It’s the first day of August, and football is in the air. College athletic conferences are having media days, two-a-day practices have begun for high school teams, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction weekend looms in Canton.
Festivities associated with the Hall of Fame inductions have been going on since last weekend, but the excitement really begins to ramp up as this year’s crop of inductees -- Jack Butler, Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman, Cortez Kennedy, Curtis Martin and Willie Roaf – and some of the other 267 previous honorees descend upon the town that is the birthplace of the NFL.
The American Professional Football Association was incorporated in a Hupmobile dealership in Canton in 1920. 39 years later, the city organized to become the site for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which opened with 19,000 square feet in 1963.
At the time the hall opened, football was on its way to being the pre-eminent sport in America, as the National and American football leagues dueled for supremacy, leading to the establishment of the NFL-AFL Championship Game, the Super Bowl, and ultimately a merger between the two leagues in 1970.
Since then, the complex has had three additions, bringing it to a total of 85,000 square feet, and is undergoing a fourth, which will bring it up to 119,000 square feet in time for the Hall’s 50th anniversary in 2013.
Festivities include a reception Friday night, a grand parade, the induction ceremony on Saturday, and the annual Hall of Fame Game – back after a year’s hiatus because of the NFL lockout – on Sunday. There was a time, not that long ago, that folding chairs would be set up in front of the hall for the inductions, but the ceremony has been moved to Fawcett Stadium, the venue that hosts the Hall of Fame game. Fawcett Stadium is the home field for Malone and Walsh universities, Canton McKinley and Timken high schools, as well as the Ohio High School Athletic Association state football championships.
The enshrinement ceremony and the Hall of Fame Game offers a chance for football fans to rub elbows with noted football figures. In my travels there, I’ve been close enough to touch Jerry Jones as he was being chauffeured in a golf cart and saw Bob Lilly and Randy White walking through the main concourse during the 1999 game between the Browns – their first game back! – and the Cowboys. When the Seahawks’ Steve Largent was inducted into the hall in 1995, he was a Republican member of Congress and invited then-speaker Newt Gingrich.
In addition, it offers poignant looks at players and coaches becoming part of an elite club. Who can forget Michael Irvin’s tearful speech, or Browns guard Gene Hickerson, plagued by a variety of physical ailments, being wheeled out by the hall of fame running backs he blocked for: Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell?
The Hall of Fame Game, in a 22,000-seat venue of Fawcett Stadium (NFL venues have to have at least 50,000 seats), offers a chance for fans to be as close to NFL games as they would be to high school games. The Hall of Fame Game used to be the AFC vs. the NFC, but that tradition has fallen by the wayside. Sunday, the New Orleans Saints will face the Arizona Cardinals.