There are two knocks that Ray Prisby will never forget.
The first one happened last November when Prisby’s childhood idol Jim Brown showed up at his house. Prisby, a diehard Cleveland Browns fan and team memorabilia collector, was named a finalist for the 2021 Ford Hall of Fans and Brown wanted to share the good news.
Three months later, while in Tampa for Super Bowl LV, Prisby — waiting anxiously in a conference room to find out if he had been chosen to the exclusive fan hall of fame — received another knock. On the other side of the door was Pro Football Hall of Fame President and CEO David Baker. He had the unique honor of letting Prisby know he would be entering the Ford Hall of Fans.
“I hadn’t gotten over Jim Brown coming over to my house,” joked Prisby, a Youngstown, Ohio native. “For me, Jim Brown is/was/still is everything. When it comes to football, there’s Jim Brown and then everybody else pick a seat behind him. Just the fact that he came to my house, just right now talking about it, I still get excited.
“The fact that now Mr. Baker comes and gives me the knock and now I’m going to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, obviously, it’s in a separate wing, but it’s still in the Hall of Fame. If I could convert what I’m feeling into energy or if I could convert it into money, oh my gosh, I would be a multibillionaire. You can’t bottle this feeling.”
PHOTO GALLERY: The Ray Prisby Cleveland Browns Collection
It was a heck of a three-month stretch for Prisby. It was all possible because of Prisby’s fandom for his favorite franchise.
“Fan is short for fanatics, so I plead the fifth,” Prisby said.
The 66-year-old jokes that he was born into being a Browns fan and didn’t have a choice.
A card collector as a kid, Prisby got out of the hobby as a teenager. Soon after getting discharged from an 11-year stint in the Air Force, Prisby accompanied his son to a card show in 1989. When he saw the prices of some of his cards he had collected as a youngster, he jumped right back into the hobby.
When you say Prisby jumped into the hobby, that means he dove in full bore.
“My problem is, and it’s probably because of my OCD, if I start something, I can’t stop it,” Prisby said. “I’ll give you the perfect example. I collected a bobblehead, and I didn’t stop until I had every Cleveland Browns bobblehead that there was. I collected a pennant, and I didn’t stop until I had every pennant that I could possibly collect.
“Like my kids say, I’m an organized hoarder.”
Prisby conservatively estimates he has between 5,000 and 7,500 Browns pieces. He doesn’t necessarily collect specific items. His massive collection takes up nearly five rooms.
“If it’s orange and brown and says Cleveland Browns, I collect it,” Prisby said. “To be honest with you, the more odd-ball, the better. I do the traditional jerseys, signed jerseys, signed cleats, signed jerseys, signed pants, game-used, all of that.”
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A few pieces that Prisby cherishes most revolve around a player who never actually played a down for the Browns — Ernie Davis. The No. 1 overall pick in the 1962 NFL Draft was selected by the Washington Redskins and traded to the Browns. He was supposed to be paired with Brown to form a dynamic 1-2 punch in the backfield, but Davis was diagnosed with leukemia and died prior to his rookie season.
In 1995, Prisby was reading Sports Collectors Digest when he saw an auction that listed Davis’ original Browns’ contract for sale. There are only two copies that exist: one for the player and one for the team.
“And at the time, the Ernie Davis movie wasn’t out, so unless you were a diehard Browns fan, those were the only people that knew who Ernie Davis was,” Prisby said. “When I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ It was at Leland’s Auction. I called up Leland’s, and I had never done this before, but I said, ‘What would it take to get this piece out of the auction?’ He said, ‘Someone will call you back.’ They called me back and said, ‘We talked it over, we’re going to have to have X-amount of dollars for it.’ And I was like, ‘Sold.’”
Another highlight of Prisby’s collection is a Browns team-signed football from the 1962 season. The ball has autographs from Davis and teammate Don Fleming, who died accidentally the following year.
Prisby’s collection isn’t complete without his Jim Brown pieces: game-used jerseys, helmets, autographs. Prisby said he has more than 1,000 autographs from his favorite player of all time.
But Prisby’s top Brown items aren’t just game-used jerseys or autographs — they are odd-ball items.
When asked about his best Jim Brown pieces, Prisby narrowed it down to his favorite three. No. 1 on his list is a 1962 Brown card that came on the back of Post cereal boxes. He has the complete cereal box. Prisby’s second choice is a game-used jersey of Brown. The third pick comes from Yukon coffee. In the early 1960s, the company gave away canvas prints that could only be obtained via the mail by sending in labels from the packaging.
“Those prints are really, really, really hard to come by,” Prisby said. “I finally found one and the first thing I did was waited for a Jim Brown signing and I got him to sign it. That’s a tough piece.”
The Pro Football Hall of Fame used to have drawings by Gary Thomas of each Hall of Famer behind their honorary bust. Those drawings and partitions were eliminated a number of years ago. Prisby received a call from someone who had obtained the Jim Brown drawing. It didn’t take long for Prisby to buy that piece too.
Prisby, who is retired, is always on the hunt for new items to add to his large collection. During the pandemic, when sports cards and collectables skyrocketed, Prisby has picked up some cool pieces.
While a lot of collectors have ramped up their buying habits since COVID-19, Prisby’s collecting habits haven’t changed.
“Probably at any given time, I have 100 pieces in eBay that I’m watching,” he said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it picked up, because I’m pretty steady all the way through. I think the only thing that’s changed is that I’ve gotten so much stuff that I give away a lot of stuff.”
But a bright spot during the pandemic for Prisby were his experiences with the Ford Hall of Fans. A friend of Prisby’s heard about the contest — which just started three years ago — and told him he should think about entering. Prisby filled out an application online but hadn’t heard anything.
Then one day out of the blue, the Pro Football Hall of Fame contacted Prisby to send in some videos of his collection. His videos obviously impressed those who were paring down the nominees. They contacted Prisby and said a camera crew would be coming out to his house.
“I specifically asked them, ‘How many people go on to this level?’” Prisby said. “They said, ‘Oh, roughly about 1,000.’ That was a set up because once they send someone out to do the interview, you’re one of the finalists. But I didn’t know any of that.”
The crew came out and shot video all morning. After lunch, there was a knock on Prisby’s door. He thought it might be another crew member.
“I go to the door and there standing in his gold jacket is Jim Brown,” Prisby said. “The only thing that saved me — because it was one of those moments you hear about where people can’t say anything, kind of like frozen in time, that’s how I was — the only thing that saved me is I looked up and I saw his wife, who we recognize each other. Any time there’s a Jim Brown signing anywhere close in the area, I go to it. Our little running joke is, ‘Oh, my gosh. What are you getting signed today?’”
Brown checked out Prisby’s collection and his room dedicated to his idol. The two took photos together and Brown signed one of his jerseys for Prisby.
“Ray and his house tops everything I’ve ever seen on me,” Brown said in a video shot by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “It’s unbelievable what he’s done, and I appreciate it. I can look back and see some history I forgot about. It’s just fantastic. It makes my day. It makes my year.”
As a finalist for the Hall of Fans, Prisby was invited to Tampa for Super Bowl LV. On the Saturday before the big game, the three finalists were all in separate conference rooms in a hotel waiting for their fate to find out if they would enter the Ford Hall of Fans.
Prisby conducted an interview and was told if he was chosen, he would get a knock on the door.
“I didn’t get a knock and 10 minutes went by, 20 minutes went by and I’m sitting there, probably lost 10 pounds from sweat,” Prisby said. “My son-in-law was in there with me and said, ‘Hey, I think somebody’s outside that door.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think so.’ Then all of a sudden you hear that, boom, boom, boom, and I jumped up and it was almost like a movie.
“The doors swung wide open and there is this mountain of a man, Dave Baker. And he comes in and congratulates me and that whole thing. But the thing that stood out the most was that he said, ‘You no longer represent the Cleveland Browns, you represent the NFL and the Hall of Fame and this is going to change your life.’ In that moment, I was reduced to a 12-year-old, because it hit me.”
Prisby has had some rough days in the last year. His 96-year-old mother, whom he helped care for, passed away in April. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the military. Nowadays, if Prisby has a rough moment, he just watches the videos of Brown coming to his house and when he realized he was going into the Hall of Fans, and he’s uplifted.
“I’ve actually found something that can help me with it,” Prisby said. “I hadn’t been able to put into words what this feeling is like for Jim Brown to come to my house and be inducted into the Hall of Fans in the Hall of Fame.”
CONTINUING HIS COLLECTION
Being named to the Ford Hall of Fans won’t change Prisby’s collecting habits.
“I think what happens is more people reach out to me, but it doesn’t change my habits,” Prisby said. “But what I’ve noticed has happened is more people are reaching out to me and saying, ‘Hey, I have this piece.’”
Prisby invites anyone who might have an interesting Browns piece to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He plans on continuing his collection and wants to pick up some “white whales” — the hard-to-find pieces. A couple items have eluded Prisby over the years.
In 1960, Topps put tattoos in its packs, and Prisby owns an uncut sheet of those tattoos. However, he has only ever seen one Jim Brown single tattoo. Prisby wants to track down one of those.
He is also in search of a Bazooka gum box from 1959 with Jim Brown on the back. Prisby owns a Brown card that was cut out, but he’d like a complete box.
“Anything Jim Brown game-used, would love to get,” he said. “That jersey that Ernie Davis wore in all his promo pictures would probably be cool to get as well.”
Even when Prisby was living overseas while in the military, he stayed true to his Cleveland roots. While living in Los Angeles for more than a decade earlier this century, Prisby’s only constant was his Browns collection.
“When I was living in L.A., I always had too much stuff, so I always had to put stuff in storage,” Prisby said. “I don’t know what made me do it, but I set up my storage unit like a mini man cave and on bad days — this is the honest to God truth — I would go into my storage unit and I would just sit there. There was something about surrounding myself with that stuff.
“I know that is true because I’ve got friends that come over and say, ‘Man, I need some time back in the room.’ They’ll go back there and they’ll just sit back there. It recharges me. So, I totally get that.”
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