I had been to Cooperstown on a number of occasions. I must admit I had been to Canton for a Hall of Fame Weekend back in the mid 1980’s but never made it to the Hall. I came to town with my best friend from college and we spent most of the time down at Beldon Village at the pre-event “social activities.”…Oh the wasted energy of youth.
Driving off of I-77 the Hall of Fame was easy enough to find…fact of the matter is, it is almost lost in the surroundings of the working class blue- collar community and small modest homes that seem to guard it. I thought this was rather fitting given the humble beginnings of the NFL ($100.00 entrance fee) and against the backdrop of what approaching the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is like. The National Baseball Hall of Fame is Cooperstown. Canton is like driving into a large church parking lot…and maybe for the football purists, this is the way it’s supposed to be. The Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown based on the mythical origins of the game and story of Abner Doubleday. The Hall of Fame is in Canton as this is the documented business home of the professional sport.
I had a 2:00 appointment with the Curator of Collections so I thought I would make a quick run through prior to that. I was pleasantly surprised to find that just like Cooperstown, active duty military are granted free admission. It is here that most of similarities with Cooperstown end. This is not to say that I am still not a huge fan of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Canton is really something special for so many reasons.
As you walk in you are confronted with a large bronze sculpture of Jim Thorpe. This should come as no surprise given his contributions to the game as a player and the use of his celebrity as the first President of the then called American Professional Football Association.
Above and around Thorpe is a spiral ramp that takes you upstairs to the first of the twelve sections of interest. The initial section is devoted to the First Century of Pro Football. The first thing that I noticed was that there is seldom glass between the visitor and the game used artifacts. The displays are striking in the detail and simplicity. This section winds it way around the second floor and century with great ease. The nice thing from a game used collector perspective is that most of the displays are done in such a manner that you actually have access to the tagging.
I was never left wondering where to go next as …well…the place just flows. This flow takes you into the second section devoted to Pro Football Today. Pro Football Today is a collection of team helmets and displays highlighting recent acquisitions by the museum like the jersey Ladian Tomlinson wore when he scored a TD in his 14th straight game. This is the sort of thing that is appealing to any fan, and works for those of you who might be traveling with small kids. There is plenty of space for moving around and very bright and attention grabbing visuals, a plus with young fans in tow.
The natural transition of the layout continues in to Hall of Fame Gallery. This aspect of the Hall has been redone in recent years. They busts of Hall of Famers are now grouped by year of admission. The bronzes are displayed a darkly lit room that almost had me feeling the walls for a small dish of Holy Water. It is both a reverent place and a place to revel in the greatness of the Enshirineees.
Before entering the Pro Football Adventure room, which chronicles the various predecessors to the modern NFL and other leagues, the transition hall way features notable African – Americans in football. There are contracts for players like Marion Motley and a wonderful 1926-1931 Chicago Cardinals Home jersey of Duke Slater manufactured by Lowe & Campbell Sporting Goods. Even the physical pauses of the Canton offer something to take in.
The Pro Football Adventure room is just that when you consider the concept of starting of a league such as the NFL1, NFL 2, NFL, 3…This section also highlights that upstart league from 1960..The AFL. There are also great displays for both the World Football League and USFL. Near by and no less important is a special section devoted to NFL players who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States. Charlie Bednarik and Roger Staubach have wonderful displays, but the one uniform that I found most impressive was that of Pat Tillman. I am not referring to his Arizona Cardinals jersey that is also did played, but his government issue Class-A jacket replete with Silver Star, Purple Heart and Ranger Tab/Scroll. Befitting the man who wore it, it is displayed almost in a place of it’s own…
The somber tribute to this fallen warrior is quickly uplifted by the Enshrines Mementos Room. Of all of groupings, this had to be my favorite because of the variety and the physical proximity you are afforded to the jerseys and other memorabilia. The Dick Butkas helmet was displayed in such a manner that the Rawlings manufacturers logo on the rear was easy to see. Tagging on jerseys for Terry Bradshaw (1981 SandKnit size 46), Bob Lilly (Southland Athletics size 52 XL) was just toooo easy to find and showcased in well done open displays.
I was very curious about the helmet they had on display for Willie Lanier. It was developed to help protect him from a previous neck injury. The problem is the padding actually works against this all the force is absorbed by the helmet and transferred back down along the neck and spine. I wanted to see the inside of the helmet to see if I could find out information about the manufacturer and was able to see that it was a Medalist Gladiator “HYDRAFLO” helmet. I was a bit embarrassed when an older lady walking through asked me if I was O.K. as I was laying on the floor looking up into the display. No personal sacrifice to great for our readers I always say.
Having done the Super Bowl article as a re-introduction into the sport, I was very taken back by this section. It is as visual appealing as it is informative. Like most of the sections at Canton, there are audio-visual enhancements that can be enjoyed at your leisure and are designed to support the pace of either the quick casual viewer and the guy “who has to see everything.” If you are one of those guys, take time to notice the display, almost hidden along a rail, of Super Bowl Championship Rings. I could have spent hours trying to record all the details of these rings. Regrettably, I did not have that much time, but do offer this to those who have an interest:
Super Bowl I: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k gold. Simple 1/2c diamond
Super Bowl II: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k gold.
Super Bowl III: Manufactured by Balfour in 14k gold.
Super Bowl IV: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k gold.
Super Bowl V: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k gold.
Super Bowl VI: Manufactured by Balfour in 14k white gold.
Super Bowl VII: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k yellow gold.
Super Bowl VIII: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k yellow gold.
Super Bowl IX: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k white gold.
Super Bowl X: Manufactured by Balfour in 24k yellow gold.
Super Bowl XI: Manufactured by Lenox Awards in 14k white gold.
Super Bowl XII: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k white gold.
Super Bowl XIII: Manufactured by Jostens in 14k yellow gold.
Super Bowl XIV: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k yellow gold.
Super Bowl XV: Manufactured by Lenox Awards in white gold.
Super Bowl XVI: Manufactured by Balfour in 10k yellow gold.
Super Bowl XVII: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k yellow gold.
Super Bowl XVIII: Manufactured by Lenox Awards in white gold.
Super Bowl XIX: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k yellow gold.
Super Bowl XX: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k yellow gold.
Super Bowl XXI: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k white gold
Super Bowl XXII: Manufactured by Tiffany and Co
Super Bowl XXIII: Manufactured by Jostens
Super Bowl XXIV: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k white gold
Super Bowl XXV: Manufactured by Balfour in 10k yellow gold
Super Bowl XXVI: Manufactured by Tiffany and Co in 10k gold
Super Bowl XXVII: Manufactured by Balfour in 10k gold
Super Bowl XXVIII: Manufactured by Balfour in 10k gold
Super Bowl XXIX: Manufactured by Balfour in 10k gold
Super Bowl XXX: Manufactured by Diamond Cutters International in 14k gold
Super Bowl XXXI: Manufactured by Jostens in 18k gold
Super Bowl XXXII: Manufactured by Diamond Cutters International in 14k plumb gold
Super Bowl XXXIII: Manufactured by Jostens in 14k gold
Super Bowl XXXIV: Manufactured by Jostens in 10k yellow gold
Super Bowl XXXV: Manufactured by Jostens in 14k gold
Super Bowl XXXVI: Manufactured by Jostens in 14k gold
Super Bowl XXXVII: Manufactured by Tiffany and Co in 14k gold
Super Bowl XXXVIII: Manufactured by Jostens in white gold
Super Bowl XXXIX: Manufactured by Jostens in 14k white gold, 124 diamonds for a total carrot weight of 4.94c.
I only listed the stones for the first and last to show how much these symbols of achievement have become serious “bling” over the years.
Next on the journey and the final stop on the upper floor is the Game Day Theater. This spacious and comfortable auditorium is designed to show features the film “Championship Chase.”
There are both elevators and stairs that take you back down to the first floor, which begins with the Interactive Exhibit Gallery. Once again, the flow and sequencing of exhibits is perfect, especially if you have young fans in tow. Here they will have the opportunity to throw footballs to targets, play Madden Football and engage in any number of trivia games. Abutting up against this area is the Tailgate snack bar. The visual appeal of this area has to be the NFL Monday Night Football collage that takes up a huge section of the wall. This is not you typical visual in that the collage is made of actual artifacts from the 20 plus year span. Featured in this display is a very interesting Detroit Lions helmet worn by Billy Simms during his 4th straight 100 yard game on Monday Night Football. It is manufactured by Kelly and features a clear outer shell with the decals and striping underneath. Similar in construction to the MAXPRO helmets worn by the Cowboys, the displays actually permit a study of artifacts in detail.
Finally, what would any museum trip be without a stop at the gift shop. There are the usual items of from all teams for wear and display. The collection of offerings is not without merit to the researcher as well given the selection of current player and team publications.
As I mentioned earlier, I had a 1400 (that’s 2:00 PM in real time) appointment with the Curator of Collections. At about ten minutes till, Mr. Jason Aikens arrived back to the Hall, met and greeted me and took me directly to the archives. Aiken’s is clearly one of those people who enjoy’s his work and it shows. Instead of getting settled back in to check e-mail or phone calls, he wanted to begin to show me around. Mr. Aikens has been at the Hall of Fame since 1997. The archives staff numbers seven employees, with a couple of intern positions as well. The intern positions are available to college students studying in fields like Museum Sciences or Sports Information.
I began by asking Mr. Aikens about the various requests for information he receives. He replied by saying he fields calls ranging from a guy wanting a piece of information to settle a bar discussion to questions that come from the NFL League Office. When I pressed him for some of the more unusual requests, he offered that he was once asked about coin tosses in the Super Bowl. After informing the person that there are references that the person could use to find out who won the toss, the person informed him that they wanted to know if heads or tails was called and what actually came up. He also informed me that he has fielded phone calls from people who wanted to complain about officiating or the merits of one Hall of Fame Quarterback over another. His attitude is wonderful as he realizes that all of these people, what ever their motivation, share his love for the game and its rich and wonderful history.
The archives and his role as Curator of Collections is to preserve these treasures and act as a steward of the history of the game. The archives at Canton have wonderful documentation, and not simply a collection of wire photos in player files. In addition to these, they have player files on michrofiche containing articles and newspapers clippings gathered over the years to support any number of projects. This is a bit different than Cooperstown. Another difference is that Canton does not own the publishing rights for the photographs in their possession; those are owned by the NFL.
Additionally, the print holdings are very significant:
Over 1000 football related book titles
Complete or near complete runs of:
Street & Smith Football Guides
Team Media Guides
Team Programs from the 1940s on
In addition, there is a huge collection of topical files dealing with subjects such as uniforms and helmets. Besides these subjects, files are also available for things like:
“Psychology and Football”
Once again, clearly something for everyone.
Mr. Aikens informed me that the Hall of Fame is working to establish a database for these references to assist both their work and that being done by collectors and researchers.
As far as artifacts, I was briefly shown the storage area for the artifacts not on display. Of the 12,000 or so items in the possession of the Hall of Fame, only about 5% are displayed at any one time. Looking into this area, I felt like Indiana Jones stumbling into the tomb of some great King. The area is well organized and stunning in terms of helmets, jerseys, original artwork as well as stadium and team memorabilia.
I closed my visit with Mr. Aikens by thanking him and asking if there was something that he would like me to share with our readers. He was beyond gracious and only asked that I remind people that although Canton is the home for the Football Hall of Fame, the site and his efforts are devoted to the larger history of the Professional game on any number of levels. There is clearly something here for fans of all ages and degree’s of interest.
For me, I know that making an annual trip to Canton is something I need to make time for. Form the DC area, it is about a 6 ½ hour drive. Since I did not know if my leave was going to be approved, I opted not to make plane reservations. This is probably the way to go as the Canton/Akron Airport is only about 10 minutes away just north on I-77. There are plenty of affordable hotels in the area, equally within minutes for the Hall.
I would encourage everyone to take some time and think about going. In retrospect, I think that two days would be best….one day to take in the museum and a second to do research. Both are made very easy by a group of people who love the game and its rich and chronicled history.