By Robert Kunz
The Pro Football Hall of Fame celebrated its golden anniversary in August in Canton, Ohio. In those 50 years since 1963, the Hall of Fame has inducted 280 individuals.
The weekend’s schedule of events brought back a record 120 Hall of Famers. This surpassed the 40th anniversary celebration in 2003 when 103 returning Hall of Famers returned to Canton. This certainly had to be the largest single gathering of Hall of Famers of any sport ever. The Pro Football Hall of Fame does have the ability to draw from 162 living members. Compare that to a little more than 60 living Baseball Hall of Fame members.
So many greats were attendance: Jim Brown, Joe Namath, Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice, Dick Butkus, Joe Greene, John Madden, Barry Sanders and Roger Staubach, to name just a few.
There were three main gatherings during the weekend. The 50th anniversary photo on the steps of the Hall of Fame, the Jacket Presentation ceremony and the Enshrinement ceremony. It was difficult to get an exact count of the number of Hall of Famers present at these gatherings, as some attended only one or two or these events.
The celebration honored those returning members and a select group of seven greats who made up the Class of 2013. Enshrined in 2013 were Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Warren Sapp, Curly Culp, David Robinson, Jonathan Ogden and Bill Parcells.
Allen was elected to 11 Pro Bowls, is a member of NFL All-Decade Teams of 1990s and 2000s and was a first-team All-Pro for seven straight years during his career. His blocking talents led the way for Emmitt Smith in Dallas and Frank Gore in San Francisco. There was a large contingency of Dallas players in attendance, from Hall of Famers Smith, Troy Aikman, Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin to Dallas notables Tony Romo and Jay Novacek. Allen paid tribute to Aikman, Irvin, Smith and Sanders in this enshrinement speech.
In the same weekend when there was a lot of talk about baseball suspensions and the A-Rod situation, Allen had a funny story to tell. He brought up a story about a game he had against the great Reggie White, and he told how he had never been dominated like that before in his life. So he got focused in the weight room and set his sights on becoming the strongest man in the NFL (doing it naturally). After he once benched 700 pounds, he said, “The NFL tested me twice a week for the rest of my career.”
The Cowboys were also on hand to honor former coach Bill Parcells. Parcells was the first to coach four different teams into the playoffs. He also coached the Giants to victories in Super Bowls XXI and XXV, and the Patriots to a Super Bowl XXXI appearance. Parcells was also honored as the NFL Coach of the Year in 1986 and 1994. Parcells gave credit to Al Davis, Tom Landry, Chuck Knox and Chuck Noll as mentors and advisers early in his career. Notable in the audience was current Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who served as an assistant under Parcells.
Parcells had one request of the Hall of Fame: “The only thing I would ask them to do is when they put my bust in the hall tomorrow, I’d like to be somewhere near Lawrence Taylor, so I can keep an eye on that sucker.”
While Allen was helping the likes of Emmitt Smith, Jonathan Ogden was leading the way for running back Jamal Lewis (who became fifth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season). Ogden played in 11 Pro Bowls and is a member of NFL’s All-Decade Team of 2000s. He was the first franchise pick of the Baltimore Ravens, and the first Raven player to make it into the Hall of Fame. Ray Lewis was in Canton to support his teammate. Lewis will have to wait a few years before he joins him in the Hall of Fame.
Wide receiver Cris Carter had eight straight 1,000-yard seasons, and at the time of his retirement, he was second to only Jerry Rice with 130 career touchdowns and 1,101 career receptions. Carter was selected to eight Pro Bowls (1994-2001) and is a member of NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s. I guess Carter was regarded as one of the best basketball players in the state of Ohio when he was in high school as well, but his high school football coach, Bill Conley, told him he would have a better chance to be Lynn Swann than Isiah Thomas. I guess Coach Conley was right.
Warren Sapp was named to seven Pro Bowls, named All-Pro four times and named to NFL’s All-Decade Teams in the 1990s and 2000s. He finished his career with 96.5 sacks.
Curly Culp helped Kansas City to a Super Bowl IV victory and helped turn around the Houston Oilers. Culp played in six Pro Bowls and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1975.
The Green Bay Packers dynasty from the 1960s added another member to the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the enshrinement of David Robinson. Robinson played for the Packers during the period the team won three straight NFL championships, 1965-67, and also Super Bowl I and II wins. He played in three Pro Bowls and is a member of NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1960s. Robinson would play defense on a team loaded with future Hall of Famers: Willie Davis, Herb Adderley, Ray Nitschke and Willie Wood. He noted of his teammates, “The strongest left side in the history of the National Football League.” Five Hall of Famers were on Packers’ left side of the defense. Prior to this pro career, Robinson played at Penn State from 1960-62 under then-assistant coach, Joe Paterno. Robinson has also served on the board of directors of the Hall of Fame for the past 27 years.
As a rookie in Green Bay in 1963, this year was also the 50th anniversary of his introduction into the NFL. Willie Davis, Willie Wood and Forrest Gregg were on hand to honor another Packer great into the Hall of Fame.
Collectibles and the signing scene
The Pro Football Hall of Fame introduced a number of special 50th anniversary commemorative collectibles this year. They offered apparel, as well as footballs, mini-helmets and full-size helmets with the 50th anniversary logo. I especially liked the 50th logo and design of the helmets. They looked very sharp when signed in gold ink. I guess many of the Hall of Famers agreed, and many were seen carrying one or two full-sized helmets around to get signed. The likes of Curtis Martin, Gale Sayers and Franco Harris were getting these helmets signed by all the greats in attendance. These items are still for sale at the Pro Football Hall of Fame website.
One piece of good advice for those of you who are planning on attending a Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend: Do your homework before heading out. I did not follow my own advice, and I missed out on two harder to get Hall of Famers. Mean Joe Greene signed Friday at a Giant Eagle store in Canton. You had to request tickets in advance. If you did not get Mean Joe Greene at that signing, you were probably out of luck. He was mean, downright mean, in the other fan-seeking-autograph interactions I witnessed during the weekend. He was one I did not even approach. There would be no trading of a jersey for a soda that weekend.
Alan Page had a book signing on Saturday at the Hall of Fame. Books were available for sale at the signing and proceeds were to support the Page Education Foundation. The Hall of Fame website stated that only books would be signed, but I heard that Page would also sign one of your personal items. So I missed out on two great opportunities in not doing my homework.
The Hall of Fame brought back its own autograph sessions on Saturday and Sunday. This was not the signing sessions of the past, when the Hall would offer 10 members in a session for $100. Before my time, I have been told those sessions were $35. In recent years, the Hall of Fame turned over any paid signings to Mounted Memories.
This year both the Hall of Fame and Mounted Memories brought in many greats for signings. The HOF had dozens of autograph guests, including Fred Biletnikoff, Mike Ditka, Ozzie Newsome, Carl Eller, Forrest Gregg, James Lofton, Charlie Joiner, Frank Gifford, Jerry Rice, Gale Sayers and Steve Young. Prices ranged from $20-$150 per autograph depending on the guest. Mounted Memories autograph guests included Cris Carter, Bill Parcells, Jack Lambert, Roger Staubach, Dan Fouts, Don Shula, Lawrence Taylor, Eric Dickerson and many more.
Saturday’s events off the Hall of Fame grounds included signings at the Westfield Belden Village Mall and the Belden Village Holiday Inn. These are annual events during HOF weekend. Superstar Sports Signings brings a quality card and memorabilia show to the Westfield Belden Village Mall. As you might expect, the show specializes in football memorabilia and cards. It is the best place over the weekend to pick up some nice items. This year’s signing guests included Leroy Kelly, Ted Hendricks and Sam Huff. Since it is rare to see Kelly or Hendricks sign for free in Canton, it is a good place to have them sign your items for a reasonable cost.
Right across the street at the Belden Village Holiday Inn, autograph guests included Billy Shaw, Jimmy Johnson, Willie Roaf, Dermontti Dawson, Ron Mix, Bruce Smith, Jim Kelly, Dave Casper, Ozzie Newsome, Earl Campbell, James Lofton, Marv Levy, Joe DeLamielleure and Warren Moon.
There are some free autograph opportunities during the weekend, but you have to put in some long days and the results are hit or miss. At the Hall of Fame player hotel, Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Roger Staubach, Frank Gifford, John Stallworth, Curtis Martin, Jim Kelly, Shannon Sharpe, Willie Davis, Steve Largent and others did stop and sign. But this was over a four-day period, and there are no guarantees. Gale Sayers and Shannon Sharpe each signed approximately 10-15 autographs. The number of autograph seekers can range from 40 people to more than 100 depending on the time of day. And some go to great lengths, from chasing cars to trying to keep up with Troy Aikman while he was out for a jog.
I attended the Legends photo in hopes that some of the Hall of Famers would stop as they walked into or out of the area where the photo was being taken. A few hundred people were on hand to watch this historic photo-op, as more than 100 Hall of Famers gathered on the steps of the HOF. Only Earl Campbell stopped and signed a few autographs on the way out from the photo.
After the photo, all of the Hall of Famers attended the Nitschke luncheon. During and after the lunch, Jack Ham and Roger Staubach signed around 30 items each for fans. I was sure that more than three out of more than 100 Hall of Famers would have signed for the onlooking fans. I spent about five hours at this event, and I left without a single success.
There were some limited opportunities at the Jacket Ceremony and the Enshrinement Ceremony. I saw Howie Long, Dan Rooney and Lenny Moore sign a few items. Joe Namath signed one item at the Jacket ceremony. After he signed that one item, he looked up and saw five or six others looking for the same, and he threw his hands up and stated that he could not sign any more. I only heard that Jerry Rice signed 20 or so items at the induction ceremony, but I was not at the right time at the right place for either Rice or Namath for any part of the weekend. I heard that Rice was a good signer. I know friends that have had luck with him at a golf tournament or Super Bowl event. But I have never had the pleasure of meeting him in person.
I did have an opportunity to meet him one-on-one early one morning – too early for him. He would not sign for me, stating that is was just too early, and I proceeded to try to ask him a few questions. He did not want to even engage in any conversation.
I was very glad to get my first-ever signatures of John Madden, Dick Butkus, John Stallworth and Howie Long. So it was a good weekend. I was glad to see some friends I only see once or twice a year. And having attended the 40th anniversary, it would have been hard to keep me away for the 50th. Coming home with a Joe Namath and Jerry Rice autograph would have been icing on the cake, but that was not to be.
I want to end this article with a few inspiring words from the Class of 2013.
“Yes, I was blessed with tremendous God-given talent, yes, but talent isn’t enough. A lot of people have talent, but they don’t always live up to it. For me, it’s about trying to maximize every little bit you have. It’s about trying to give it your all. If you strive for perfection, maybe, just maybe, you can become great. You don’t just develop these habits naturally. These habits are instilled in you by people.” (Jonathan Ogden)
“You know, this is an occasion that’s long been in my dreams and now lives in reality. I cannot express how glorious a feeling this is for me and my family who have long hoped with me that this day would come. So to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame gives me joy and inspiration that would last the rest of my life.” (Curly Culp)
Robert Kunz is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.