By Robert Kunz
Central Ohio was busy the first week of August, as it hosted the first Republican presidential debate for the 2016 election, the Bridgestone Invitational golf classic and the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement celebration.
I chose to attend the latter two events. While I have been to the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement weekends many times in the past, I never felt like I had the chance to check out the Bridgestone Invitational. I headed out a day earlier than normal so I could catch the practice rounds.
The emergence of young stars like Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy has sparked my interest in golf again. Back when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were regular tour winners, I decided to try to collect a single-signed baseball for each player who had three or more Master’s wins. I had a little bit of a head start, as I had Sam Snead sign a baseball for me years earlier at a golf show, and Woods played in a tournament close to my home in his first year on the professional tour.
I would travel to the Constellation Open in Baltimore and the 2007 President’s Cup in Montreal to add Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Mickelson to that collection. And along the way, I was able to also add Nick Faldo, and now have seven of the eight three-time Master’s champions on baseballs (missing Jimmy Demaret, who passed away in 1983). My goal for the Bridgestone Invitational was to get a single-singed baseball of Bubba Watson.
While Bubba Watson has two wins, there are good odds that he could become the next three-time winner. If nothing else, I could start adding all the two-time winners to my collection. Since Bernhard Langer and Tom Watson still play on the Seniors tour, adding those to my collection should be achievable in the next year or two.
I headed out at 5 a.m. for the six-hour drive, and arrived at the course in Akron right at 11 a.m. I did arrive to see Bubba Watson sign his last four signatures and head to the clubhouse. I heard that Bubba did sign for quite a few fans, but I was just 10 minutes too late. I spent the day on the course and was able to obtain signatures of Master’s winners Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott and Zach Johnson. All three of these golfers signed quite well for the larger crowd who came out to see them.
As expected, the crowds around Spieth were the largest, and rows of people five deep pushed to get near him wherever he signed. But from what I witnessed, you need to get him in a smaller group to get a nice legible signature. In crowds, some may only get a “J.S.”
The majority of the fans looking for autographs were running around the course with Bridgestone Invitational flags. Some fans chose Master’s flags, and the serious collectors (or maybe those looking to make a buck) were eager to have a British Open flag signed by 2015 champion, Zach Johnson.
I found time to run out in the middle of the afternoon to the Belden Village Mall to attend an appearance by 2015 Football Hall of Fame inductee, Tim Brown. The Tim Brown Foundation leased a store in a Canton mall for a few weeks leading up to enshrinement. The store called “Legends Locker Room” sold Tim Brown signed memorabilia, as well as unsigned shirts, footballs and mugs featuring Tim Brown logos and images. From 2-4 p.m., Brown was doing an in-store appearance and signing. The Internet posted details stating that personal items could not be brought in, and Brown would only sign items purchased at the store.
When I arrived, I was surprised how empty the store was. I was expecting a hour-long line. There were turnstiles and ropes set up in the center of the mall anticipating such lines. I walked in the store, and noticed that they did have footballs, mini-helmets and cards. I was thinking that they would raise the price of the mini-helmets some small amount, but was shocked to learn the price of the mini-helmet was $120. The price of the football was also $120; a T-shirt was $40, and the price of a card was $60. These were unsigned items, but the price included you meeting Brown, getting a picture with him and having your item signed with any personalization. This was a first for me, a store stating that you could not bring in personal items, but had to purchase an item in the store. And learning of such pricing, I hesitated for awhile. I finally decided to purchase one mini-helmet. I did this because I had never met Brown prior to that day, had none of his signatures in my collection and was hoping to get a second item signed. Brown had no problem signing my Goal Line card as a second item, so I am glad I went ahead and made the purchase.
Pro Football HOF Induction
Later on Wednesday, I would head 20 miles down the road to Canton, Ohio. The Pro Football Hall of Fame events were shifted around this year, and the Gold Jacket ceremony normally held on Friday night of induction weekend was moved to Thursday night. Friday night would now be home to the first-ever Legend’s Concert Series at the Hall of Fame stadium. This year’s musical guest was Aerosmith. I know some collector’s chased Aerosmith in Cleveland, while some diehard fans paid $1,500 for a meet-and-greet with the band.
The Hall of Fame enshrined eight new members this year. Players enshrined were Junior Seau, Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Charles Haley, Will Shields and Mick Tingelhoff. The Hall also enshrined Bill Polian and Ron Wolf as contributors.
The career highlights of the class of 2015 were outstanding, and a few of their most memorable moments in NFL history are as follows:
Bettis retired as the fifth-ranked all-time career rusher with 13,662 yards with the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Brown retired as the third-ranked receiver with 1,094 career receptions and 14,934 receiving yards with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brown would score 100 touchdowns, and would add 4,555 yards on punt and kickoff returns. Brown would become only the ninth player to be honored as a Heisman Trophy winner and gain entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (joining Doak Walker, Roger Staubach, Paul Hornung, O.J. Simpson, Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell, Marcus Allen and Barry Sanders).
Haley is the only player ever to win five Super Bowls (as a member of the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers). Haley would also record 100.5 career sacks.
Seau would become one the game’s greatest linebackers during his career with the San Diego Chargers and the New England Patriots. He was an eight-time first-team All-Pro, played in 12 Pro Bowls and was the 1992 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Tingelhoff would earn a starting role at center as a rookie and never missed a game for his entire 17-season career with the Minnesota Vikings. He was a seven-time All-League selection, and six-time Pro Bowler.
Shields would also never miss a game in his 14 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s, and played in 12 straight Pro Bowls.
Wolf would work under Al Davis for 24 seasons and would later move to the Green Bay Packers where he started the franchise turnaround that still remains today. He was instrumental in hiring Mike Holmgren, trading for Brett Favre and signing Reggie White.
Polian would help guide the Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts to five Super Bowl appearances.
The HOF signing scene
More than 85 returning Hall of Famers attended the weekend festivities. Many of the HOFers in attendance represented the organizations of the 2015 inductees. Leading those representatives were the Raiders with 12 returnees (Marcus Allen, Fred Biletnikoff, Willie Brown, Dave Casper, Ray Guy, Mike Haynes, Ted Hendricks, James Lofton, Howie Long, John Madden, Jim Otto and Art Shell), and the Vikings with 10 returnees (Cris Carter, Chris Doleman, Carl Eller, Bud Grant, Paul Krause, Randall McDaniel, John Randle, Fran Tarkenton, Ron Yary and Gary Zimmerman). The Cowboys (Troy Aikman, Lem Barney, Micheal Irvin, Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro, Emmitt Smith and Rayfield Wright), the Bills (Joe DeLamielleure, Jim Kelly, Marv Levy, Billy Shaw, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed) and the Steelers (Mel Blount, Dermontti Dawson, Joe Greene, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann) were also well represented to honor these new inductees from their respective organization. Greats like Jim Taylor, Warren Moon and Steve Young were also in attendance.
While the list of returning players was impressive, I was most excited to see Fran Tarkenton in person for the first time. It was not easy getting a glimpse of Tarkenton, as he did not attend the Gold Jacket ceremony, the Reunion photo or the Timken parade. The only event I saw him at was the enshrinement ceremony, and that was from a distance on stage. Tarkenton also stayed at the same hotel as the Class of 2015 members, which limited chances of seeing him, as well. I only heard of one occasion where he signed for three waiting fans one early morning outside his hotel.
Past and present greats came out to see this induction class. Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Hines Ward and Eddie George all were in attendance on Saturday night. College football coach Lou Holtz was present to honor Notre Dame alumni Bettis and Brown. Tony La Russa and Jim Furyk were familiar faces that I saw in the crowd. Roethlisberger was the only one of these greats who signed a handful of autographs before the program started.
The enshrinement ceremony was long at a little more than three hours, and there were some great moments. Sydney Seau, the daughter of Junior Seau, gave a heartfelt speech honoring her late father. She was almost not allowed to speak, as years ago the Hall of Fame adopted a rule that family members cannot give speeches on behalf of inductees who have died.
I enjoyed hearing the story about how Tim Brown had a tremendous four-touchdown game (his only in 27 years of playing) in high school on a night when Notre Dame scouts were in attendance to scout a player from the opposing team and not Brown. Brown would go on to play at Norte Dame under coach Lou Holtz, and, of course, win the Heisman Trophy his senior year. In his speech, Brown also named the 19 of 20 NFL quarterbacks he would play with during his career and catch a pass from. He asked the crowd to figure out which one quarterback he did not catch a pass from. I will leave that riddle to you readers to solve.
But there was no doubt that enshrinement night belonged to Bettis and Steelers fans. Eightly percent of the stands were filled with black and gold. There were Steelers jerseys and terrible towels everywhere you looked. The loudest ovations during the introductions were for the Steelers. Bettis would start his acceptance speech with the words “We are in Canton, Ohio, but this is Steelers Country” and end it with, “The Bus will always and forever run in Canton, Ohio.”
The weekend at the HOF had a different feel than part years. Gone were the annual card show and guest appearances at the Belden Village Mall, the autograph sessions at the Canton Holiday-Inn and the usual guest appearance at a local Giant Eagle grocery.
The HOF has taken over autograph sessions during induction weekend. The Hall did have a good selection of players in Bob Griese, Curtis Martin, Lawrence Taylor, Steve Young and 39 others. But the parking and crowds around the HOF on enshrinement weekend make it more challenging than just running into the mall or the Holiday-Inn like years past. The HOF also had a signing that included the entire class of 2015 for a price of $395. That session, as it does every year, sold out. For those who missed that weekend, the HOF is selling collector’s edition footballs of the entire class for $299, and a signed full-size helmet of the entire class for $499. So if you missed the session in Canton, you can still purchase one of these items that was signed at the HOF during induction weekend.
While there were quite significant changes this year with the moving of the Gold Jacket ceremony to a new night and the addition of the Legend’s Series concert, bigger changes are in the plans for the future. The hall of fame is seeking a major expansion with a Hall of Fame Village, which would include a hotel and conference center, restaurants, retail shops, a sports complex and a sports-entertainment complex. The goal of the project is to develop an attraction that would be dubbed the “Disney World of Football.”
The first step of the project is to renovate the current stadium into the new Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints, has donated $11 million toward this renovation. Ground-breaking has not yet taken place on these other phases, and there is a lot of work to do to create a $476 million expansion. The HOF will even need to purchase and remove some existing residential properties prior to most of the new construction beginning. A residential community for retired athletes may also be included in the expansion plans.
Some timetables have mentioned the hotel and conference center being completed by September 2017, and a majority of the retail and restaurant spaces completed by May 2018. The real goals are to have the phases completed in time for the 2019 NFL Draft and the 100th anniversary of the NFL in 2020.
These changes are a few years away, and will not impact the 2016 enshrinement weekend. And next year is expected to be another big year. Brett Favre leads the list of first-year nominees, and there are five nominees in Tony Dungy, Kevin Greene, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace and Kurt Warner, who did not make the final cut in 2015, that will be strong candidates to be honored in 2016.
Maybe 2016 will finally be the year for Jerry Kramer as the senior nominee elect. I am looking forward to a sea of Packer green and yellow and a crowd full of cheeseheads next year. And I still have to find my back to the Bridgestone Invitational to get that Bubba Watson baseball.
Robert Kunz is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.