When people talk all-time great NFL middle linebackers, the list usually starts with Dick Butkus.

If Hall-of-Fame talent-evaluator Ron Wolf is assembling the list, however, it starts with Willie Lanier. As Hall of Fame Radio co-host Joe Horrigan pointed out, Wolf said Lanier — the first black middle linebacker to play full-time in the NFL — was in a league of his own.

‘Didn’t have the same violence as Dick’

“It was kind of interesting, in my view, that my style was my own, I understood it,” Lanier told Horrigan, Howard Balzer, and Mike Haynes. “And I didn’t quite think I had the same violence as Dick, because he had a little bit of a different level in terms of the way he played the game. But mine was one of expanding the game, in terms of pass coverage … (it) was a great part of what I would do additionally in terms of the physical part of the game.

“So I also expected it to take some time for the acceptance to rise to the level that someone, as Ron Wolf, who happened to be a football person, observing it much more closely than others could maybe possibly see that there was some skill sets that were able to match up pretty closely with Dick’s.”

Lanier said a major part of his game was being in constant communication with another Hall-of-Famer, cornerback Emmitt Thomas.

27 interceptions with Chiefs

“We would strategize during the course of a game, and I would know every route his receiver ran on that weak side of the field,” Lanier said. “And I would make adjustments in down and distance, constantly trying to improve the outcome. … I had 27 interceptions during the time I was in Kansas City, which was the most by a linebacker while I was there. … So that was the biggest difference that I felt separated me from how Butkus played his (position).”

HOF Radio: Little recalls ‘one of the greatest decisions’ he ever made

During an appearance on Hall of Fame Radio, Floyd Little told the story about an unexpected course change in the path he traveled from his hometown of New Haven, Conn., to his permanent place in Canton.

Little had planned to attend the U.S. Military Academy. Having gone to military school, it seemed like the natural next step for the running back. He already passed the highly demanding endurance test at West Point, and was all but signed, sealed and delivered to the Army.

Until, that is, Ernie Davis, the Heisman Trophy-winning running back from Syracuse University who had joined the Cleveland Browns, arrived at his door one snowy night in 1962. Davis, along with Orange coach Ben Schwartzwalder and two of assistants, took Little out to dinner determined to convince him to choose SU.

‘My lobster and steak are getting cold’

“We had ordered steak and lobster, and then he invited me to join him for conversation away from the table and everybody else,” Little recalled for Howard Balzer, Joe Horrigan and Mike Haynes. “And I’m looking at my watch, and 15-20 minutes later, we’re still talking. I’m like, ‘My lobster and steak are going to be getting cold. I think I’d better tell him I’m going to Syracuse so I can go eat.’

“It was funny, because I said, ‘OK, Ernie, you got me, I’m going to Syracuse, let’s go eat.’ I didn’t realize (how sick he was at the time), but two months later, he died (of cancer). … I don’t own anything more valuable than my word, so I had given him my word that I would go to Syracuse, and that’s why I went to Syracuse.

Part of a legacy of great backs

“It had to be one of the greatest decisions I ever made, because now I’ve got a 12-foot statue of Ernie, me and Jim (Brown) in a place called ‘Forty-Four Plaza,’ which will be there forever and a day. And, because of Ernie, I’m part of a legacy of great running backs from Syracuse University and just recently got an honorary doctorate degree from Syracuse, so it was one of the greatest decisions I ever made.”

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