For Jimbo Covert, long Hall of Fame wait ‘makes it that much sweeter’

After waiting 30 years, the former Bears left tackle didn’t mind the extra 18 months.

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“It’s just going to be a tremendous experience,” former Bear JImbo Covert said of entering the Hall of Fame. “Waiting for so long, I think, even makes it that much sweeter.”

“It’s just going to be a tremendous experience,” former Bear JImbo Covert said of entering the Hall of Fame. “Waiting for so long, I think, even makes it that much sweeter.”

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

After waiting 30 years, Jimbo Covert didn’t mind the extra 18 months.

In January 2020, the former Bears left tackle was one of 10 senior candidates picked to join the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 20-person centennial class. The senior members, all of whom played more than 25 years ago, were selected by a panel of experts in celebration of the league’s 100th season — and as a way to try to clear the Hall’s backlog of worthy players.

When the coronavirus scuttled the Hall of Fame’s enshrinement ceremony last year, Covert — who played for the Bears from 1983-90, spent 1991 on injured reserve and then retired — had to play a new waiting game.

He was thrilled to be a Hall of Famer — “Once you’re in, you’re in,” he said — but couldn’t wait for the ceremony.

All 20 members of the centennial class will be honored Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio, the day before the 2021 class is enshrined. Joining Covert in the centennial class is late Bears defensive end Ed Sprinkle, who played from 1944-55. He died seven years ago at age 90 in Palos Heights. The two will give the Bears 30 Hall of Famers, the most in the NFL.

“It’s just going to be a tremendous experience,” Covert said this week. “Waiting for so long, I think, even makes it that much sweeter.”

The 61-year-old Covert has had a successful second career ever since chronic back injuries forced him to quit the sport. He’s an operating partner for Cressey & Company, a private equity firm, and serves on board of trustees at Pitt, where he played before the Bears drafted him sixth overall in 1983.

First eligible for admission in the mid-90s, Covert eventually learned to tune out the Hall of Fame selection process. Year after year, friends would congratulate him after his name was put on the original list of candidates. He’d never crack the semifinals, though.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” he said. “Maybe it was in the front of your mind before. For many many years. I just tried to almost ignore it.”

The process wasn’t frustrating, he said, as much as it was disappointing.

“You just kinda waited,” he said. “Then you got to the point where you went, ‘I don’t want to think about it.’”

The centennial class, though, gave him new life.

Previous Hall of Fame voters were turned off by his lack of longevity.That stance seemed to soften in recent years; safety Kenny Easley and running back Terrell Davis were selected in 2017 despite playing fewer than eight seasons each.

And then there’s this: Covert was, amazingly, the only member of the NFL’s 1980s first-team all-decade squad not in the Hall.

In eight seasons, he was named first-team all-pro twice. Blocking for Walter Payton, the bruising left tackle helped the Bears lead the league in rushing each year from 1983-86.

During that time, Covert said, he “played as well as any tackle —maybe 20 years before that as well.” After sitting out one game in his first four seasons, though, he missed a combined 15 starts in 1987 and 1988. He started all but two games over the next two seasons, but he said he was “never the same player I was earlier in my career.”

He won a Super Bowl — he’ll be the fifth player enshrined from the Bears’ peerless 1985 team — and played in 11 postseason games. By contrast, the Bears have played in only 12 postseason games since, despite the playoffs expanding twice in the last 30 years.

A Pittsburgh area native, Covert grew up idolizing Roberto Clemente. He wore No. 74 for the Bears only because No. 75, the number worn by the Steelers’ “Mean” Joe Greene, was unavailable. The Bears, though, hold a special place in his heart.

This week, he touched on some of the franchise’s most pressing issues. He said he was thrilled the Bears drafted quarterback Justin Fields, “someone who knows how to win” and that has “shown his toughness” at Ohio State.

“There’s going to come a time pretty soon when he’s ready,” he said, “and I think he’s going to do a phenomenal job.”

He stumped for Hall of Fame admission for former defensive tackle Steve McMichael, who was recently diagnosed with ALS. Covert had his scraps with McMichael over the years, but he respects his 95 career sacks.

“In my opinion, there was a four- or five-year period there in the mid-80s when no one played the inside position better,” he said.

And he talked about Payton, who embraced him as a rookie and never stopped.

“From the very first day, he treated everybody like family,” he said. “It didn’t matter if you were a first-round pick or a free agent. He just had this unique ability to talk to you.”

In three weeks, another former Bears running back, Matt Suhey, will introduce Covert on stage in Canton. And Covert’s wait will finally — officially — be over.

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