Unlike most stories about a player’s journey into the hallowed halls of the Museum on George Halas Drive in Canton, Ohio, mine did not begin on the gridiron. It started in Fashion School.
Growing up in Canton, it’s easy to take a world-class museum and Mecca of Football that’s in your own backyard for granted. Sure, I looked forward to the yearly parade in early August and the fireworks that would come a month or so after the 4th of July, but I never truly appreciated the importance of living so close to such a treasured locale until I was in my senior year as a Fashion Merchandising major at Kent State University. Located about 45 minutes from Canton, Kent State, coincidentally, is the alma mater of Pittsburgh Steelers legend and Hall of Famer Jack Lambert and football megastars like San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, Alabama coach Nick Saban, Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz and so many more football greats. As a soon-to-be graduating senior, I needed an internship to complete my degree program. My aunt had a friend who worked at the Hall of Fame. Having been raised in Northeast Ohio, I was, by birth, a Cleveland Browns fan, but not nearly as interested in sports at age 21 as I was when I was younger. I knew more about fabrics and designers than I did about pick sixes and wideouts.
The Hall of Fame Museum Store had just recently launched their e-commerce site, were growing fast and in need of help. The retail and merchandising department had never had an intern before. I didn’t know a lot at the time about football, or sports in general, but retail is retail, right? While this is somewhat true, I found myself needing to learn as much as I could about the gridiron game and its greats in order to excel at my job. I didn’t know at the time that this opportunity at one of the top football destinations in the world would ignite a lifelong enchantment with the sport.
I’ve now worked in the sports industry for over a decade. Though I’ve held jobs in other industries, I kept coming back to sports and everything I learned at the HOF where my professional career began – a place where, for the talented few, a professional football career culminates.
My day-to-day duties as an intern and, later, as E-Commerce Coordinator, were in the licensed merchandise realm and handling marketing for the online and in-museum store. However, during the summer when the Hall becomes one of the top tourist destinations in Ohio and surrounding areas, it was all-hands-on-deck.
My first Hall of Fame Enshrinement as an intern was the Induction of the Class of 2007 – Gene Hickerson, Michael Irvin, Bruce Matthews, Charlie Sanders, Thurman Thomas and Roger Wehrli. By the time Enshrinement Weekend rolled around that summer, I had proofread so many lists of Hall of Famers for the new store merchandise that I could tell you the year that each Hall of Famer was inducted or could spell names like McElhenney, DeLameilleure and Nitschke without hesitation. It wasn’t until the magic of that first Hall of Fame Weekend that the true passion for my job ignited.
The air was electric and excitement was evident on the face of each visitor as they flocked to our museum, converging on Canton like a pilgrimage to a holy place that they may only get to visit once in their lifetime. Seeing stars in fans’ eyes in the presence of their heroes and being part of an event that was in the national spotlight for several days gave a purpose and new meaning to work. Meeting and interacting with players who were the best at what they did and had set records that were forever inscribed in the annals of sports history was inspiring. Learning that most were actually very humble and down-to-Earth men who had led extraordinary lives was insightful. The majority of these Gridiron Greats were appreciative of the Hall of Fame and the city of Canton for the yearly homecoming celebration that gave them a place to congregate with their fellow Enshrinees and reminisce on careers, plays and historic games.
Part of my Hall of Fame Weekend responsibilities included working with the members of the incoming Class to acquire autographed items for our store and assisting in running the public autograph sessions that were run throughout the weekend with the new Class and returning Hall of Famers. I even started our own Returning Hall of Famers Autograph Session in 2012 where we would invite every returning member to participate, giving fans an opportunity to meet players and get autographs from all ends of the pricing spectrum. By 2013, during the 50th Anniversary Enshrinement Celebration, we had a star-studded lineup including names I had even known before my football fascination began- including Chicago Bears famed Coach Mike Ditka, San Francisco 49ers stars Jerry Rice and Steve Young, New York Giants‘ Frank Gifford, to name a few. The session was a success and I witnessed firsthand what these superstars were made of- as entertainers and as people.
So many memories were made over those weekends where we worked sometimes from 6am until almost midnight, depending on the events being held. But my fondest are of the quieter moments, away from the excitement and craziness, when I was able to observe these gridiron greats as normal human beings who, themselves, were truly in awe of the magnitude of Enshrinement.
In 2011, while working with St. Louis Rams legend Marshall Faulk, getting footballs and helmets signed for the store, I was stationed at the Enshrinees’ hotel in a conference room down from where NFL Auctions was set up for their private signings. I loved this location as you never knew who would pop in to say hello and wish the incoming Inductees luck with the coming weekend. I was getting some fresh paint pens ready for Faulk and when I turned around, I noticed there was a newcomer in the room greeting Marshall. It was none other than larger-than-life legend Coach John Madden. Madden walked over and surprised Faulk as he was busy signing footballs. I ended up witnessing a moment in time that no one else has probably had the opportunity to do and while it wasn’t earth-shattering, I knew it was momentously special. Coach and Player. A simple pep talk and chat between two men became a memory burned in my mind. Faulk was humbled as Madden patted him on the shoulder and wished him the best of luck in the upcoming days- asking about his upcoming Enshrinement speech and advising him to enjoy the excitement and bask in the glory of what was to come.
Other snippets of time from those treasured weekends include watching the incoming Inductees having their final fitting of the infamous Haggar Gold Jacket. And given the size of some of these guys, sometimes last-minute alterations were needed before their upcoming moment on stage. New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells and I talked about his horses in Saratoga and his daughter Jill as he signed for us before his Induction in 2013. Later that same weekend, I helped Minnesota Vikings and Ohio State Buckeyes legend Cris Carter decide which tie would look best with his Gold Jacket. Lastly, in 2011, seeing a rare smile on the face of notorious tough-guy Jack Lambert not once, but twice, first when I mentioned his Kent State polo shirt and that I had gone to school there and later the same day as he spotted his former Steelers teammate “Mean” Joe Greene arriving at the autograph session. The men looked anything but ferocious as they embraced and reminisced.
Current Hall of Famers weren’t the only stars on the grounds during Enshrinement Weekend. Meeting future Gold Jacket Drew Brees when the New Orleans Saints toured before the game one year was a pleasant respite from running rom the autograph tents to my office and back through the closed museum where I happened upon the team. The visiting teams would always tour the Hall the evening before the Hall of Fame Game, eagerly taking in the history and artifacts around them where they hoped to someday find their own likeness sculpted in bronze.
We were a family at the Hall of Fame and the Enshrined members were a part of that group, forever memorialized in those halls. Many would tell me how returning to Canton was like coming home. Sometimes it was the little things that we assisted them with like finding someone a space to take a breath from the crowds in our office area or helping to choose the best souvenirs to take home to their friends and family. The yearly pilgrimage in August is a highly anticipated and joyous reunion for the majority of these guys. I’ll never forget the smiles and hugs from Enshrinees who I had previously worked with during their Induction year when they returned the next to welcome the newest members of their exclusive fraternity. Along with Faulk, Charlie Sanders, Detroit Lions member of the Class of 2007, who was enshrined my first year at the Hall, always had the biggest smile on his face when I’d see him and always remembered my name and asked how I was doing. Memories like these have stayed with me to this day. I have my dream job now in Florida as Director of Marketing for Sports Collectibles and I still get to work with fans and players alike. But I will always miss my co-workers at the Hall and treasure the memories I have from Enshrinement Weekends past as the spotlight once again shines upon Canton and the next group of extraordinary football luminaries preparing to become a part of history.
Congratulations to the Class of 2022 – Tony Boselli of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cliff Branch of the Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers Safety LeRoy Butler, NFL Official Art McNally, Carolina Panthers‘ Sam Mills, Richard Seymour of the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles Coach Dick Vermeil and Bryant Young of the 49ers!
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This post brought to you by Sports Collectibles Blog Dog Jackson!
-Jackson didn’t grow up in Canton like his mom but he loves visiting his GiGi there! Jackson loves watching football games with his PopPop, cheering on his hometown team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers! He lives to chase his sister Kali the Cat around the house, lay out in the sun on the lanai and play with his Hall-of-Fame-worthy collection of toys.