By ROBERT KUNZ
CANTON, Ohio – The Pro Football Hall of Fame this year honored modern players Tony Gonzalez, Ty Law, Champ Bailey, Kevin Mawae and Ed Reed. Honored as contributors were Pat Bowlen and Gil Brandt. Johnny Robinson was elected for enshrinement by the Seniors Committee. With these eight new members, the Pro Football Hall of Fame now has 326 elected members since the first class in 1963.
Bittersweet in this year’s election process was the passing of 2019 inductee Pat Bowlen on June 14. He was 75. Bowlen was the first elected member of Hall of Fame to pass away between election (Super Bowl weekend) and enshrinement. Thankfully the Hall of Fame broke tradition of not presenting the family of those honored posthumously with a gold jacket. Three of Bowlen’s daughters accepted a framed gold jacket at the Friday night Gold Jacket Ceremony. There was also sad news just days earlier of the passing of Nick Buoniconti, who was inducted in 2001.
Bowlen was the owner of the Denver Broncos for 35 years. His teams won more than 350 games and made 18 playoff appearances and seven Super Bowl appearances, winning three world titles with legendary quarterbacks John Elway and Peyton Manning.
Tony Gonzalez is regarded as one of the best tight ends in the history of the NFL, ranking second all-time in receptions with 1,325 and sixth all-time in receiving yards with 15,127. Gonzalez is one of only six players (Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Isaac Bruce) to surpass the 15,000 receiving yards milestone. Gonzalez accumulated those numbers over 17 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons. Gonzalez was a seven-time All-Pro and was selected to the Pro Bowl 14 times. He was also selected to the All-Decade Team of the 2000s. Gonzalez was a consensus All-American at the University of California in football and played in 82 games for the basketball team. Gonzalez played a couple of games on the Miami Heat’s summer league team in 2002.
Kevin Mawae was a stalwart on offensive lines that produced a 1,000-yard rusher in 13 of his 16 seasons with the New York Jets and the Tennessee Titans. Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin produced seven of those 1,000-plus-yard rushing seasons while backs Chris Warren and Chris Johnson each produced two. Mawae was a six-time All-Pro and was selected to eight Pro Bowls. Mawae was also an All-Decade Team selection of the 2000s.
Champ Bailey, Ty Law, Ed Reed and Johnny Robinson combined for a total of 226 interceptions during their professional careers. Each were first round draft picks (Bailey No. 7 overall in 1999; Law No. 23 in 1995; Reed No. 24 in 2002; and Robinson No. 3 pick in 1960).
Reed would lead his inductee class of cornerbacks and safeties with 64 career interceptions in 12 seasons. The Baltimore Ravens’ star still owns the NFL record with 1,590 return yards on interceptions. On Nov. 23, 2008, Reed broke his own NFL record of 106 yards with a 107-yard-interception return at home against the Philadelphia Eagles. Bailey, Law and Reed were selected to the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 2000s. Law led the NFL in interceptions in 1998 with the New England Patriots and in 2005 with the New York Jets.
With the election of Robinson, the Super-Bowl-winning 1970 Kansas City Chiefs now have players in the Hall of Fame. Robinson joins owner Lamar Hunt, coach Hank Stram and teammates Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan, Curley Culp, Len Dawson, Willie Lanier, Jan Stenerud, and Emmitt Thomas. Robinson lead the NFL with 10 interceptions in 1970 and was selected All-NFL that same season.
Gil Brandt was elected along with Bowlen as a Contributor. Brandt made his mark as Vice President of Player Personnel for the Dallas Cowboys. With a keen eye for talent and a pioneer in scouting, Brandt helped shape more than 20 consecutive winning seasons for the Cowboys. Brandt’s pioneering scouting techniques helped the Cowboys acquire such players as Bob Hayes, Roger Staubach, Herschel Walker, Drew Pearson, Cliff Harris and Everson Walls. Brandt shares my home birthplace of Milwaukee and my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. Brandt, 86, still keeps bust today with the NFL draft and as a regular voice on SiriusXM NFL radio.
Nearly 100 Hall of Famers returned for the weekend festivities. Among them: Joe Namath, John Elway, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, Warren Moon, Michael Strahan, Shannon Sharpe, Larry Csonka and Jim Brown.
Peyton Manning attended a number of events including a Friday night dinner and the Friday night Gold Jacket ceremony. Manning also filmed a segment of “Peyton Places” at the Hall of Fame on Friday, Aug. 2, with his former coach Tony Dungy as guest.
Tom Brady and the entire Patriots team toured the Hall of Fame Sunday morning on their way to Detroit for the team’s first preseason game. Other guests in Canton over the weekend and attending the enshrinement ceremony were Bill Belichick, Von Miller, Chris Johnson and Willie McGinest.
The Saturday of Hall of Fame weekend is when the vast majority of paid signings are scheduled. This year there were three main Saturday signing venues; Champions Event Center hosted by CRAVE the Auto and Crave Sports Company; Tozzi’s Autograph and Card Show; and the Pro Football Hall of Fame Grounds hosted by Panini.
The Crave Sports show featured appearances by more than 25 Hall of Famers. This event featured Bruce Smith, Don Maynard, Kevin Greene and 2018 inductee Robert Brazile. Tozzi’ hosted more than a dozen Hall of Famers. Signers included Bobby Bell, John Hannah, Jack Youngblood and Leroy Kelly. Many of the guests at Tozzi’s were in the $20 to $30 range. The Hall of Fame ran three sessions with over 40 Hall of Fame guests. Guests even included 2019 inductees Ed Reed, Champ Bailey, and Ty Law. The returning Hall of Fame guests with autograph tickets prices over $ 100 were Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Ray Lewis, Mel Blount and Marshall Faulk. Some of the “nice” price guests were Carl Eller ($25), Chris Doleman ($35) and Jim Kelly ($ 55).
I decided to wait no longer and paid $100 for Tony Dorsett to sign a multi-signed jersey of only Hall of Fame running backs. The Hall of Fame signing event went off without issue. Parking is not as easy at the Hall of Fame as the Crave or Tozzi’s shows, but there are some shuttles from Lot A to the Hall of Fame entrance that really helped.
One other top signing event was the Autograph Session for the Class of 2019 on Thursday of that week. This year’s session cost $ 400, and included all the inductees with the exception of Tony Gonzalez. If you missed this event, you might want to consider contacting the Hall of Fame and ordering a class of 2019 signed football for $399 or a class of 2019 signed full-sized helmet for $599. These items do include Tony Gonzalez but do not include Pat Bowlen.
There are free signing opportunities during the weekend, but it does get harder every year. You have to put in some long days to make it worth the trip. Take for example, Ed Reed, who fans caught up with at 3 am on Sunday morning. The success fans had with the class of 2019 were mixed. Many fans were able to obtain signatures of Champ Bailey, Ty Law and Gil Brandt. These three new inductees signed on multiple occasions throughout the four days that made up enshrinement weekend. The rest of the class was much tougher. As I mentioned, Ed Reed did sign one time in the wee hours of the night. I only know of two autographs that Kevin Mawae signed for a couple of fans outside of the class auto session at the hall. I did not see or hear of Tony Gonzalez signing a single autograph, but to be fair, I was not in Canton on Sunday. And sometimes the new inductees sign on the last day after the induction ceremony. That is what Ray Lewis did last year. I could not get him to sign on two one-on-one occasions earlier in the weekend, but he did go out of his way to sign items for quite a few fans on Sunday.
I spoke with a large number of fans at different events from Wednesday until Saturday and fans had stories of success with autographs of Peyton Manning, John Elway, Michael Irvin, Jim Brown, Roger Staubach, Warren Moon, Kevin Greene and Jerome Bettis. I set out with four different 10,000 rushing yard game tickets (Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis) and a 15,000 receiving yard game ticket of Tony Gonzalez. I was lucky enough to get the Bettis and Martin tickets signed. I thought I had peaked the interest of Emmitt Smith when I told him I had a ticket to his 10,000 yard milestone game, but he only joked with me about me giving it to him. I am not sure if he would really have taken it had I offered, but in the end there was no interest in signing it for me. Curtis Martin was amazing, when I said I had this ticket, he sought out where I was in the crowd and gladly signed it.
Some of the most pleasant Hall of Famers you will ever meet are Martin, Dermontti Dawson, Steve Largent, Emmitt Thomas, Morton Anderson and Lenny Moore. Not far behind those amazing gentleman are Bettis, Harry Carson, Charlie Joiner, Bob Lilly, Floyd Little, James Lofton, Jan Stenerud and Willie Roaf.
One autograph I was wishing to get was Shannon Sharpe. Outside of the new inductees, Sharpe was the only Hall of Famer present for the weekend events that I have yet to meet in person. And that distinction still holds, as I still didn’t see Mr. Sharpe in person. A meeting for another year I hope.
100th YEAR EVENTS PLANNED FOR 2020
The 100th season of the NFL will be played out over the course of the next year, with the actual anniversary on Sept. 17. The birth of the NFL took place in an automobile showroom in Canton. As you might imagine, Canton is planning a huge, multi-day Centennial Celebration. Reports are of every former NFL player being invited. Certainly all current players will have a difficult time attending as the 2020 season is expected to be in full swing. There were hopes that a regular season game might be played in Tom Benson Stadium next to the Hall of Fame. Those chances seem less likely than a couple of years ago. Cleveland Stadium is only a little more than an hour away so that might be the more probable outcome.
Approved last week at the Hall of Fame was to officially grant an exception for one year to expand the number of inductees from eight each year to up to 20 in 2020. This centennial class would be potentially made up of five modern day players, 10 senior members, three contributors, and two coaches. Induction would be broken up into parts. Part of the class would be inducted in August and part of the class would be inducted near the anniversary date. “It’s an opportunity to catch up on some injustices,” said Hall of Fame President, David Baker. The election committee has a lot of work to do in the coming weeks. They are slated to narrow down a long list of candidates to 20 seniors, 10 contributors, and eight coaches sometime this fall.
First year candidates likely to be part of the modern day players are Troy Polamalu and Reggie Wayne. Past finalists include Isaac Bruce, Tony Boselli, and Edgerrin James. The expansion in 2020 could help coach Jimmy Johnson, quarterback Ken Anderson, receiver Drew Pearson, safety Steve Atwater, safety LeRoy Butler, tackle Jimbo Covert, or safety Cliff Harris gain entry into the Hall of Fame.
HALL OF FAME VILLAGE
I have been writing about the expansion of the Hall of Fame into the Hall of Fame Village for a number of years now. Many of the phases were planned to be completed between 2018 and 2020. Much of the expansion was to be completed in time for the Centennial Celebration. Now I can report it won’t be ready for the Centennial Celebration. Walking around the streets near the Hall of Fame it is easy to see that there has been little progress the past year. The expansion has seen many financial hurdles.
There are lots of empty lots and empty homes where the expansion will be located in the future. Reports are that spending has reached nearly $14.7 million to buy the homes and businesses needed for the expansion. Land purchases started in 2015, and have recently concluded. Current estimates are for an $800-million to $900-million expansion, although the details of the final expansion are always evolving.
The latest planning consists of two more phases. Phase one consisted of the Tom Benson Stadium upgrades and the construction of five football fields is nearly complete. Phase Two is still expected to get started in 2019. Phase Two is now planned to consist of a 3-star hotel and waterpark; the Constellation Center for Excellence, an office/medical building, an indoor arena called the Center for Performance, and a number of businesses related to entertainment, dining and retail.
Phase Two should be completed by 2022 at an estimated cost of $ 300 million. Due to this delay, the Hall of Fame and Hall of Fame Village is rumored to have shown interest in the McKinley Grand Hotel in downtown Canton. The McKinley Grand was the hotel of choice for the Hall of Famers for many years, but that changed to a location near the Belden Village Mall a few years back. The McKinley Grand is for sale, and the hotel is reported to be slated for major renovations prior to any opening as a property associated with the Hall of Fame Village.
Phase Three is now planned to consist of a 4-Star Luxury Hotel, a Player Care Center, an Interactive Sports Experience and more entertainment options. The completion of Phases Two and Three would be the vision of a Walt Disney Park experience that was planned from the start. There is currently no timetable for the completion of Phase Three.
Robert Kunzis a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.