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Reed awaits the call to Canton ; There was a coltish elegance to Andre Reed's game, a rare blend of quickness and strength.

Andre Reed never had to undergo surgery in his 16-year NFL career. He played in 234 games, and he missed just three in his first 10 seasons. Reed was renowned for his rigorous workout regimen. His former teammates still marvel at his conditioning. Nine days shy of his 47th birthday, the guy still looks capable of going over the middle.

So it figures. Last month, Reed visited the Persian Gulf with a group of ex-NFL players, including Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas. During an initial two-day stop in Kuwait, Reed played in a flag football game with U.S. servicemen -- and tore his Achilles.

"We were playing on a dirt field with rocks," Reed said Tuesday from his home in San Diego. "I probably didn't stretch as much as I should have. I didn't tape my ankles. Oh, I shredded it. It didn't look too pretty."

Reed hobbled on to Iraq for the rest of the trip. Despite the injury, he called it one of the best experiences of his life. Late in December, he had surgery. The doctors said the Achilles was bound to go sooner or later. Reed had the staples removed Monday. He says he's a fast healer and expects to be back to normal in a couple of months.

Naturally, Reed is dying to get back into the gym. One thing we know for certain about the Bills' former receiving great: You can't keep him down for long. The question right now is, how much longer can they keep him out?

Reed is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the fifth consecutive year. Two weeks from Saturday, the 44 voters will get together at the Super Bowl in Dallas to determine this year's enshrinees. Four times, Reed has been a finalist and fallen short. Last year, he made it to the final 10 for the first time. Could this be the year?

"I believe it's my time this year," Reed said. "Over the last six years, I've seen Jim, Thurman, Marv [Levy], Bruce [Smith], James Lofton and Ralph [Wilson] get in. I'm not going to lie and say I shouldn't be in there with those guys. I was just as competitive as them, if not more. People say I always wanted the ball. That's the way I was. I'm not going to apologize for that. I wouldn't be in this position if I didn't have that attitude."

Sure, he wanted the ball. Reed complained a lot for a man who finished his career ranked third all-time in receptions and fourth in yards. But when a crisis arose, he generally rose to the moment. A lot of receivers have numbers. Reed showed up in the big games.

Reed caught three touchdown passes from Frank Reich in the comeback over Houston. On a day when Kelly and Thomas were out with injuries, he was the best player on the field.

He caught a game-winning TD from Reich in the final seconds on Monday night against the Rams in 1989. He had 115 yards and a TD in the playoff loss to the Browns that year. Reed had two TD catches in the playoff win over Miami in 1990; two TDs in the playoff win over the Chiefs a year later. He had 27 catches in Super Bowls, second to Jerry Rice.

It must matter to the Hall voters, who pushed Reed into the final 10 in front of Cris Carter and Tim Brown a year ago. Carter has more regular-season catches (1,101 to 951) and TDs (130-87). He is bound to get in the Hall eventually. But Carter never played in a Super Bowl and wasn't in Reed's class as a big-game performer.

It looks encouraging. Rod Woodson and Michael Irvin, both Hall of Famers, said they would put in Reed ahead of the other two. The selection committee was leaning that way a year ago. Still, there are no guarantees. Reed might reach the group of 10 and fall short again.

"I'd be very disappointed, considering how the voting went last year," Reed said. "I knew I wasn't going to make it with Jerry [Rice] and Emmitt [Smith] up. I'm not putting Cris or Tim down. People always say it's a tough class. It's been a tough class all four years. I'm going against some great players who have great careers and are very deserving."

Richard Dent, the former Bears defensive end, has a good shot in his sixth year on the ballot. Deion Sanders and Marshall Faulk are strong candidates. So is Shannon Sharpe. But the selectors will likely pick at least one wide receiver to loosen the logjam at the position.

You have to trust what your eyes tell you. I saw Reed at his best and he's a Hall of Famer, a singularly gifted receiver. There was a coltish elegance to his game, a rare blend of quickness and strength. Few of today's wideouts are so fearless and productive going over the middle.

"He had great burst," said Lofton, who resurrected a Hall of Fame career in Buffalo. "Andre could have easily averaged 18 or 19 yards a catch if that's what the Bills asked. He was as quick as anybody. We would try to race off the line of scrimmage and I had to cheat to beat him.

"Oh, he was incredibly quick off the line, the first 10 yards. He had the quickness of a guy 5-9, 180. He was tough, durable, with great hands. One of the first things voters look for is 'Did a guy win?' Andre, along with Thurman, made that offense go. Tim Brown was a teammate of mine, but Andre Reed was a tremendous football player."

A good guy, too. Reed was prominent in the Big Brothers/Big Sister program as a Bill. In '09, he received the team's Distinguished Service Award. Last month, Reed introduced his "Over The Middle" barbecue sauce in his native Allentown, Pa. Part of the proceeds go to The Second Mile, a charity for kids in Pennsylvania.

Reed plans to sell the sauce in Buffalo and link it to a charity here. He has strong emotional ties to this area, and to children. He says there's still an 8-year-old boy inside him, dreaming of playing in the NFL. The kid will be in his thoughts if he delivers an acceptance speech in Canton.

"I'm just a small-town kid who had the right people around his whole life," Reed said. "I wasn't perfect. I wouldn't be in this position if not for my Bills teammates. God gave me a gift, and I tried to do my best with it. I think I did a pretty good job."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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