Chris Berman will have a very different role for this year's Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions.
Normally the master of ceremonies, Berman will serve as presenter for one of the newest members of the Hall, Bills owner Ralph Wilson.
Not long after learning of his induction, Mr. Wilson called Berman, the ESPN announcer well known for being a big fan of the Bills, to ask if he would present him. Berman gladly accepted the honor.
He is looking forward to the chance to do something he has never done before.
"As close to the scene as I've been, I've never been this close," Berman said while going through final preparations for the festivities in Canton, Ohio. "I always give everybody a big intro, but now I'll be able to concentrate on just one person, and I couldn't be more honored."
Berman discussed other aspects of his new role during the Hall inductions, as well as his relationship with Mr. Wilson, during an exclusive interview with Buffalobills.com:
Q: What was your initial reaction when Mr. Wilson asked you to present him?
Berman: I was very shocked. The phone rang in February, and it was Mr. Wilson. I hadn't spoken to him since he got the honor. I was shocked and honored and humbled … all of those things. I'm incredibly proud of him. Every time I talk to him I promise him, "I'm going to do a great job for you." He says, "Don't worry about it."
Q: How did your relationship with Mr. Wilson begin?
Berman: Our personal relationship began in the '80s. I had this affinity for his team. I would be up in Buffalo several times a year around the playoffs to do some stories because the Bills were kind of my adopted team. We would see each other at owners meetings, too. I would see him at Super Bowls, or here and there. It became clear to anyone watching me on TV that I was an old AFL guy. He kind of befriended me because he knew I spoke of the AFL in glowing terms all the time.
Our relationship started on a conversational basis, and then, when the Bills started going to the playoffs and the Super Bowl in the late '80s and early '90s, we started seeing each other a lot more. And then it continued on, I think he got a kick out of me. I had the in with him, he began to trust me, and I never betrayed him.
We're just two fellas who began on a little different path, and really enjoy football, going back to sharing a love of AFL football. Football is such a meeting point for people who are completely different. It makes for easy conversation when you have a similar love for something.
Q: Why do you have such an admiration of the AFL?
Berman: As a young kid, we had season tickets to Shea Stadium, when Joe Namath was playing (for the New York Jets). And then the first champs of (the AFL) that I remember watching, in the championship game, with my dad, was the Buffalo Bills. I remember the Bills would play at the Jets every year with very loud, dedicated fans – from Rochester or Syracuse, Elmira, wherever they came from – and they would all give a very loud, "Let's go, Buffalo!" chant from the upper deck. So as I kid, I saw all of their fans and thought, they must be pretty good. I mean, they were our champs.
So (it was a case of following) the league as a whole, with the Jets and Namath being my team, and the Bills being our champs, the first champs I remember. I'm a pretty good AFL historian. I wasn't there like Mr. Wilson was, but anytime I see a Hall of Famer in Canton from those great Kansas City Chiefs teams or the New York Jets or the Buffalo Bills, there's a little twinkle in my eye, and all in all it's really rewarding for me to see that.
Q: How will serving as a presenter, rather than the MC, be different for you?
Berman: Obviously, doing the speech will be different. I'm not saying I'll have the best speech by any means. I'll be one of the half-dozen presenters, with Roger Staubach, who I'm honored to even be in the same sentence with. I know Rich Eisen will do a great job. I'll be able to see it though in a different light personally. I'm going to ride in the parade with Mr. Wilson and I'm really looking forward to that.
I'm usually so busy preparing for my job, so I've never been able to see that. I'll be honored to present Mr. Wilson at the (Friday night) dinner, when they get the gold jacket and I can present it to him. And, after my speech, the job of the presenter is to walk up with the enshrinee and take the cloth off of their bronze bust, for the first time that it's going to be unveiled. I know what a moment that is.
It's great for Mr. Wilson. He's never looked for headlines, never looked for his name in the paper, so I'm going to make sure the 15,000 people with Buffalo jerseys on give him a lot of cheers. He deserves this. Without his role in the AFL merging with the NFL we wouldn't have the league we have today. Not enough people know about that.
Q: Is your speech done, and can you give me a general direction in which it's going?
Berman: It's done; I just want to fine tune it. In 50 years, he did a lot more than people know. And I won't be able to say everything, but I want to point out a few things the average football fan may not know he did. It will be an upbeat honoring of him that he deserves, and I think he'll enjoy it.
I think everyone who's rooting for the fans will enjoy it. It's for the fans, and I think that's why he asked me to do it because I will do a good job for him. I think the fans will enjoy it. Fans of the Bills, fans of the AFL years, fans of the Bills in the Super Bowl years and fans of the Bills today … it's for you guys. I don't want people to hear me finish it and say, "Boy, he really spoke like an outsider." I won't allow that, don't you worry.
Q: Do you feel it necessary to inform the audience how much Mr. Wilson has done for the game?
Berman: Well, how important he was to the success of the AFL, when it existed, and how important he was when (the NFL and AFL) merged. He was in the secret, behind-closed-doors talks. Mr. Wilson helped form the second, five-year TV deal and ensured the AFL would not go away. Mr. Wilson selected the City of Buffalo, and saw in it a passion. Maybe it wasn't the sexiest city, but it would be if you liked football. He recognized that. He is a man of his word, always has been and always will be, so I think that's some of the directions that I'll go.
Q: What is your sense of the Bills feel that will be in Canton this weekend?
Berman: I know how to answer that because I've seen it now for 10 years and it wasn't always in the stadium. The first year they did it in the stadium was the year Jim Kelly was inducted. A lot of people got in their cars in the morning and came. They figured out where they would sleep and all that later on.
I walked out to test the mike that day, like 10 minutes before (the ceremony), and the place started cheering. They weren't there to see me, but the Buffalo fans said, "Okay, this is kind of a Bill," and they started cheering. And I walked back and said to our producer, "Oh, I get what this is. This is a Buffalo home game!"
Thurman Thomas had quite a reception that way (in 2007), and of course, with Bruce Smith, Mr. Wilson, and the Bills playing in the game the next night, it will be just that – a Buffalo home game.
Q: Your job requires you to be objective, but on a day like this, are you proud to be such a prominent part of Buffalo history?
Berman: The thing is, I am objective. This is a guy who is part of pro football history and happens to own the Bills. Objective is when someone has done what Mr. Wilson has done, and being able to explain it. I'm honored that I have the opportunity to do it, and if we can educate some people that really didn't know some things, that will be great. But at the same time, I'm hopeful that the people of Buffalo and the fans of the Bills think that I did a good job for them. And I will.