(This originally ran on BTSC in August, 2010. This is the first of a two-part series highlighting our trip. You can read Part II here. Happy Father's Day, Dad! - nc)
I was a ragged sight that Saturday afternoon, one day before Super Bowl XLIV, when Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was selected for enshrinement along with the rest of the class of 2010 for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dead sick, I had enough energy to Tweet my excitement, plaster Facebook with all kinds of ALL CAPS MESSAGES ABOUT HOW AWESOME THE NEWS WAS.
I called my parents to let them know (my thirst for "breaking" news has always been quenched by their lack of desire to follow sports like today's technology-laden fan), and the first thing my dad said was "Oh, we gotta go!"
My dad has an equal affinity for football and baseball, although he leans more toward the boys of summer in terms of history. Likely by his own admittance, he'd rather go to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but neither he nor I had been to Canton.
Plus, along with LeBeau, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith, two of the greatest stars of my childhood, would be there. Along with John Randle, a guy I followed closely having grown up in the heart of Vikings Country. I read a book on Floyd Little as a kid, and always felt an appreciation for him. Russ Grimm won a Super Bowl with the Steelers as well as having been from Pittsburgh. Ricky Jackson also hails from the Burgh.
There isn't a Hall of Fame Enshrinement weekend I should attend, if not this one.
With SteelerBro unable to attend, and my other older brother having to save for a wedding in a few weeks, it was just me and the old man.
I couldn't have a better travel partner.
An ardent Mike Webster fan and lifelong Steelers devotee, he appreciated Coach LeBeau, as well as being one of the few people in attendance who actually remembered him as a Lion.
Our trip started off at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, bright and freakin' early, waiting at the gate for our flight to Cleveland.
My coffee was starting to kick in, but I was still a little dull. Because of that, I had to rub my eyes a few times when a particularly tall and fit gentlemen walked past us.
I thought to myself, ok, really trim black man with rock-hard features and an icy stare...mangled pinky...yep, that's Ronnie Lott.
Hall of Fame member, legendary tough guy safety Ronnie Lott. He was on our plane, heading to the same place we were.
This was going to be a great trip.
I'm not one to ask for autographs, but rather, make some kind of personal connection, a quick comment about something that player had done. Lott looked physically fit enough to still be playing, and the look on his face, although not intentional, was enough to keep my butt in my seat; I was afraid to walk near him, I couldn't imagine being a wide receiver if he was in the deep third of the field.
This guy defined versatility. He was named All-Pro at cornerback, and both safety positions in his career. He was known for his extreme toughness (the mangled pinkie was said to have been earned during a game, where he told the doctor in the middle of the game to amputate the tip of it, which was hanging off the rest of his finger, in order to keep playing), but he also had 63 career interceptions and five touchdowns.
I kept thinking about the comparisons Troy Polamalu drew when he was drafted from Lott's alma mater, USC, and thought about how wrong that is. Lott and Polamalu are two completely polarizing players. Both undeniably talented in their own ways, but the only thing they have in common is where they played in college.
Lott was a vocal leader, a sheer intimidator. Polamalu is more reserved, cerebral, even. Polamalu couldn't play corner. Lott didn't have Polamalu's freakish athletic ability.
There are a few fair comparisons, though. Lott was a first-ballot Hall of Fame player. Polamalu most likely will be. Both are champions, among the best of their respective generations. Polamalu doesn't have an equal today, and Lott didn't have an equal in his day.
As my feet were freezing next to the air conditioner vent on our cattle car/plane, I kept warm by thinking if either played in the other generation, what would have happened.
Polamalu would have likely played on offense back then. Lott likely would have been bankrupt due to suspensions and fines today.
Both situations would be a shame.
We flew over downtown Cleveland, seeing Progressive Field and the House LeBron Destroyed, landing at Cleveland Hopkins Airport in a torrential downpour.
We picked up our Golden Chariot (a Chevy Malibu, clearly, the Coolongs were rolling in high luxury), and found our way 50 miles south, in Canton. We were staying Akron, pretty much directly between Cleveland and Canton, but we wanted to hit up the Hall before getting to our low-budget hotel.
The town is Small Town America defined. Very Ohio-like. To be honest, suburban Canton is really not very nice, overall, but the Midwestern charm sticks to each building and resident.
We had lunch a town over at a Mom and Pop place called "Gregory's." Only in the Midwest could one sit at a diner, listen to two older patrons talk interestingly about the state of farming, hear "Hit Me Baby (One More Time) by Britney Spears on the local pop station and get a fantastic piece of pie for under two bucks. We were met with all these things within the first hour of us being there.
Fawcett Stadium sits next to the area high school, and really just looks like a high school field. Nothing ostentatious would look right here. Even the Hall of Fame itself, it's only about four stories tall, with a dome that sort of resembles a football (I don't think it's intentional), and really gives you a feeling like you're entering an older Catholic church/school. It's a low-profile building, with the highest profile players haunting its halls.
There's a winding walkway right after the entry, with a life size statue of Jim Thorpe in the middle of it.
The circular walkway was filled with encased memories from every decade, from the first contract believed to ever be signed, to a game-worn Cris Carter jersey the season he broke the NFL record with 122 catches in a season. Each artifact was brightly described, bringing with it a sense of history, and how it applies to today's game.
A room off it had displays of each team, with a panoramic picture of a player from the current team or its recent past. Jerome Bettis adorned the quick snippets of the Steelers history, including the dates, locations and scores of six Super Bowl championships.
It was funny to see the mass amounts of Cowboys fans milling around, many wearing a shirt that read "Got Five?" on the front, with five Super Bowl patches on the back.
Nope. Don't got five. We got six.
Around each turn in the winding halls was another piece of the game's storied tradition. Sometimes seeming a bit disjointed as a whole, each individual display represented some aspect of the game's history. Sometimes things seemed a bit out of place. There was Howie Long's No. 75 Raiders jersey, with a write-up on the Hall of Famer's career, but behind it, a panoramic picture of Steelers fans at Heinz Field, each one of them wearing some kind of Steelers apparel, many waving Terrible Towels.
Not sure how Long feels about that, but it seemed to be an oversight; as if the people displaying it thought either Long played for the Steelers, or it was a No. 75 Mean Joe Greene jersey.
The bust room was without question the most impressive. The lights were dimmed, and the black tile and flooring put out a very quiet, awesome vibe.
My dad and I were talking before we entered the Hall about Jackie Smith, the Cowboys tight end who dropped a sure touchdown pass with Dallas trailing 21-14 in the third quarter of Super Bowl XIII. My dad was getting fired up, talking about the uproar of complaints the Cowboys had about the officiating of that game (my generation's version of the crybaby Seahawks fans).
I said Smith is yesterday's version of Jerramy Stevens, the Seahawks tight end who dropped several passes and should have been credited with a fumble in Super Bowl XL. Then I thought of how disrespectful it was to label Jackie Smith - or anyone, really - as being anything at all like Stevens.
In the bust room, I had just taken a picture of Chuck Noll's bust, and to the right of it stood a really tall, older gentlemen. I walked around him at the edge of the Class of 1994 display, to view the Class of 1995, which was the last on that back wall.
I turned around, and saw the old man crouch down a bit, and allow his picture to be taken next to a bust. When he moved away from it, I walked over to see who it was, and as soon as I saw it, I knew that was Jackie Smith.
I excitedly went over to my dad to tell him. He laughed, "man, Jackie Smith...I can't believe he dropped that pass."
Poor guy...he didn't even catch a pass that season with Dallas. He was at the tail end of his career, after suffering through a decade and a half of losing in St. Louis, he had his chance to play in a Super Bowl. And his Hall of Fame career became immortalized as one pass he dropped.
Those are the breaks.
Rich Eisen and Steven Mariucci were taping a segment in the bust room while we were there. It ended, and the crowd cheered. I moved closer, wanting to talk to them if possible. Mariucci (pretty short, but muscular, and intense-looking) complained to his assistant about his ear piece, and was asking aloud how to get down to the platform to interview whoever was next. Eisen was much more relaxed, and had a big smile on his face as he mingled with the spectators, posing for a few pictures. He was close enough to me that I felt compelled to say anything. Graceful as I always am under pressure, all I could think of was "Go Big Blue!" referencing his alma mater, Michigan. He gave me a big smile, and sort of pumped his fist. I shook his hand and quickly told him I've been watching him his whole career, and thought he did a great job. He looked at me, shook my hand again and said "thanks, I really appreciate that."
A very genuine, sincere guy.
There was a 49ers fan (thousands of them, actually) present as well. A lady who appeared to be there with her husband and small child, and she looked as if she was on the verge of passing out, being that close to Coach Mariucci. San Francisco fans haven't had much to cheer about recently, so in the absence of that, Mariucci became something of a god to her, apparently.
She looked around wide-eyed, not believing her good fortune. I said to her "he's right there, just go talk to him."
"I can't! I don't know what to say!"
"Compliment his hair, it looks pretty nice...all quaffed and neat."
She mustered up the strength, walked closer to him and started to say something just as he walked out. Not that he was being a jerk, he probably just didn't hear her, but it was funny to watch.
I guess her seeing Jerry Rice in the Hall of Fame will have to make up for her disappointment of missing a chance to talk to Mooch.
I've gone through probably 200 pictures by this point, including a glass-encased replica of the Lombardi Trophy, the jersey Hines Ward wore when he reached the 10,000 receiving yards plateau, and Santonio Holmes' jersey from Super Bowl XLIII, along with the pylon, next to which he caught the most dramatic pass in Steelers Super Bowl history.
To be continued