As it has for some 50 years, the Pro Football Hall of Fame revolves around the statue of Jim Thorpe under the trademark dome that reminds some – including Joe Horrigan’s son – of an orange juice squeezer.
But much under that dome has changed.
Two-story photos and graphics now dwarf the oversized bronze statue of
History of the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
- Opened in 1963, with 19,000 square feet.
- Previous expansions: 1971, 1978 and 1995
- Previous gallery renovations: 2003, 2008, and 2009.
- Largest expansion and renovation will be formally dedicated Saturday. The "Future 50" project brings the museum to 117,000 square feet and cost $27 million.
Thorpe, the NFL’s star and first commissioner. Gone is a spiral staircase -- and, notes Horrigan, his old office.
“We’ve gutted that building, and we have made now two stories, two floors of exhibit space, all new, all highly interactive, all very state of the art.”
And all very bronze, blue, gold.
“The bronze represents the bronze bust of the hall of famer, the inside of the dome now is gold to match the gold jacket and the blue we carry through here is the color of the hall of fame ring.”
Birth certificates and a guy named Heffelfinger
The first floor includes the NFL’s birth certificate – the document drawn up in a Huppmobile dealership in downtown Canton. Next to it is lesser-known document that may be as significant.
“The first player ever to accept money to play the game of football was Pudge Heffelfinger.” With a name like that, Horrigan jokes, he had to be tough. He also got $500 in 1892 to play one game.
“That’s how the game got started with hiring ringers to play the amateur game.”
Defined by commissioner
The exhibits along this first floor are broken down by the eras of commissioners, the men who reigned in the ringers and the game, and built it into a league where the value of the teams alone is now worth more than $30 billion.
The NFL has had just eight commissioners. Half of them served for more than a decade. Most made significant marks on pro football: Pete Rozelle, who “got” what a difference TV would make to the game; Paul Tagliabu, who oversaw 17 years of labor peace; Bert Bell, who oversaw the integration of the NFL – actually, the reintegration.
Those themes, and others, are picked up on the newly remade second floor.
Horrigan runs through some of the themes: “The pioneers, African-American pioneers in pro football, we have just some of the early teams pioneers. We have perfection, meaning undefeated teams, we have things like the science of pro football, pop culture in pro
Some of the themes dig deep into what was shaping America, as well as football. Twelve-hundred men serving in four wars, 24 dying. The pop culture exhibits includes the phenomenon that was Monday Night Football, Joe Namath selling panty hose, and movies like “Brian’s Song.”
A color line crossed and recrossed
Then there’s the reintegration of pro football in 1946 – more than a dozen years after white owners shut the door to black players, but still a year before Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.
Horrigan recalls a conversation Rickey reportedly had with one of the four black football players signed in 1946 – Marion Motley of Canton.
“Having watched Bill Willis and Marion Motley play pro football, a contact sport, in 1946 convinced him (Rickey) that he could bring Jackie up into the majors in baseball in a non-contact sport, that the time was right.”
But Horrigan maintains the ties are even deeper. Rickey, it seems, owned a piece of another Brooklyn Dodgers, a football team.
“In 1904, there was a player named Charles Follis, the only African-American playing pro football. He played for the Shelby Athletic Club. Well, playing on the same team with Charles Follis -- sometimes as a teammate and other times as an opponent -- was a guy named Branch Rickey.
"So if you follow the whole chain of his exposure, he played against a black athlete when this was unheard of, and he watched Marion Motley and Bill Willis as members of a rival team to his own Brooklyn Dodgers football team play. And that all inspired him to make that move in baseball.”
High tech but an old touch
The exhibits in the newly redesigned section of the Hall of Fame include a couple dozen flat screens that unfold the game as deeply as someone wants to go. And the game's history can get downright personal.
Horrigan calls up a screen with photo of every team in every year known to exist and searches for one in particular. A picture of the Buffalo Bill includes his dad, in a suit among the uniformed players.
"He was in this crazy business before me," says Horrigan, who has been with the Hall of Fame for 36 years.
But he isn't the only one who gets a charge out of old pictures.
A player who was in Northeast Ohio the other day for the filming of "The Draft" stopped in. He'd played briefly for the Denver Broncos, but happened to make the team picture. Horrigan showed him the kiosk, "and he was blown away. He said, 'I played four games and my picture's in the Hall of Fame.'”
Creepy, odd and ironic
Though the new exhibits are high tech, there's still room for the quirky. A box of Comeback Crunch cereal, in honor of John Elway, the Denver quarterback who killed Cleveland’s playoff hopes. A bear skin that was the trophy for the 1933 Chicago Bears.
“And maybe this is the creepiest thing we have in our collection, this is a 3-foot doll of Red Grange that looks like something out of a horror movie. But in 1925, Red Grange was the biggest thing in college football and when he turned pro, he was a merchandising boom to the game.”
And then there’s a horizontal metal plate. It reads: "G, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5."
It came from an elevator in which Steelers owner Art Rooney was riding on Dec. 23, 1972, while his team completed what’s been dubbed by many as the greatest play in NFL history.
“Art Rooney suffered for many years from 1933 until that year. They’d never been to the playoffs. The game he thought was over with less than a minute left. So he got in the elevator that took him from the press box down to the locker room to console his team. And as he was in the elevator, Franco Harris had the ‘immaculate reception,’ turned around the fate of his team, which was the most significant play in his team’s history.”
The latest $27 million expansion at the Hall of Fame includes space for temporary exhibits. And Horrigan says it’s all been built with the flexibility to honor immaculate receptions and other prize moments of pro football yet to come.