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

Vincent Ruggiero, Peyton Manning, and Ray Lewis get ready to hit the field.
Vincent Ruggiero, Peyton Manning, and Ray Lewis get ready to hit the field. Photo by Bob Ruggiero
In Part I of our series, we discussed some of the Hall’s interactive exhibits, stories of pro football’s early popularity and integration issues, and their planned interactive app. In Part II, we’ll look at the Hall’s origin, highlighted exhibits, and the Hall’s Houston connections.

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

“Professional football did not start here in Canton, that was in Pittsburgh in 1892. But the NFL was founded here, and that brought a lot of structure to the sport.” Saleem Choudhry, VP of Museum/Exhibit Services at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is sitting in a conference room explaining to my teenage son Vincent and myself just why the Hall calls Canton, Ohio home.

On September 17, 1920, representatives from 10 professional teams got together and decided to form the American Professional Football Association, which two years later would become the National Football League. And the city’s Canton Bulldogs – led by player and APFA President Jim Thorpe – made Canton a football hotbed. When it came time to lobby for a home to the Hall of Fame, local citizens and businesses lobbied for Canton and raised around $400,000 (around $3.38 million in today’s dollars) for its initial construction. 

click to enlarge Its the "iconic' elbow brace that helped J.J. Watt with his Sacks Appeal. - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Its the "iconic' elbow brace that helped J.J. Watt with his Sacks Appeal.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
The Hall opened its doors in 1963 with an inaugural class of 17 charter members. It’s hard to imagine, but pro football for much of its lifetime was only a fraction as popular – or respected as a sport – as it is today. Nevertheless, Choudhry and the staff take the preservation of pro football’s history very seriously.

“We are a museum and accredited just like the Smithsonian and the Louvre, the only major sports hall of fame to have that. Our mission is to preserve the history of the game. And that’s our main charge, but it’s also to showcase its story,” he says.

And though there are thousands of uniforms, balls, and artifacts on display, Choudhry says what we saw was “only about 1 percent” of the Hall’s total holdings. It’s something they actively seek out, even when a player is nowhere near a potential induction yet. He has two Houston examples.

When Texans rookie QB Deshaun Watson had an amazing game last October against the Atlanta Falcons, passing for 400+ passing yards and five touchdown tosses with less than five incompletes and then rushing for 50+ yards, the Hall asked for and received his red cleats from the game for display. They also have J.J. Watt’s elbow brace from the 2015 season when he won Defensive Player of the Year.

Currently, there are eight players associated with the Houston Oilers who have been inducted: George Blanda (’81), Ken Houston (’86), Earl Campbell (’91), Mike Munchak (’01), Elvin Bethea (’03), Warren Moon (’06), Bruce Matthews (’07), and Robert Brazile (’18).

Choudhry says that while the Texans have not been around long enough as a franchise to have an eligible inductee, he’s betting that Andre Johnson will get the first nod. Houston Oiler artifacts are spread through the Hall, and video of their 1992 38-41 AFC Wild Card playoff game loss to the Buffalo Bills made the video display of “Greatest Upsets.”

Here are three exhibits in particular that had Vincent (and me) enthralled:

click to enlarge Look at all those Joe Namath cards!! - PHOTO BY THE PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME
Look at all those Joe Namath cards!!
Photo by the Pro Football Hall of Fame
The Hunter-Casterline Pro Football Hall of Fame Card Collection –The greatest collection of football cards in the world was put together by two high-profile collectors. This exhibit right at the Hall’s front entrance displays hundreds of player cards going all the way back to 1888, selected from a total of 300,000. Displayed in easy-to-see vertical glass cases, it’s interesting to see how not only the design of cards has evolved over the years, but also the athlete depictions, use of color, and special designs.

There’s plenty of famous rookie cards – including more than a dozen examples of what’s considered the most desirable specimen ever, the Joe Namath 1965 rookie card. Also included is the 1935 National Chicle Football (the “Holy Grail” of sets), and the 1957 Topps Card Set that includes a “who’s who” of future Hall of Famers.

click to enlarge The Game of Life theater experience with....Hologram Joe Namath! - PHOTO BY THE PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME
The Game of Life theater experience with....Hologram Joe Namath!
Photo by the Pro Football Hall of Fame
The Game of Life – Joe Namath pops up again (in an amazingly life-like holographic form) in an experience that goes beyond the realm of sports into life lessons. Set in a locker room with artifacts from some of the game’s biggest names, the immersive theatre experience with lights, sound, and video has Namath hosting a halftime pep talk with video reminiscing of Hall inductees who overcame some sort of personal or social obstacle in their lives. And how what they learned playing the game of football helped inspire or effect their actions.

Interestingly, Houston pops up a number of times. Warren Moon talks frankly about his struggle to be taken seriously as a black quarterback. Despite being the 1977 Rose Bowl MVP in his college career, Moon was not drafted at all to the NFL, and played six seasons in Canada before his talent could not be denied. He went on to play an additional 17 seasons in the NFL.

Steve Largent recalls how, after being drafted by the Oilers, then-coach Bum Phillips showed his outward disdain for his pre-season performances at every opportunity, cutting him from the roster and trading him to the Seattle Seahawks before actual games began.

After Largent went on to a stellar career, Phillips called it the “worst trade he ever made.” And when Largent became a member of U.S. House of Representatives post-football, he says (jokingly…or not?) that the first thing he did was “call the IRS and order an audit on Bum Phillips.” Both Vincent and I found the whole thing actually inspiring!

Road to the Super Bowl Theater – After watching a highlight reel of contemporary teams in training camp and the regular season, you’re ushered in to a specially-built theatre that gives an incredible, immersive experience going through the highs and lows of the 2018 Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams (spoiler alert – the Pats won). 

click to enlarge The Pro Football Hall of Fame's Saleem Choudhry of believes that the first Houston Texan inductee will be Andre Johnson. - PHOTO BY THE PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME
The Pro Football Hall of Fame's Saleem Choudhry of believes that the first Houston Texan inductee will be Andre Johnson.
Photo by the Pro Football Hall of Fame
The video on huge, multiple screens includes player and coach mike audio, and the crunches from hits boom through the loud speakers. Lights flash, the seats actually shake, and in the most dramatic fashion, the entire theater  turns 180 degrees to even larger screens. When the whole thing is over, Vincent and I felt like we had actually been on the sidelines. “That was pretty intense!” he told me.

Another interesting exhibit showcased how Pro Football and pop culture have intertwined. A video screen shows – there he is again! – a famous 1973 pantyhose commercial.

After showing a lot shot of a pair of covered legs – which the viewer eventually sees belongs to the quarterback – Namath intones “Now I don’t wear pantyhose. But if Beautymist can make my legs look good…imagine what they’ll do for yours!”

Back in the conference room, Choudhry talks about the hugely ambitious plan to make the Hall the center of the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village.

He says they’re about $250 million into the billion dollar project, and the Village will eventually have a hotel, water park, offices, local businesses, stadium, the Black College Football Hall of Fame, National Youth Football & Sports complex, a performance center, and a teaching center for coaches, academics, and business leaders.

That’s a bit far into the future. But for now, as Vincent and I leave the Hall via the gift shop (where dad got talked into forking over $100 for a Deshaun Watson Texans jersey) we pass a huge banner with photos of the 2020 Centennial Year inductees.

As I mentioned in Part I, I don’t know a whole lot about sports. Of the 20 men on the banner I knew three by name…and one of them only because he played “Mongo” in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Still, I look back – just to be sure that a Hologram Joe Namath didn’t follow me out…

For more on the Pro Football Hall of Fame, visit ProFootballHOF.com
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero