Football season is almost upon us. Summer training camp is already underway for the professional teams; soon to be followed by college and high school squads as the beginning of the school year rapidly approaches. One event that precedes each and every NFL season is the enshrinement of a new group of Hall of Famers. This year's ceremony takes place on Saturday at the Canton, Ohio home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame where this year's five inductees will bring the total to 216. Since the inductees were announced back in February there is no suspense about their names: George Allen, Dave Casper, Dan Hampton, Jim Kelly and John Stallworth.
The Hall of Fame was opened back in September 1963 with a charter class of 17, all but one posthumously. Subsequent classes have been limited to no more than seven inductees and, in addition to players, have included 19 coaches, 12 team owners, and seven league or team administrators. Considering the thousands of NFL players during the history of the game selection to this group is quite an honor indeed. Not surprisingly, Notre Dame is the best represented college at 10, including Casper just this year and Southern California is a close second at 9, including O.J. Simpson. Perhaps more surprisingly, Da' Chicago Bears are the most represented team in the league with 26 inductees, including Hampton. The storied Green Bay Packers rank second with 19 inductees.
Earlier this summer my son Preston and I visited Canton and the Hall of Fame. To be brutally honest, my expectations weren't super high and what little we saw of Canton before arriving at the site was not encouraging. The site is located in the northwest corner of Canton, just off Interstate 77 and its hours of operation could hardly be more accommodating. From Memorial Day to Labor Day it is open from 9am to 8pm every day, the hours are 9-5 the remainder of the year and it is closed only on Christmas.
We arrived early on a Thursday morning and had our pick of parking. The first thing I noticed upon arrival is that the 83,000 sqft building is much more impressive in appearance that you might gather from photographs. A bronze statue of Jim Thorpe greets you as you enter and a gently rising spiral staircase takes you to the start of the historical exhibits on the second level. I must admit my skepticism was quickly squelched as we began to explore this historical exhibit. Preston and I concurred that this ''celebration of the first century of pro football'' was easily the most interesting and intriguing component of the Hall.
This circular room includes photos and memorabilia predating the NFL as it documents the history of professional football. Everything from vintage uniforms, pad and helmets to newspaper and radio coverage of key games and players are included. Why you can even read complete early player contracts when the entire document fit on a single page. This is a poignant retelling of a sport's history not just from the perspective of the players, but also that of colorful team owners, legendary coaches and outrageous fans. Kind of puts the modern day NFL into perspective!
Next you walk into a smaller room summarizing the Modern NFL and all the current teams, including the newest expansion team the Houston Texans (who play the New York Giants right there Monday night). You then walk into the first of two ''Enshrinement Galleries.'' These rooms are what the Hall of Fame is all about. A bronze bust and a painted mural along with a brief written account of his football achievements represent each inductee. The honorees are arrayed in no apparent order in two rooms that seem to be rapidly filling up. A third similar room, apparently an enshrinement gallery in-waiting, displays mementos of the enshrinees.
For a building that has already seen three expansions since its modest beginning at 19,000 sqft one clearly gets the impression that another expansion will soon be needed to properly display the large cache of memorabilia. The most recent expansion, of which the staff takes great pride, is the ''GameDay Stadium.'' Built at a cost of $9.6 million seven years ago this is essentially a round theater with stadium style seating that revolves 360 degrees. Billed as ''Pro football as you've never experienced it'' my son and I had great expectations as we waited in line for our seat.
What you see are two twenty-some minute films: ''Training Camp'' and ''The Stadium Show.'' The photography is a typically superb NFL Films production taking you first through the rigors of training camp. Apparently designed to enhance the impact the volume was far too high for my comfort. We kept waiting for the exciting revolving effect throughout the first film. Alas, we soon discovered that all you do is revolve 180 degrees immediately prior to seeing the second film. While this permits the Hall of Fame to maximize the use of this theater without asking you to get up and move to the next film it hardly adds to the experience. Thankfully, volume levels on the second film were noticeably lower and more comfortable as it summarized a complete regular NFL season leading to a Super Bowl.
When you exit the GameDay Stadium yougo down stairs to the interactive fan exhibits, a second more conventional NFL Films theater, the tailgating snack bar and the obligatory museum store. The interactive exhibits are clearly aimed toward the younger family member who may not be ready to fully appreciate the upstairs exhibits. The second theater shows a different NFL Films production every hour and draws from a seemingly endless library of great films. From this fans perspective, these films are at least as attractive to true football fans as the much-hyped GameDay presentation.
A casual football fan would enjoy a half-day spent at the NFL Hall of Fame and the more rabid fan could easily spend an entire day there. The exhibits are presented well and updated regularly from an extensive collection and the staff are friendly and helpful. Admission is modest, $12 for adults, $6 for children under 14, $8 for seniors; but a special family rate of $30 for up to two parents and all their children is a real bargain. I suggest that you plan the visit as one stop along your vacation route rather than a destination by itself. Not only is Canton is quite a drive from Galesburg (nearly 560 miles and between 9.5 and 10 hours) but there is little else to see or do in this depressing rustbelt town.