(This originally ran on BTSC in August, 2010. This is the second of a two-part series highlighting our trip. You can read Part I here. Happy Father's Day, Dad! - nc)
Not that the Hall wasn't without a fault or two. My ever-astute father noticed a typo in a display commemorating Packers WR Don Hutson. His last name was spelled "Huston." Not that those kinds of mistakes ruin anything - they appear in this column space plenty often. It was almost the imperfection that made the place perfect.
A sign near a small movie theater advertised a viewing of a show filmed from the sidelines of Super Bowl XLIII. My dad was dragging by this point, and would easily have agreed to sit anywhere for an hour. We waited in line for the next show with some more Cowboys fans, and a Giants fan and a Patriots fan. I couldn't help but throw a comment out about David Tyree, and where his plaque was, the one commemorating the catch that ruined the "perfect" season.
The Giants fan, in heavy Brookyn-ese, laughed and said it was a good question. The Patriots fan just shook his head, mumbled something about how much he hated Tyree. Always a fun bit.
Turns out, the sign was wrong, and the movie was of Super Bowl XLIV. There were quick shots and a few sound bites of every team, but the focus of the movie was on the Saints' upset of Indianapolis. The picture was very sharp, the camera angles were very tight, making the action much stronger than perhaps the viewer would normally get. But it was still two teams other than Pittsburgh. That didn't necessarily drop my interest level in it, but I likely would have been standing on my chair chanting "here we go Steelers" if it was Super Bowl XLIII. As it was, I watched passively, and my dad fell asleep.
It was really a great game, though, and Steelers fans can relate somewhat to Saints fans. The drama that game provided, the resiliency of the opponent reminded me of the Cardinals. If I was a Saints fan, Tracy Porter pointing to the stands behind the end zone as he returned a shocking Peyton interception for a championship-clinching touchdown would be among the greatest moments of my life.
I left really looking forward to the season. Only the NFL can hype its product in such a way that makes you forget all the negatives of the past when you consider the potential positives of the future. I think everyone left that theater thinking their team would make at least a run at Super Bowl XLV.
After a quick tour around the gift shop, we headed back to Akron, in search of greasy food and cold beer. We had to check into our hotel first, though. I don't travel for work nearly as often as my father does, so I figured his Road Warrior lifestyle would compel him to require a certain standard in lodging. He informed me we were sharing a room not long after I informed him the only word to describe our hotel was "dive." Somewhat frustrating. The hotel apparently was under new management, so it was a dive, but it had new paint and carpet. Hotel options are bound to be extremely limited over a weekend with marquee players of two of the league's most popular teams being honored, so I reaffirmed our need for burgers and booze, and we ended up at the "On Tap Bar and Grille" in Akron.
While my dad is Pittsburgh through and through, I'm a die-hard Minnesota Twins fan, and they were starting their series against the hometown Indians that night. And the On Tap had a deal, offering 32 ounce Labatt mugs for $3.75.
My dad is not a savoring beer drinker. Regardless of the size of the container, at least a third of that thing is gone after the first gulp. I figured he had bad wrists, and holding a cup to his lips and keeping it there was easier than repeatedly raising the cup. Either way, we ran a train through those things, as the Twins' Ron Mahay gave up a walk off home run to Matt De La Porte on the first pitch of the bottom of the 9th. Damn bullpen's gonna cost us a playoff spot.
I got married last summer, and a day or two before the wedding, dad and I went to breakfast in St. Paul. I remember it as one of the first real conversations we had as adults, and how much I cherished his advice, given almost as a rite of passage, from father to son.
This was just as good, but totally different. In between moments where I nearly fell off my chair laughing as he critiqued the hapless Karaoke singers ("terrible song...she can't sing AT ALL!") and singing along from the crowd with the host's rendition of "Pretty Woman," he brokered a deal with our waitress, Kara, to receive a free dessert. I wish I had a video recorder.
Among other classic lines, my dad's favorite line came out, "Hines....is the greatest. Why would you even WANT anyone else?"
"That Ochocino screw? He's no Hines. You don't see Hines dancing on TV or changing his name. He's Hines! He's the greatest!"
"Is Hines the greatest, dad?"
"HINES...is the greatest. Hello, Kara. Hines is the greatest. Could we get another round, please?"
We stumbled back to the hotel, me bitching about Mahay the whole time.
We walked off slight hangovers in different stores in the commercial metroplex in which we were staying. I picked up a copy of the Maple Street Press 2010 Steelers Annual, and told dad to read Michael Silverstein's excellent piece on Myron Cope, which he did, leading to a long conversation about Cope and his impact on the area. Great read, highly recommended.
We got back to Canton around 4 p.m., and found reasonable parking for $10. It's such a unique experience to just walk the streets there. It's Americana in its purest form. You're literally winding around small-town streets, the locals selling water and Gatorade in their front yards with grills in active use. Clearly not built to house the teeming masses ascending on Fawcett Stadium for their yearly economy booster, Canton plays a good host, even as their population grows 1,000 percent for the weekend.
It's a high school football stadium, with all the perks that come with it. No real tailgating space directly around the venue, no modern or fancy amenities. Very old school, very charming.
We made our way to the stage, just to the left of it as the cameras filmed it. It was a solid two and a half hours from the beginning of the ceremony, but I figured this was going to be as good a spot for people watching as it would get. Plus, it was the most likely spot for the entry of the Steelers team, which was allegedly going to be in attendance.
Former 49ers safety Merton Hanks was signing autographs, looking suave along side former 49ers linebacker Antonio Goss. Three Super Bowl rings between those two. There's nothing quite like seeing real ones up close, being worn by the players who earned them.
It was slow going for an hour or so, jostling with security for prime fenceside positioning. Then former players and coaches made their way into the VIP area. I was off getting pictures of Randy Cross when I happened to notice I was standing next to Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. I went back to tell dad who I just saw, and he informed me John Madden just walked past him.
There were tons of men who walked by with the size and attire that strongly suggested they were NFL players once, but we couldn't tell who they were. Dad's keen eye did spot Bobby Beathard, but even a blind man could have seen the behemoth who is Larry Allen.
The former Cowboys guard (and future Hall of Famer) is the largest human being I have ever seen. He was listed at 6-foot-3 in his playing days, and that seemed short from what I saw. I was standing next to a Cowboys fan (I'm telling you, they were everywhere) and he told me he had no doubt it was Allen. He had to weigh close to 400 pounds, and people quickly moved out of their way when he approached.
Security pushed us back a bit more, but with maybe 60 minutes until the ceremony was starting, a few of the Hall of Fame members started to trickle up to the stage. Troy Aikman walked past us, stopped and gave a perfect politician's smile and wave. Howie Long did the same thing. Both very good looking guys, still fit and youthful. There was a darkened screen that blocked a little bit of one's sight when looking at the stage, but not enough that you couldn't make out who was back there. Aikman and Long were engaging in a conversation with Madden, with Chris Berman off to their left, seemingly going off on a makeup lady about getting it right. I've read he's known to be like that, but it wasn't anger at her, he just seemed really uptight. Introducing a Hall of Fame class would probably do that to me too.
Then I noticed a guy wearing a mustard-colored jacket. My line of sight was blocked somewhat by the screen, and a table that was on the stage. It was Russ Grimm. Directly to his right was the Great Dick Lebeau. Everyone else around me was calling for Berman, Aikman and Long, but I was laying on top of a crate like a Paparazzi reporter, getting my camera's focus and zoom right on Coach Dad and his former colleague, the Head Hog.
I had good enough of a view to confirm, without a doubt, there's no way Dick Lebeau is 72 years old. Man, he looked sharp! He might be in his mid 50s. I'm calling BS on the whole "72 years old" thing.
I flashed some more pictures after texting SteelerBro, who was getting more and more pissed with each name I dropped (he couldn't make the trip). I was at 255 pictures for the weekend, and the dreaded battery light was flashing.
Grumbling that I wasn't going to be able to get any pictures during the ceremony, we made our way to the top of the stadium, where our seats were located. Again, high school stadium. A long, steep concrete staircase led us to Row YY, where a few people were already occupying our seats. Not by choice, mind you, but I believe the size of the average football fan's posterior was a bit smaller when the stadium was built.
Berman introduced the present members of the Hall, one at a time. Cowboys and 49ers got the loudest ovations, while the Steelers probably surpassed the Broncos for third place. You could count on two hands the amount of Lions fans there. The Steelers current team had filed in, to the right of the stage from the camera's view. All of them were wearing white; the offense in conservative team-branded collared shirts, while the defense had #44 Lebeau jerseys on. They all had Terrible Towels, and some waved them with some personality when something either Lebeau-related or Steelers related was mentioned. Clearly, though, the team was forced to bring them, more than half didn't seem to have much interest in displaying it.
Lebeau's speech is summarized in one word: Humble. Lebeau is summarized largely by that word, so his speech really wasn't a departure from the man at all. Unlike poor Jerry Rice who struggled during his, Lebeau didn't even seem like he had anything prepared. He was organized and fluid in his talking points, but it was just a conversation with a few people. His Midwestern drawl complimented his relaxed voice, and I felt happy just listening to him.
It's no surprise he's such a hit with his players. How can you not love that guy?
His opening line, "today really IS a great day to be alive!" was a huge hit with those who understand the meaning of that sentence (Lebeau opens all of his defensive meetings with it). Other than that, it was really cool to hear him reference his current players and speak so highly of them. I remember Russ Grimm when he played, but that was several years ago. Same thing with Rice, Smith and Ricky Jackson. But Lebeau was connecting to the guys I know today. He mentioned Ryan Clark, and how smart of a safety he is. He mentioned Troy Polamalu, jabbing at him, and telling the audience that "Troy does pretty much whatever he wants." He mentioned Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. He didn't really mention a whole lot about the outside linebackers, and judging by his comments, it seemed intentional, because "those guys get all the glory."
Yes, says the guy on stage being recognized for his individual accomplishments. Lebeau felt it more important to use his 10 minutes to compliment his players.
Imagine that...a man in front of millions, putting himself behind the entire team in terms of sharing the credit. To me, that was the part of his speech that wasn't covered by the media.
Dad and I headed down to where we figured the Steelers would be exiting. There were a few other fans immediately outside the fenced gate entry to the stadium, and we figured that would be as good a place as any to see the team as they filed back to the buses.
All of a sudden, I see Max Starks. Huge. I'm shocked, for some reason, but then they all start filing out. Like I was with Eisen the previous day, I just can't think of much to say. I did manage something like "it's gonna be a big year, Lawrence!" as Timmons walked past me. Amazingly young looking. Ward was with Mike Wallace, and they walked together, sharing a conversation about something, and I said something like "you're the greatest, Hines!" Not at all sure where I got that line from...he flashed that smile, waved and walked on. Polamalu gave a very polite "hello" and a smile when people yelled his name.
Matt Spaeth is from Minnesota, so I yelled "Go Gophers!" in reference to his alma mater (there's a tip, if you ever want to get an athlete's attention, yell the name of his college mascot, they always acknowledge that). He pointed at me and waved.
Mike Tomlin came bursting out around the corner, with that "I love being a football coach" stride he has. Kind of cocky, kind of hurried, but the spring in his step makes it seem that he loves being the Steelers head coach. I've seen this walk a few times and it kills me. I yelled something like "Thatta kid, Mike!"
He turned around, in perfect rhythm with his stride, Bombers affixed in their usual way, pointed at me and said "awright, let's go!" I just had to laugh. You have to admire someone who's so into what he or she does.
All the while...my camera sat in my pocket, battery dead as a door nail. Blast!
The nice 17-year-old security guard, who was just doing her job, wouldn't allow us to re-enter the stadium since we had left it to watch the team walk by. To be honest, I didn't even care. I was fine with rolling back to Akron, hitting up the On Tap again for some Twins/Indians, maybe with the other speeches in the background. So that's what we did.
After a few beers, I totally did the Tomlin Walk to the bathroom.
Twins won big Saturday night, and we watched Smith's emotional address that he prepared what must have been several months in advance. Good speech. I liked Lebeau's better.
Interestingly enough, we took a shuttle from the rental car drop-off to the airport with a guy who said Emmitt Smith was his brother-in-law. He's a Steelers fan. Emmitt apparently hates the fact he's a Steelers fan.
I had purchased Saints head coach Sean Payton's book, and read it cover-to-cover during the delay at the airport and the flight. It really got me thinking about teams, leadership, management and the ever-elusive victories in all aspects of my life.
I closed it thinking I couldn't be luckier. I have an amazing father. I root for a great team. I have great leaders around me in my life. The Canton trip didn't make me realize all of that, but it brought those things into a new perspective.
And it guaranteed that I'll return for the inductions of Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu.