By Joe Dynlacht
A record-setting 265,039 fans invaded downtown Indianapolis to attend the GMC NFL Experience (NFLX), held at the Indiana Convention Center Jan. 27-Feb. 4. The 20th NFLX was located in the Super Bowl Village, and played host to a number of activities leading up to Super Bowl XLVI.
The event boasted more than 850,000 square feet to throw, catch and kick a football, attend youth clinics, shop and obtain autographs from NFL stars past and present. In addition, expansive areas were devoted to exhibits featuring items from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Lombardi and other trophies and awards and a memorabilia show featuring two card companies, Hunt Auctions and various dealers from across the country.
Abundance of autograph guests
Whether you were hanging out at the various sponsor pavilions or the main autograph stage, signatures could be obtained from both former and current big-name players, including many Hall of Famers – and they could be had for free with your paid admission.
As is customary, the first weekend of NFLX predominantly featured players from the local NFL team, the Colts. Hometown favorite Gary Brackett, a Colts linebacker, led things off on the Topps/Pannini autograph stage after escorting the Lombardi Trophy into the Convention Center to signal the opening of NFLX. His teammates, wide receiver Reggie Wayne and kicker Adam Vinatieri, were also signing autographs at various locations throughout the weekend, as were former Colts quarterback Jeff George, former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks and current players Brent Grimes (Falcons), and Ryan Baker (Dolphins).
By the middle of the week leading up to the Super Bowl, the Hall of Famers and many of the major stars of other teams had arrived on the scene to take Sharpies in hand.
Children had numerous opportunities to meet and greet current players as part of the NFL Rush Zone’s interactive football experiences. Children could participate in group reading sessions led by NFL players such as Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. (The kids were often rewarded with their own autograph session afterward). Kids ranging in age from 6-12 could participate in daily youth clinics run by several of the biggest stars. I observed one such clinic that was conducted by Wayne. Wayne concluded his clinic with a question-and-answer session, and the kids asked some rather penetrating questions!
For instance, with rumors swirling around Indy about Peyton Manning’s future with the Colts (often upstaging Super Bowl-related stories in local news broadcasts), the kids did not hold back. When asked whether Wayne wanted Andrew Luck on his team, Wayne stated emphatically that he wanted Peyton back.
Many football legends, Hall of Famers and current and former stars had fans willing to queue up at the main autograph stage, which was sponsored jointly by Topps and Panini America.
My initial interviews with NFLX organizers and chats with volunteers led me to believe that autograph guests would be limited to signing for 200 people. However, I later learned that it was up to the individual signer; they could sign for one hour or 200 people, whichever they preferred. Joe Montana was arguably one of the most sought-after signatures at the main autograph stage. He entered the pavilion to thunderous applause and did not disappoint, dutifully signing whatever was put in front of him for a full hour. Many other stars appeared at other sponsor pavilions, such as the GMC Pavilion, during the course of the NFLX.
The following is a partial list of the more than 70 other players and sports personalities who were scheduled to appear as autograph guests and/or as participants in coaching clinics at NFLX:
- Jamal Anderson
- Drew Brees
- Derrick Brooks
- Cris Carter
- Randall Cunningham
- Eric Dickerson
- Matt Forte
- Dan Fouts
- Dwight Freeney
- Blaine Gabbert
- Antonio Gates
- A.J. Green
- Paul Hornung
- Desmond Howard
- Mark Ingram
- DeSean Jackson
- Steven Jackson
- Maurice Jones-Drew
- Jim Kelley
- Ronnie Lott
- Gino Marchetti
- Clay Matthews
- LeSean McCoy
- DeMarco Murray
- Cam Newton
- Christian Ponder
- Barry Sanders
- Deion Sanders
- Matthew Stafford
- Demaryius Thomas
- Beanie Wells
- DeAngelo Williams
- Jason Witten
- Rod Woodson
- Steve Young.
Security was tight at the team hotels, as autograph seekers were usually chased from the lobbies. However, the presence of “Radio Row” at the Super Bowl Media Center located in one of the local hotels (J. W. Marriott) offered an autograph opportunity that many fans were probably not aware of.
For the first time in Super Bowl History, the general public was able to gather in a “fan gallery” and observe live and recorded interviews with current and former players, as well as celebrities in town for various activities. To gain access to this event, fans only needed to obtain free tickets through the NFL Pro Shop at NFLX. Altough discouraged from asking for autographs, diligent autograph seekers often found players taking time to sign prior to entering or leaving Radio Row.
Many of those who appeared at NFLX also appeared at Radio Row. Among those spotted were Jerry Rice, Joe Greene, Will Forte and Adam Sandler. However, the highlight for many fans was a surprise appearance by Madonna, whom this reporter was fortunate enough to have a fan experience with! And that, ladies and gentleman, proved to be the highlight of Super Bowl week for me.
Rare artifacts on display
Judging by the crowds, another highlight of NFLX was the Pro Football Hall of Fame exhibit. The exhibit contained an impressive number of rare and seldom-seen artifacts from the early days of organized football, as well as game-worn items from current or recently retired gridiron greats.
Leather helmets, a nose guard and shoes highlighted the Turn-of-the-Century Equipment Exhibit. Numerous items were featured in the Jim Thorpe/Canton Bulldogs exhibit, including a 1920-style helmet. Other notable pieces featured in the Hall of Fame exhibit included jerseys from Bronko Nagurski (circa 1929-32), Earl (Dutch) Clark (1930s style), Sid Luckman (circa 1940-45), Johnny Unitas (circa 1958) and Jim Brown, along with helmets from Sammy Baugh (circa 1940-45) and Roger Staubach.
Giveaways and wrapper redemptions
Both Topps and Panini America had booths set up at NFLX, and each company gave away free samples or special sets. In addition, each company offered a wrapper redemption program that enabled collectors to receive special cards of players from the Super Bowl host city’s own Indianapolis Colts, as well as cards of players from both Super Bowl teams, the Giants and Patriots.
At the Topps booth, collectors could open three packs of cards and redeem the wrappers for any card from the following team sets: Colts (P. Manning, Freeny, Garcon, Wayne, Mathis), Giants (E. Manning, Nicks, Pierre-Paul, Cruz, Bradshaw), Patriots (Brady, Gronkowski, Hernandez, Welker, Green-Ellis). Topps was also selling its 2011 Football complete sets featuring five special Super Bowl highlight cards and was giving away samples of its Super Bowl Legends cards and packs of 2011 Topps Chrome.
At the Panini America booth, representatives were giving away a special Peyton Manning Tribute Set to the first 15,000 fans that visited the booth during the opening weekend. For every three packs of 2011 Panini America NFL product opened at the company’s booth, collectors could choose one of seven Super Bowl MVP cards as part of the wrapper redemption promotion (Rodgers, Brady, E. Manning, Montana, Aikman, Elway, Brees). A special Panini America NFL set was also available for purchase; customers who purchased this set, which consisted of a nine-card Pats set, a nine-card Giants set and a 10-card Colts set, also received a limited-edition Super Bowl XLVI patch card only available at NFLX.
Panini also set up a small booth in the children’s NFL Rush Zone, and representatives handed out sticker albums that included not only a starter set of stickers but also a special set of Giants and Patriots Super Bowl stickers (Brady, Welker, Gronkowski, E. Manning, Nicks, Tuck). Regular sticker packs and player cards were also distributed.
Super Bowl live auction and appraisal fair
I caught up with David Hunt of Hunt Auctions the day before the show opened. He and his team had brought a treasure trove of football items to NFLX for daily silent auctions and a live auction that was conducted on Feb. 4. The group was to be quite busy over the course of the show; in addition to conducting an Appraisal Fair (see below) and auctions, they also participated in the Memorabilia Roadshow, an NFLX version of Antiques Roadshow, and held an eight-day preview exhibition of the 350-plus lots in the live auction.
I happily accompanied David on a tour of what was being offered, including several late entries. Many of the items, notably several high-profile game-used jerseys, came directly from NFL Auctions, and therefore were accompanied with iron-clad provenance in the form of certification directly from the NFL. A portion of the proceeds from many of the items were to benefit charities designated by the NFL, its teams and NFL Players.
The item that garnered spirited bidding throughout the week and fetched the highest winning bid ($46,000 including the buyer’s premium) was a game-used Tom Brady jersey (which came direct from NFL Auctions).
Many items that were featured brought attention to major historical moments behind the game. For example, a certificate of membership to the NFL confirming admittance to the NFL of a team that would eventually become the current-day Indianapolis Colts, sold for $30,000 (without buyer’s premium). Another item that garnered great interest was a Charles Bidwell Sr. autograph ($6,050, not including buyer’s premium). He was the owner of the Chicago Cardinals during the early days of professional football, and his autograph is exceedingly rare.
An assortment of Super Bowl game-used equipment items were offered, including endzone pylons and game balls. Perhaps the best deal to be had was a game-used jersey of the eventual Super Bowl XLVI MVP, Eli Manning. His Steiner Authenticated jersey sold for a mere $4,950 (not including buyer’s premium).
Several fans took advantage of the opportunity to bring their memorabilia to the Hunt Auctions pavilion for free appraisals. One gentleman brought in a 1966 Green Bay Packers team-signed football, while I witnessed an appraisal of a 1960s-era mini-megaphone (appraised at $25).
NFL Pro Shop
Artist Tom Wolfe had produced a limited edition of 2,500 sculptures commemorating Super Bowl XLVI. Wolfe was to be present and signing his pieces for those who purchased them during some of the days that the NFLX was open.
Charles Fazzino’s limited-edition artwork was also available for purchase at the NFL Pro Shop.
Approximately 20 memorabilia dealers spread out their wares at the NFLX Memorabilia Show. Many of the dealers were selling the usual variety of autographed or new full-size helmets, mini-helmets, footballs, pictures of known or potential autograph guests or NFL stars, and cards that qualified for the Topps or Panini America wrapper redemption programs.
Collectors hoping to purchase vintage memorabilia or game-used items were likely to have been disappointed, however, as very few dealers sold such material. While many dealers seemed to sell many of the same items, a few dealers did bring some unique pieces, such as hand-painted helmets of both Super Bowl XLVI quarterbacks, signed by both the artist and players.
The abundance of unique interactive events, and the excellent organization and layout made this the most highly-attended NFL Experience in its 20-year history. The unparalleled access to a plethora of athletes and celebrities, as well as interesting exhibits, made NFLX a popular destination even to the casual fan.
Topps and Panini America provided some very attractive cards for their giveaways and redemption sets, and several guests took advantage of the free memorabilia appraisals offered by Hunt Auctions.
By day, Joe Dynlacht is an associate professor in the Departments of Radiation Oncology and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Christine Mills and Noah Gold for providing behind-the-scenes access to NFLX and other information for this article.