CANTON, Ohio -- One of my favorite things in all of sports is the bust of Paul Brown at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s a fine resemblance. It looks so much like the great man -- bald, serious, glaring -- that at any moment you expect it to look at you and say, “You are hurting the football team, so you are formally dismissed.”
But the reason I love it so much is a single word cut into the marble below: “Coach.”
That’s all it says. Coach. And in that one word, you can see the difference between the Pro Football Hall of Fame and every other one, but particularly the Baseball Hall of Fame. Brown all but invented professional football as we now know it. He was the first to call plays from the sideline. He invented the draw play. He designed the facemask. He invented the passing pocket (think about that for a minute; before Paul Brown they didn’t block defenders in such a way to give the quarterbacks a pocket to throw from). He invented the taxi squad. He was the first to put telephones up in the press box to communicate with coaches. He was the first to really build football teams around African American athletes.
Brown taught Don Shula football. He taught Chuck Noll football. He taught Bill Walsh football. Just about every great coach for the last 30 years will trace back to Paul Brown. Like this: Bill Belichick coached for Bill Parcells who coached for Ray Perkins who coached for Don Shula who played for Paul Brown.
Or this: John Harbaugh coached for Andy Reid who coached for Mike Holmgren who coached for Bill Walsh who coached for Paul Brown.
And there’s just one word etched below Paul Brown’s bust in Canton: Coach.
That’s how football goes. It plays on emotion, not reason. It builds around action, not words. You don’t go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to learn all about Paul Brown and his many contributions to the game. You go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to stare into those piercing eyes of Paul Brown and imagine what legendary quarterback Otto Graham felt that day when his offensive line was leaky and he was forced to run a couple of times. Brown promptly yanked Graham out of the game and put in an old backup named George Ratterman. And remember, this was AFTER Graham had become a legend.
“At least now,” Brown grumbled loud enough for Graham to hear, “we have someone in the game with the guts to stay in the pocket.”
One word: Coach.
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Canton has as good a claim on the birthplace of professional football as anyplace else. Hall of Fame locations are tricky. The Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield is obviously in the right place since it is undisputed that Springfield is where an instructor at the YMCA Training School named James Naismith invented a game with peach baskets to keep the rowdy students busy.
But most sports don’t have so clean a beginning. For instance, Cooperstown, N.Y., is many things it’s quaint, it’s historic, it’s charming -- but one thing is certain: Cooperstown is not the birthplace of baseball. The story that Civil War commander Abner Doubleday -- who was wounded at Gettysburg -- invented baseball one day while stationed in Cooperstown is an unabashed myth.
But baseball loves its myths. That’s a big part of the game. That’s a big reason why the steroid story is so much bigger in baseball than in football -- people in baseball love their myths, love their statistics, love to believe that time stands still. The PED scandal, for many, shattered illusions. So Cooperstown, despite the obvious drawback of it not being where baseball was invented, is the perfect place for the Hall of Fame. Because, in so many ways it is where we WISH baseball was invented.
Football, meanwhile, has few illusions and never did. Cooperstown is a leafy village -- officially it is a village, not a town -- founded by the father of James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote “The Last of the Mohicans.” Canton, meanwhile, is a gritty blue-collar city about 50 miles south of Cleveland where they make steel and bricks, but not as much as they once did.
The Baseball Hall of Fame is a stately brick building on a tree-lined street near an ice cream parlor.
The Football Hall of Fame has a giant football coming out of the top and it’s located right by Interstate 77.
Then, baseball blooms in myth and lore and football is cold, hard reality. George Carlin got that right. Canton is where the NFL began, and it wasn’t a folk tale. In 1915, a local football team -- the Canton Bulldogs -- signed the great Jim Thorpe to play professional football. Thorpe was already a worldwide legend having won the pentathlon AND the decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. “You sir are the greatest athlete in the world,” King Gustav V of Sweden may have said to him to which Thorpe may have replied, “Thanks King!” (Many think this story is apocryphal).
Thorpe then had his gold medals stripped because he had made money as a professional baseball player -- it was the days when the International Olympic Committee hypocritically wanted its athletes to be pure amateurs. Thorpe, now officially a professional, went to play baseball for the New York Giants.
That’s when the Canton Bulldogs signed him for the largest contract ever offered a pro football player: $250 a game. It was outrageous money for the time, unseemly, more than twice as much than the great Ty Cobb was getting per baseball game. People howled. But it worked. The Bulldogs became a local sensation. They drew 6,000 people to their first game (four times their average attendance), 8,000 to the second, and Canton was a football mecca.
And that’s why Canton was where, in 1920, a group of people met to form the American Professional Football Association, which two years later would rename itself the National Football League. The first teams included Canton, Cleveland, Columbus, two teams in Chicago, Decatur, Ill., Rock Island, Ill., Muncie, Ind., Rochester, N.Y., Buffalo, Detroit and Hammond, Ind.
No, there were no illusions. The talk was about coming up with sensible rules and survival. Obviously, most of those teams did not survive.
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In 1919, a man named Curly Lambeau formed a football team in Green Bay, Wis. He needed some money for uniforms and equipment, so he went to the local Indian Packing Company, that sold canned meat. They gave him $500. Lambeau called the team the Green Bay Packers.
In 1921, a man named George Halas, a salesman for the Staley starch company who had played 12 games for the New York Yankees (hitting .091), bought the rights to the Decatur Staleys of the AFCA. He reportedly paid $100 and he moved the team to Chicago. The next year -- to honor the Chicago Cubs, who let his team play at Wrigley Field -- he called his team the Chicago Bears.
In 1932, the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans played the first-ever championship game. It was the first ever indoor football game -- the weather was so bad in Chicago, they played the game inside Chicago Stadium. The field was 60 yards long (not including the 10 yards for each end zone), there was just one goal post, and the field was so narrow that whenever someone would go out of bounds, they would place the ball closer to the middle of the field -- and soon, this became the norm in football. It used to be that if someone went out of bounds, they would start the next play right on the sideline.
In 1936, the flamboyant (and racist) George Preston Marshall -- owner of the Boston Redskins football team -- was so angry at the lack of support of his team, that he moved the championship game to the Polo Grounds in New York rather than play it at his home Fenway Park. It was the first neutral field for an NFL championship game and almost 30,000 people came to watch. The Packers beat Boston 21-6, and Marshall moved his team to Washington the next year.
In 1936, that same year, the NFL had its first draft because Philadelphia’s owner Bert Bell was sick of being outbid or outmaneuvered for all the best players. Bell was sort of a bon vivant, a failed stockbroker who was the son of fabulously-rich parents. He liked hanging around with football people, and they convinced him to spend family money and buy a team. He proposed a draft, one not very different from the draft today, and it was passed unanimously. And to make the story perfect: Bell’s Eagles got the first pick in the 1936 draft. They took Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger. The Eagles would not pay Berwanger what he wanted, so he never played professional football. So that worked out.
In 1940, Marshall -- that guy again -- called the Chicago Bears “quitters” after his Washington team beat them in the regular season. The teams met again in the championship game. The Bears unleashed the T Formation, which was all the rage that year, and beat Washington 73-0.
These are some of the fascinating little tidbits you pick up when walking through the Hall of Fame. There are a lot more. You can see John Unitas’ famous high tops, the ice block tongs Red Grange used to deliver ice, old playbooks of old players. But, most people seem to race through this part. Football does not trade in on its early history the way baseball does. Football is a game for senses.
“Professional football in America is a special game,” you hear the voice of John Facenda say -- Facenda, the longtime voice of NFL Films is often known as the Voice of God -- and people start flowing away from the static exhibits and toward the televisions and the sounds.
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Canton worked very hard to get the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Several cities wanted it. Latrobe, Pa., -- where the wonderfully named Pudge Heffelfinger was paid to play football for the Allegheny Athletic Association in 1892 -- desperately wanted to build a Hall of Fame. The Helms Foundation in Los Angeles had its own football Hall of Fame (along with Halls for baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, swimming, auto racing, track and field and fencing).
But Canton wanted something more. The city needed a centerpiece, something to be known for. The local paper, The Canton Repository, fired the opening salvo with a story headlined: “Pro Football Needs a Hall of Fame and Logical Site is Here.” Then, through an intense community effort -- funded largely by Henry Timken of the Timken Roller Bearing Company -- Canton won the bid.
Thing is: They did not really know exactly what they had won. The Football Hall of Fame opened in 1963 (the Hall celebrates its 50-year anniversary this year with a huge expansion) and pro football was still on the edges of American sport. There was no Super Bowl. There was no NFL Films. The San Diego Chargers, who won the American Football League championship, averaged barely 27,000 people per game. The Dallas Cowboys in the NFL averaged even less.
If the NFL does have a myth it is that the famous “Greatest Game Ever Played” -- the 1958 championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants -- made professional football America’s sport almost overnight. It isn’t close to true. When the Hall of Fame opened on Sept. 7, 1963, a small crowd generously estimated to be “several thousand” showed up to watch 17 people inducted. Yes, pro football had a history. But, in general, nobody cared about it.
And so the Pro Football Hall of Fame became more like a reporter live on the scene than a chronicler of the past. Vince Lombardi became a legend. Things happened so fast. NFL Films -- led by father and son Ed and Steve Sabol -- began to craft a pro football narrative. The AFL and NFL merged. The Super Bowl was born. Joe Namath guaranteed victory. Monday Night Football swept the nation; people threw bricks at Howard Cosell. The Dolphins went undefeated. The Steel Curtain stuffed offenses. Captain America, Roger Staubach, brought the Cowboys back. Oakland committed to excellence. Bill Walsh invented the West Coast offense. The Chicago Bears shuffled. Joe Montana saw John Candy. Barry Sanders danced. Emmitt Smith plowed forward. Brett Favre threw into triple coverage. Bill Belichick studied film. Peyton Manning pointed at defenders. Ray Lewis painted his face.
Pro football became the biggest thing in America.
And the Pro Football Hall of Fame had to figure out how the heck to capture it all.
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If there is one story that enraptures people at the Hall of Fame, it is the Joe Montana/John Candy story. In the Hall of Fame, which has all the busts of all the players, there are numerous video screens where you can learn about the players and coaches in the Hall.
Everybody, it seems, clicks on Joe Montana to hear the John Candy story.
You’ve heard the story, of course. At Super Bowl XXIII, the 49ers trailed Cincinnati by three with 3:20 left. They had the ball at their own 8-yard line.
Montana, who already had a legendary reputation for cool, looked up from the huddle, into the stands, and said, “Hey, look, there’s John Candy.” Sure enough, there in the stand was the comedic actor. Montana’s teammates were utterly baffled by this turn, but perhaps relaxed by it too. Montana then led the 49ers to the winning touchdown. The story has come to represent just how calm and unfazed Montana was in that enormous moment.
But there’s something more about that story, something that captures the heart of the NFL fan. Football is a game of emotion, of sounds, of seemingly impossible athletic feats, of high-speed collisions. The sport is violent and dangerous. The sport is loud and unpredictable. The sport is boorish and graceful. The sport entrances men and women, old and young, jocks and nerds, gamblers and pastors and even people who want to look away.
It’s impossible to capture what pro football means in America, just like it is impossible to capture the genius and severity of Paul Brown. Maybe that’s why I like the Pro Football Hall of Fame so much. If you want to dig into history and sociology and the business of the game, they’ll give you enough to explore and consider. But if you would rather just enjoy football, they’re OK with that too. That seems to be the way most people are about football. In the end, Paul Brown was just “Coach.” In the end, we all look in the stands for John Candy.