Greats of the Game

Even nonfans are impressed by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the gridiron legends whose feats are celebrated there.

Canton, Ohio

Cover Story

October 27, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

One by one, the people wander slowly through the enshrinement hall and instinctively whisper the names of the former greats, as if to give homage.

Sammy Baugh. Joe Schmidt. Bronko Nagurski.

Row after row of life-size bronze busts pay no heed. A narrow spotlight shines down on each -- men captured forever young and clear-eyed, determined and tough, in cold, hard metal. It's hard not to feel a little bit awed in this gridiron cathedral in Canton, Ohio.

In Niche 7F, one of the greatest of them all can be found. Not with his trademark crew cut. More a late-'60s style with a part. He is looking in the distance -- to Raymond Berry near the sideline, perhaps? A small index card has recently been added to remind us of the sad fact we already know:

Johnny Unitas. May 7, 1933 -- Sept. 11, 2002.

"It was a special feeling to see [Unitas]," says Robert Schlote, 49, of Frederick, who is visiting here with his sons, age 9 and 12. "He was one of my first heroes."

With the passing of the Baltimore Colts' legendary quarterback, it seemed a good time to make a call on the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, a city of 30,000 people in northeast Ohio, 50 miles south of Cleveland and about a 6 1/2 -hour drive from Baltimore.

Sure, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., gets more press. Base-ball and nostalgia seem to go together like the Orioles and a fourth-place finish.

As it happens, I dragged my family to Cooperstown last summer. My wife had protested. She envisioned exhibit after boring exhibit of old baseballs -- this one was "hit by Shoeless Joe Jackson to set the major-league record for triples in one week," that sort of thing.

It turned out to be a wonderful and evocative experience even for our 3-year-old, who sat unflinching through a multi- media presentation about the history of the game.

"Better than I expected," was my wife's generous appraisal by the day's end. We were just as much charmed by historic Cooperstown with its small-town, lakefront scenery, cute memorabilia shops and general sentimentality.

But Canton? And football? That sounded a little hard-core to my wife. Her feelings about the sport can most generously be described as mixed. She doesn't understand how anyone can get attached to a game featuring big men holding a series of committee meetings interrupted by periodic bouts of ritualized violence.

I had to admit Canton is not high on most people's lists of vacation destinations. Even the folks at the hall of fame say it's a place people tend to visit while on their way to someplace else -- a nice rest stop when shuffling off to Buffalo.

And would there be anything in this Rust Belt city to entertain young children when we were finished seeing the football sights? On that point, even I was a little unclear.

For the nonfan, too

When we arrived in Canton, it was a little past noon, and we headed straight for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was easy enough to find. The entrance is just off I-77, and when I say, "just off," I'm talking about maybe 100 yards.

Charming, sleepy downtown Cooperstown this is not. (Albeit, a bustling interstate highway might be a better metaphor for football -- busy, exciting and a little scary).

I had seen photos of the entrance with its trademark ovoid roof seemingly stuck halfway into a circular rotunda like a football on a tee. (Hall regulars prefer to describe this shape as orange juicer architecture).

Opened in 1963, the hall has expanded three times to its current 83,000 square feet -- about the size of 1 1/2 football fields -- or, basically, a Wal-Mart. Admission is $12 for adults, $6 for children, and plan to spend at least two hours here and preferably three. Yes, it's worth it.

Your first stop must certainly be the rotunda, the circular building you first enter. Its exhibits trace the history of football from its earliest days in western Pennsylvania to the first pro league, which was located in Canton (and thus explains that "Why Canton?" question that hall officials are always hearing).

Unitas gets his due here. A display lists his 47 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass alongside an impossibly white No. 19 uniform and a picture of the man with the golden arm at the height of his success.

But the best stuff is from even earlier. The first examples of shoulder and hip pads, cleats and wool uniforms look like ancient relics. They even have a 1920s-era uniform worn by Jim Thorpe when he played for the Canton Bulldogs, the local pro team back when football was mostly a college game and not the national obsession it is today.

With that accomplished, you must now head straight to the hall's most popular exhibit, GameDay Stadium, where you watch a movie about the NFL. Not to give too much away, but the entire theater is built on a turntable, and at a critical point in the movie, you get turned to a much bigger, louder presentation.

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