket-clad legends. The Hall is expecting its largest group of returning members in a single year, with 161 set to make the homecoming trip to Canton.

"We've got more coming back than ever before," Baker said. "I think a lot of guys missed it last year. I think it's going to be real special. ... I think it's going to be a great way to kick off the NFL's 102nd season."

The Hall of Fame's ongoing expansion efforts began with a rebuilt stadium that will host fans this weekend. While the Hall of Fame Game is sold out, fans can secure their opportunity to be a part of football history at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium by purchasing tickets for the induction ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday. For those who can't make it to Canton for the football spectacle, they can tune in to NFL Network for live coverage of the events, beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and 6 p.m. ET on Sunday.

While tuned in, fans will get a unique look at an annual tradition involving Baker's famous door knock to inform the greats that they have been selected for induction. Instead of strolling down a hotel hallway at the site of the Super Bowl to congratulate an elite handful of football figures on a lifetime achievement, Baker boarded a private jet and crisscrossed the country to deliver the news in a matter of three and a half days. With an NFL Network crew chronicling their journey, Baker and key members of the Hall of Fame traveled to members of the 2021 class to inform them of their place in history, sometimes while standing outside their homes.

For Manning, it involved a Denver gathering of his past coaches and a video message displayed on the scoreboard at Empower Field at Mile High. Baker had to coordinate with Lynch's wife on a surprise appearance at an NFC Championship Game viewing party in San Diego. For Calvin Johnson, it required a few steps outside his front door into Detroit's frigid winter.

"He cried, and I think it was an emotional deal for Calvin, to see that bright smile," Baker recalled of Johnson's reaction to the news he was headed for the Hall of Fame. "As I was leaving, he said 'Are you going back to Canton now?' And I said 'Well, we've got a few more doors to knock on.' And he says 'Oh, you're going to gather more tears, aren't you?' "

Plenty more tears will be shed in Canton and beyond this weekend when more than two dozen heroes of the game achieve football immortality in front of a worldwide audience.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.