Non-Traditional

Rustbelt Roadtrip #4 – Pro Football HOF

The final stop of our mini road trip took us to Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On any other trip, I’d say this would have been the highlight, but after being blown away by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I’ll just say it was a bit of a letdown. Still very worthy of a visit for any football fan, but maybe see it before the Rock Hall.

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I had visited the Hall many years ago – when I was probably 10 or 11. Back then, it was a chance to look at some of my childhood heroes.  Coincidentally, the Hall and I are the same age, with the Hall opening on September 7, 1963, just 7 months prior to my arrival in this crazy planet.  It was one stop on a father/son trip that I’ll never forget.  There were many memories along the way, but those of the Hall were faint.

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The Hall as it looked in 1971 (Photo: Pro Football Hall of Fame)

Having the opportunity to visit again, some 40+ years later was a treat. Just imagine all of the football greats that have had “Hall of Fame” careers in those 40 years. All of the Super Bowls. All of the records made and broken since then.  Tons of memories created.

When I first visited, there were about 80 members compared to 318 today.  Some of the early enshrinees are names most fans today never even heard of, like Gino Marchetti, Bill Hewitt, Tony Canadeo and more.  Of course, there were some household names as well in those early years.  Players like Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, YA Tittle, and Jim Brown were already enshrined. And early league pioneers and coaches George Halas, Art Rooney, Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi, and Charles Bidwell Sr have their heads immortalized in bronze.

The “modern era”, however, didn’t start until the merger between the AFL and NFL. Just before the 1966 season, the two leagues agreed to join forces.  They would compete in their separate leagues for four more years, after which, the two leagues would combine to play regular-season games against each other.  In addition, at the end of the first year, the champions of each league would compete in the AFL-NFL World Championship Game (aka Super Bowl).

Entering the Hall, we were told to plan on 2-1/2 hours for the self-guided tour. Having plenty of time on our hands before our flight from Pittsburgh, we took our time going through the exhibits, starting with the incredible, Hunt/Casterline personal card collection.  This exhibit includes the highest graded rookie card available for every member of the Hall, along with a massive collection of other rare cards.  As I paced through the display, I recalled my set that I had collected in the early 1970s.

Somehow, I don’t think my prized cards compare to this exhibit.

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As soon as you enter the actual exhibit area, you’re introduced to the history of football with some of the earliest available artifacts. Did you know that the birth of Pro Football was on November 12, 1892, when the Allegheny Athletic Association defeated the Pittsburgh Athletic Club?  Why you ask? Well, one of the AAA’s players, Pudge Heffelfinger (love that name) was paid $500 (~$14k today) to play that day.  He is the first known player to have been confirmed to receive pay for play, hence the birth of professional football.

Fullback Ernie Nevers grew up in Minnesota but played in college at Stanford in 1922 under some guy named Pop Warner. After college, he went on to play for his childhood friend who owned the Duluth Eskimos.  Incredibly, the Eskimos played in the NFL with a 16-man roster.  In 1925, they played a 29-game schedule and went 19–7–3 on the year. While Chuck Bednarik might have been known as the 60-minute man, Nevers played 1,714 minutes out of 1,740 minutes that year. Sissy.

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He was a better player than a coach.  After another year of playing elsewhere, he returned to Duluth and earned a 1-8 record as a player/coach.  His other coaching stints, including the Chicago Cardinals, weren’t much better.

The Hall lays out the history exhibit by era. You can see the drastic changes from the different periods. Each area has artifacts along with a video presentation that help to build the story.  As we took our time, others buzzed past us without much interest.  At one point, the docent came over to us and shared his admiration because we had been taking our time to peruse all of the displays. We didn’t tell him we had nothing better to do.

While watching the Browns/Steelers game on Sunday, we noticed an elf mascot and wondered about the connection to the Browns. Sure enough, Brownie the Elf is displayed in the Hall.  Turns out, a “brownie” is a mythical elf-looking creature that dates back quite some time.  The Browns used it as a mascot in the 60s but did away with it until recently.  They dusted it off and it’s been part of the sidelines for a few years.  Who knew…

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Upstairs, the timeline history changes into displays that demonstrate equipment changes through the years, record holders, significant events, etc…  Here’s an example that shows the all-time leaders in receiving (Rice), interceptions (Krause), rushing (E Smith), sacks (Smith) and coaching victories (Shula).

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Here are a couple of classics!  Jerseys of Bethlehem PA’s Chuck Bednarik, and Syracuse legend, Jim Brown along with helmets of Y.A. Tittle, Dick Butkus, and Tommy Nobis.

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I don’t remember the first football game I watched, but I definitely remember the 1972 season – even at only 8 years old.  One of my older brothers was a huge Miami Dolphins fan. That Dolphins team still holds on to this day as being the only team to go undefeated in an entire season.

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There was also a display containing the draft cards of all 32 teams for the first round of this years’ draft.  At #2 overall, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.  Something tells me this won’t be the only item of Saquon’s in the Hall of Fame.

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The gallery that contains the busts of all of those enshrined is a bit eerie.  You walk through a hall with nothing but heads staring at you.  Some look real, some look like perfect depictions of their subject and others look nothing like the original.  I grabbed a few shots of some of my favorites.

Here are most of the Penn Staters: Jack Ham (’88), Franco Harris (’90), Mike Munchak (’01) and Lenny Moore (’75). I’m missing Mike Michalske (’64) and Dave Robinson (’13).

I also grabbed a few of the Buffalo Bills.

The Hall has millions of artifacts to displays, but the vast majority are housed next door in a warehouse.  Some items date back to the beginning, while some are very recent – like the Eagles Super Bowl collage that includes Nick Foles’ jersey, Doug Pederson’s headset and the football from the “Philly Special”

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The Lombardi Trophy is one of the most prized trophies in all of sports. Sorry NFL, but the Stanley Cup tops the list.  Still, this good-looking, 7-pound sterling silver Tiffany creation is coveted by 32 teams every year.

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Another interesting display was that of the Super Bowl rings.  They had a ring from every Super Bowl winning team.  Every one bigger than the previous year and every one with a story. Here’s a link to a cool story about the details that went into the making of the ring.

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One disappointment I had was that my beloved Buffalo Bills were not recognized for their improbable four-year run in Super Bowl appearances.  But hey, they did get recognized for having the first full-time female coach.

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Why Canton?  It was there, in 1920, where representatives of the ten pro teams met to discuss the creation of a new league that would later become the NFL.

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This year’s inductees were Brian Urlacher, Robert Brazile, Brian Dawkins, Jerry Kramer, Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Bobby Beathard,

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Looking back to that visit with my dad, I can’t help but to wish I had pictures. Something to show me the differences over 40+ years; show me the men that were enshrined that year; but most importantly show me, hanging out with my real hero, my dad.

Stop wondering. Start wandering!

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