The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio has enshrined players and coaches with one standard above all else: can the story of football be told without them? It’s with that standard in mind that I present the case for Long Beach legend Willie McGinest’s inclusion in the 2022 Pro Football Hall of Fame class.
McGinest was announced this week as a nominee, one of 122 gridiron greats who will be considered for next year’s induction, with 25 semifinalists set to be announced next month.
Why should McGinest be considered for induction? Because the story of the NFL can’t be told without the New England Patriots’ dynasty, or without Long Beach Poly, the high school that’s produced more NFL players than any other in the nation. And neither the Patriots nor Poly’s stories can be told without McGinest’s name in bold.
All Hall of Fame cases break down to two major criteria: the counting numbers, and the historical significance.
McGinest’s case on counting numbers isn’t the strongest. Only four linebackers who played in this century are enshrined in Canton: Derrick Brooks, Ray Lewis, Junior Seau, and Brian Urlacher. Lewis and Urlacher have over 1,300 and 1,200 tackles respectively, while McGinest finished his 15-year career with 804.
The best statistical argument for McGinest’s inclusion is that he still holds the NFL’s career postseason sack record with 16 sacks–an especially impressive record to have held for 15 years given that teams pass so much more now than they did when he was playing from 1994-2008.
But the strength of McGinest’s case isn’t built on statistics–it’s built on story. He’s an enormously significant figure in the game’s history in a number of ways. First, as a linebacker/defensive end hybrid, he was part of the reshaping of the defensive front, a 6-5 270-pound unicorn that forever changed his position/s. Hybrid edge rushers like McGinest are the norm now, not just in the pros but down to the high school and youth level.
He wasn’t doing that work to terrify quarterbacks and remake the edge defender in obscurity, either. He did it as part of three Super Bowl-winning teams with the Patriots, and according to longtime Pats coach Bill Belichick, McGinest is one of the two or three most important players in establishing the team’s dynasty, which has defined the last two decades in the league.
“Nobody would mess with Willie,” said Belichick ahead of McGinest’s induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame. “Nobody. In the time that I’ve been here, I’d put him up there as the guy you just don’t want to cross him.”
Belichick, a student of football history, favorably compared McGinest to Giants legend Lawrence Taylor, who Belichick coached in New York. Taylor is widely regarded as the best linebacker in NFL history.
The Patriots dynasty has produced six Super Bowl champion teams, tied for most in the NFL. Yet the Pats only have five players in the Hall of Fame, meaning more than 20 teams have more Hall of Famers. That includes the Chargers and Vikings, who have two and three times as many Hall of Famers despite having no titles. The Patriots are under-represented in Canton, and the architect of their dynasty believes McGinest was as important as any defender to their historic run. That alone is worthy of serious consideration beyond statistical analysis.
But McGinest is also arguably the finest and most accomplished player to come out of Poly, the high school that’s produced more than 70 NFL players including multiple Super Bowl champions. This is more of a personal argument than one you’d make in front of the selection panel in Canton, but McGinest has remained active in Long Beach and is part of why football continues to thrive here. He’s been a volunteer who’s helped to oversee the Poly football program, and he’s the chairman of the Long Beach Patriots Pop Warner program, which has produced much of the city’s top talent for the last decade. He’s also contributed to a variety of youth sports efforts and has been a major donor to the Boys and Girls Clubs in Long Beach.
In addition to those volunteer efforts at the youth level, McGinest has been a widely respected analyst on the NFL Network for over a decade, and has continued to be a public face for the USC football program as well.
Long Beach Poly, USC, and the New England Patriots have all enshrined Willie McGinest in their Halls of Fame, because their stories aren’t complete without his–it’s time to put a gold jacket on the city’s most-qualified representative, and to put a Long Beach legend in the Hall at Canton.