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| History |

Travels with Gen Z: The Pro Football Hall of Fame - Part I

Vincent Ruggiero gets an idea of how NFL players on the field communicate with coaches.EXPAND
Vincent Ruggiero gets an idea of how NFL players on the field communicate with coaches.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero

In the previous Travels with Gen Z articles, we visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Read Part I and Part II). Next, we drove about an hour south from Cleveland to Canton, Ohio, site of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Note: Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is closed at least through March 27.

For those who believe in the theory that certain personality traits or proclivities might “skip a generation” I would have to agree with you. How else otherwise could you explain that my late father Bob was an avid, diehard sports fan sports and especially of Houston’s football and basketball teams, as is my 16-year-old son Vincent.

The Hall has a lot of memorabilia including these Super Bowl worn jerseys, game footballs, and artifiacts.EXPAND
The Hall has a lot of memorabilia including these Super Bowl worn jerseys, game footballs, and artifiacts.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero

Me? Other than a brief flirtation with jock fandom as a preteen in the “Luv Ya Blue” Houston Oilers era and when Moses Malone played hoops for the Houston Rockets, I’m not a sports guy at all. Couldn’t tell you if the cornerback plays offense or defense, explain the kickoff return rule, or even what conference the Houston Texans play in.

But I do love history. So with Vincent, we tackled (see what I did there?) the task of roaming the Pro Football Hall of Fame, this in the 100th anniversary year of the National Football League. Though as Saleem Choudhry, the Hall’s Vice President of Museum/Exhibit Services explained to me, making your adult living from playing professional football wasn’t at all what it is today.

“At the time very early on, it was a rather dishonorable thing to do. If you were a college player and went on to play pro, people wondered why you were doing that and didn’t go into a career in business or something else. There was definitely a stigma,” he says.

Choudhry gives credit to the legendary American Olympic gold medalist and superstar athlete Jim Thorpe for changing that perception when he was named the inaugural President of the American Professional Football Association in 1920. Two years later, they changed their name to the National Football League. 

Vincent catches up with a local Houston gridiron hero and likely future Hall of Famer.
Vincent catches up with a local Houston gridiron hero and likely future Hall of Famer.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero

Thorpe would put on a regular suit for business meetings, then suit up in uniform to play on the field for the Canton Bulldogs, a team he had been with since 1915. Thorpe was so famous that crowds for games grew from a couple of hundred to up to 20,000.

Vincent was also interested in the exhibit area that showcased the story of integration and racial relations in the NFL. As Choudhry explained, after more than a dozen years in which no African-American was hired to play pro football, in 1946 the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and All-American Football Conference’s Cleveland Browns each hired two black players: Woody Strode and Kenny Washington (LA), and Bill Willis and Marion Motley (Browns).

That was a full year before Major League Baseball brought Jackie Robinson onto the diamond, something Vincent remembered hearing in the recent Jackie Robinson biopic 42. “Baseball did that seeing how successfully it worked in football. If [African-Americans] could survive in a tough game like football, they could do it in baseball,” Choudhry offers.

But tensions in the game certainly didn't end in the 1950s. Among the artifacts is one with a local angle - a program from the January 1965 AFL All-Star Game held in Houston's Jeppesen Stadium.

It had to be moved from its original location in New Orleans, Louisiana, when 21 African-American players planned to boycott the contest if it was held in that original city, due to overt acts of racism they had previously experienced there. After several high profile white players showed support for their cause, the game was moved.

But while looking at artifacts and videos were interesting, like many of his Gen Z football fans, Vincent was especially taken the more interactive experiences in the Hall. One machine puts you in the role of a head referee reviewing actual game footage from various angles and then “making a call” to either keep or overturn the first decision – before being shown what actually happened. Vincent went 5 for 5, and would have happily stayed inside the mock video booth longer. There were a few more interactive exhibits we’ll look at in Part II.

“The game itself is what people love, and they want to learn about the history. But the way you deliver that content will differ by the generations,” Choudhry says. “A Baby Boomer may be satisfied with looking at a graph on the wall, but Gen Z will want something much different.”

No, this is not inside the House of Black and White from "Game of Thrones," but a portion of busts in the inductee room.EXPAND
No, this is not inside the House of Black and White from "Game of Thrones," but a portion of busts in the inductee room.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero

He also has big hopes for an interactive app that the Hall is developing to really enhance a visit, especially geared toward tech-savvy Millennials and Gen Zers. The “big time project” will include a number of things, including a Pokémon Go-style video scavenger hunt, and something else more out of HBO’s Westworld than the locker room. And it involves the Hall of Fame inductee room itself which features life-like head busts of its 326 (to date) members.

“When John Madden was enshrined in 2006, he said when the last person leave the Hall of Fame at night, all those busts talk to each other. He said there’s nothing you can say to convince him otherwise!” Choudhry laughs. Through the use of AR (augmented reality), the Hall app will allow a visitor to ask a question of the player’s bust – and then see and hear the player talk back to you.

Vincent thought that sounded pretty cool, and was probably already thinking about what he might say to Earl Campbell, Ray Lewis, or Troy Polamalu.

Coming up on Part II: Background on the Hall of Fame, highlighted exhibits, which Houston Oilers have a place there, big plans for the future, and why it calls Canton, Ohio home.

For more on the Pro Football Hall of fame, visit ProFootballHOF.com

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