Cleveland Browns blocker was ushered into the Hall of Fame by trio of great running backs in 2007.

A vivid memory of so many seasons of the past for the eldest of Cleveland Browns fans is of guard Gene Hickerson clearing a path on offense for great running backs who were his teammates.

Hickerson did it well during the 15 seasons that he played on the wet and frozen turf in northeast Ohio autumns and winters — good enough for him to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2007. Three of the teammates for whom he led the way on Browns running plays also made it into the Hall of Fame — Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, and Bobby Mitchell.

When Hickerson, by then in his 70s and weakened by illness and confined to a wheelchair, came to Canton 10 years ago for his enshrinement, it was time for those three teammates to exchange roles with their longtime blocker. Brown, Kelly, and Mitchell all journeyed to Canton a decade ago so they could help Hickerson make his way to the stage -- following him one last time. Then they stood behind him in a show of ultimate respect. 

"Many cheeks glistened under the lights at Fawcett Stadium (now Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium)," wrote Todd Porter in his "Sports Spotlight" column in The Canton Repository on Aug. 5, 2007. "Brown, Kelly and Mitchell, all Cleveland Browns who rode to the Hall of Fame through holes that Gene Hickerson opened, stood behind Hickerson and pushed his wheelchair up to the stage as he was inducted into the Hall. ... It was one of the most poignant moments in 44 years of Hall of Fame Enshrinement history."

Felled by disease

As Porter explained in his column, Hickerson was suffering from symptoms associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. The body that once provided the path-clearing power of a lead blocker was diminished in strength.

"Unable to speak because of deteriorating faculties, Hickerson was celebrated by his presenters, teammate Bobby Franklin and son Bob (Hickerson)," wrote Repository sportswriter Jim Thomas in 2007, noting that the pair of presenters "spoke of a man who gave no quarter and expected none," even in "the twilight of his career."

Franklin spoke of a man he had known and called a friend for more than half a century.

"This is a tough thing to do ... but it's a great honor to present my best friend," said Franklin, who added that Hickerson was a player who stood out because of his talent and not because of his words. "He quietly did his job as well as anyone ever in the NFL."

Leading the way

Hickerson's statistics alone were worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. According to the Hall of Fame's website, Hickerson was all-NFL five consecutive seasons (1966-1970) and was voted to six straight Pro Bowls.

But, his teammates were aware of the positive role Hickerson also played in their careers and they knew of his part in helping the Browns achieve success during the time he played — at the end of the 1950s, through the 1960s, and into the seasons early in the 1970s. "The Browns posted 1,000-yard rushers in nine of Hickerson's first 10 seasons," the Hall's website notes, and "featured the league's leading rusher seven times."

So, when Hickerson finally was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame a decade ago, some of those for whom he cleared a path to greatness went out of their way to acknowledge his help.

When Brown, Mitchell and Kelly "rolled a frail Hickerson in his wheelchair onto the Hall of Fame stage," wrote Thomas, "they were honoring him for what Hickerson had done for them as the game's best pulling guard from 1958-73."

Long wait

Hickerson had been retired for more than three decades when he finally was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Some believed that the wait was in part because his talents were overshadowed by the skills of the Hall of Fame running backs for whom he blocked. Few players have the good fortune to play with such a trio of ground game stars as Brown, Mitchell and Kelly.

"No one can argue that," said Franklin in his presentation speech. "But, if you talk to them, they will tell you that they were lucky to have Gene Hickerson blocking for them."

Between 150 and 200 of Hickerson's friends and family members filled a section during the enshrinement, cheering for Hickerson and celebrating his Hall of Fame honor.

"When Brown, Mitchell and Kelly rolled Hickerson out in a wheelchair at the end of the presentation, you could have heard a pin drop," wrote Thomas. "All present reflected on Hickerson's fragile physical and mental state."

Franklin said that Hickerson was "very, very pleased" when he heard that he was elected to the Hall of Fame. 

"It's a tremendous honor and a well-deserved crowning achievement of his career," Franklin said.

Franklin only wished that Hickerson could talk and express that feeling. 

"But, there were no words needed," wrote Thomas, "as to how his teammates felt about him."