Photo from Twitter @DangeRussWilson
By Terrance Turner
Feb. 6, 2021
Tonight, NFL players were honored for their incredible feats of athleticism over the season. But at tonight’s NFL Honors, behind-the-scenes contributors, frontline workers, and devoted fans were also applauded. A slew of new Hall of Fame inductees were announced, Derrick Henry and Alex Smith picked up awards, and Aaron Rodgers shocked the world with a game-changing announcement.
Former player and commentator Cris Carter introduced Super Bowl Honorary Captain James Martin. A Marine from West Pennsylvania, Martin did three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan that left him paralyzed from the chest down. With the help of Wounded Warrior Project, he taught himself to walk again. He began volunteering, opening his home to teenagers in need.
“Teamwork makes the small mighty, the dispirited whole, and the impossible possible,” Martin said. “We can see the power of teamwork every Sunday in the fall, when some of the best athletes on earth team up to blow our minds.” He introduced the Bridgestone Clutch Performance of the Year award.
The award for Clutch Play of the Year went to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. In an incredible last-gasp play vs. the Bills, Murray heaved the ball into the air and across the field. Murray jumped up amid three defenders and caught it. Hopkins thanked the City of Phoenix for welcoming him after his trade from Houston. He dedicted his award to the city.
Peyton Manning, whose legendary career included Super Bowl rings with the Colts and the Broncos, was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. According to NBC Sports, “Manning, 44, started his career with the Indianapolis Colts and helped them reach two Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl XLI. Manning then played the final four years of his career with the Denver Broncos and reached two more Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl 50.” He is the only QB in NFL history to start, and win, a Super Bowl with two different teams.
Manning is a five-time NFL MVP and 14-time Pro Bowler. Manning holds the record for the most passing touchdowns in a single season (55), a record that he set with the Broncos in 2013. Manning also broke the record for the most passing yards (5,477) in a single season with Denver that year. He retired after winning his second ring in 2016.
Defensive back Charles Woodson also was inducted, along with Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. According to the Associated Press, “Also making it were guard Alan Faneca, who made nine Pro Bowls and missed only one game over 13 seasons with the Steelers, Jets and Cardinals; and John Lynch, the hard-hitting safety who burnished his reputation in Tampa Bay, which plays Kansas City for the Super Bowl title Sunday.
Other inductees included Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson, Raiders coach Tom Flores and longtime Steelers scout Bill Nunn, who made it in the senior, coach and contributor categories, respectively. Tom Flores has four Super Bowl rings, including rings won as player, assistant coach, and head coach. He is the is the first Latino to start at quarterback and the first coach of color to win a Super Bowl. Now, he has a place in the Hall of Fame.
Alex Smith won Comeback Player of the Year after overcoming a career-threatening leg infection. Rams defensive end Aaron Donald won Defensive Player of the Year. The award for Offensive Player of the Year went to Titans running back Derrick Henry, who had 17 rushing touchdowns this season. Clad in a highlighter neon suit, Henry presented the NFL Fan of the Year to Titans superfan Brandon Galloway. (Henry himself was later named FedEx Ground Player of the Year.) 49ers general manager John Lynch was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lynch played safety for the Buccaneers, winning a Super Bowl with them, and last year guided the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance.
Aaron Rodgers remembered longtime producer Maura Mandt, who died at 53 last February. Mandt began working on the ESPYS as a production assistant in the 1990s, became a producer on the show later in the decade and was named executive producer in 2002. She eventually produced ESPN’s annual awards show through her own company- she produced the ESPYs for 25 years.
ESPYS writer and producer Aaron Cohen remembered Mandt in a story posted Saturday on The Ringer, calling her “one of the most powerful and influential people in sports and entertainment for years.” ESPN executive vice president of content Connor Schell credited Mandt with the moment when a group of women abused by team doctor Larry Nassar took the stage in 2018. “It was Maura’s vision that made possible the unforgettable moment when 140 ‘Sister Survivors’ took the ESPYS stage in 2018 to accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage,” Schell told ESPN.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, among others, remembered Mandt. In an emotional montage, footage of Mandt working feverishly was mixed with photos of her with Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and LeBron James. “Leslie Odom, Jr. sang a moving version of “You’ve Got a Friend” during the “In Memoriam” segment.
After Flores was presented with the induction, Aaron Rodgers won MVP. “It’s an honor to win this award for the third time,” Rodgers said via video while accepting the award. He recalled the ups and downs of the season — having COVID-19 tests every day and “playing for very little fans”, but also “some amazing, memorable moments”. He thanked his team and the Green Bay Packers staff, among many others.
In a moment that caught many viewers off guard, Rodgers revealed things he’s did over the past year: “I got engaged, and I played some of the best football of my career.” He thanked his fiancée in his acknowledgements. I literally had to rewind my television to make sure I had heard correctly. Twitter was surprised, to say the least.
Rodgers closed with a poignant list of directives to everyone watching. “Read books, meditate, speak things to life, manifest the desires of your heart, question everything, and spread love and positivity,” Rodgers said. “Peace and love. Good night.”
After Peyton Manning was inducted in to the Hall of Fame, the inspirational vibes continued with Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. “There’s difficulties ahead. There’s challenges in every circumstance. There’s challenges in every community,” Wilson said. “I do believe in this one thing, and that thing is hope. If we come together, if we love together, we can make the world a better place.” He spoke to raise awareness of his Why Not You foundation, which awards scholarships to first-generation college students who would not otherwise have the financial support.
Upon winning the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, Wilson framed his monologue as a message to his late father. He acknowledged the many losses in 2020 — losing a sports icon in Kobe Bryant, losing a film icon in Chadwick Boseman. Losing George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Losing so many to this “monster of a pandemic”. But while he talked about loss, Wilson talked mostly about love. He thanked people he loves: his wife Ciara, their children, Wilson’s brother and sister. His mother: “Mom, thank you for teaching me how to love,” Wilson said.
Love was the answer in Wilson’s speech, which quoted 1 Corinthians 13 in the final lines. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love changes things,” Wilson said. “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love changes things.”