Which is how, in early April, I managed to score a behind-the-scenes tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s new exhibit, the “Game for Life,” an immersive, holographic experience that is being developed by a creative team consisting of Ed Jones (who won a visual effects Oscar for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”), writers from beloved sports movies such as “Hoosiers,” “We Are Marshall” and “Rudy” and the CEO of Miramax Films.
Also, someone from Adam Sandler’s production company. It’s not a perfect team.
When the exhibit is finished, hopefully around July 1, fans will feel as if they’re inside an NFL locker room, listening to inspirational speeches from Hall of Famers such as Joe Namath and Jim Thorpe (in state-of-the-art hologram form!), feeling the ground shake beneath their feet before walking through the tunnel into a panoramic view of an NFL stadium, where 80,000 fans are standing on their feet and roaring.
It’ll be the most satisfying stadium experience since Bane blew up Heinz Field in “The Dark Knight Rises,” which would have been even more satisfying if Hines Ward hadn’t survived.
“The locker room doors will kick open, and you’ll burst out onto the field, bringing this high crescendo of inspiration and motivation,” said Joe Horrigan, the Hall’s chief communications officer. “It’s going to bring dead people to life, and living people into holograph form.”
Of course, on the day I toured, it looked like an empty room inside a warehouse. (It’s being assembled in L.A., then reassembled here.) But remember, it was a BEHIND-THE-SCENES look at an empty room inside a warehouse.
Also this summer, the Hall will display the largest (3,500-square-feet’s worth) and highest-graded football card collection in the world, courtesy of the Hunt family, which owns the Kansas City Chiefs. (I didn’t get to see that, either. It wasn’t here yet.)
“We’re trying to introduce the next generation of visitor here,” said Horrigan, the Hall’s resident historian. “We want to make sure the museum isn’t competing with ourselves. We’re doing so much on campus, but the center of everything is still the Hall of Fame.
“Those are two examples of what we’re doing to step it up.”
Listening to Horrigan talk about the NFL is kind of like listening to Mozart’s piano tuner talk about Don Giovanni. He’s on a first-name basis with Peyton Manning, whose uniform and record-setting footballs already are displayed in several exhibits and whose bust will join them in five years. One display showcases the football that Manning threw to break Brett Favre’s career passing touchdowns record, along with the sheet that Manning pulled out in the locker room to write the number “509,” just in case they didn’t know which ball was which. The Hall also has the footballs from when Manning set the career passing yardage mark and the single-season yardage mark, which led to this exchange:
ME: “So you have all three of his balls?”
HORRIGAN: “You could say it like that.”
ME: “Let me rephrase that …”
HORRIGAN: “I did that in front of a TV crew once. They asked if I had anything new and I said, ‘Well, we have Paul Brown’s balls on display.’ The poor woman’s eyes bugged out, and I went, ‘Oh, sorry about that.’ ”
A few weeks ago, former Eagles/Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil sent the Hall a box filled with a bunch of great stuff, including the defensive playbook from then-Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen in 1970. The box also had a passing game analysis from an unknown Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach named Bill Walsh, who evaluated the strengths (but mostly the weaknesses) of quarterback Virgil Carter. He also had a breakdown of things such as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ most successful passing route combinations. (The best from that particular game was the double cross, which has since been adopted by every Cleveland Browns front office since 1999.)
“John Madden got on this thing where we needed to get more coaches’ playbooks,” Horrigan said. “So we got a bunch and I said, ‘How about you, John?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I don’t know where mine are.’ So he found this collector who has playbooks dating back to the pre-Vince Lombardi era, and John says, ‘Hey, we can buy all this!’ And we’re like, ‘John, why don’t YOU buy it and donate it?’ ”
Truth is, the Hall doesn’t need it. It already has more than 30 million pages of documents and 6 million photos. Less than 5 percent of its collection is on display.
“There’s a lot to choose from,” he said. “We try to keep it fresh.”
Ask Horrigan what’s new, and he will say, “When you say new here, old is new here.”
Ask him which item has a really cool story, and he will say, “Everything has a really cool story.” Ask him to name his favorite item, and he will point to the league’s “birth certificate” from 1892, an accounting sheet for a $500 performance bonus to W. Heffelfinger.
“That’s the earliest indication of professionalism,” he said.
So if the building is on fire and you can only grab one thing, you’re grabbing that?
“Yes, and then I’m telling everyone that it burned up so I can keep it,” he said.
If that sounds sketchy, look on the bright side.
It’s better than grabbing Paul Brown’s balls.
THREE MUST-SEES AT THE PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME:
1. The Vince Lombardi trophy. The trophy on display at the Hall is the same one that will be presented at next year’s Super Bowl.
“It stays here until that game, then they send it out, engrave it and present it at the Super Bowl,” said Joe Horrigan, the Hall’s communications director.
Fun fact: Hall officials polish it monthly using a shammy moistened by the tears of Cleveland Browns fans.*
2. The Hupmobile. One of the first things visitors see when they enter the Hall is a 1920 Hupmobile. Ralph Hay, who owned the Canton Bulldogs, sold them at the Ralph E. Hay Motor Company at the corner of 2nd Street and Cleveland Avenue. The league was born at that site on August 20, 1920.
Amazingly, Horrigan never has climbed in and taken a joy ride through the museum.
“It runs, though,” he said. “We put it in the parade every year. But I’m afraid to shift gears in that thing.”
3. The Hall of Fame Gallery. This section houses the bronze busts of 296 inductees (this year’s class of seven will be unveiled during Hall of Fame weekend). Each bust is built to the exact dimensions of the inductee and is built to last 40,000 years.
Hall officials strongly discourage fans from defacing any of the busts, unless, of course, it’s John Elway.**
* This is probably not true.
** This is probably not true, either.
Summer in Stark County is full of fun. We go behind the scenes to give you the insider’s experience at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Loretta Paganini’s School of Cooking and the Massillon Museum, as well as a hands-on account of learning to play disc golf and getting a VIP shopping experience at The District Boutique.