The art of finding the right artifacts

07/25/2003

If it were up to the curators at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Emmitt Smith would have donated every bit of the Dallas Cowboys uniform and equipment he wore on October 27, 2002, when he became the NFL’s career rushing leader. After all, Walter Payton had made a virtual helmet-to-cleat shipment to Canton, Ohio, after surpassing Jim Brown for the very same record in 1984.

 

The jersey and helmet worn by Emmitt Smith's on  his record-breaking day in 2002

However, between obligations to his own charitable foundation and other promises Smith had to fulfill, the Hall ended up with a helmet, jersey (worn during the game but not at the moment of truth) and a few other artifacts to commemorate his historic 11-yard run against the Seattle Seahawks. Not the ultimate contribution, but gladly accepted nonetheless.

Then, of course, there are numerous offerings from well-intentioned people that the Hall will, shall we say, tactfully reject. The ice-cream maker once belonging to the parents of inductee Leo Nomellini is among countless items that fall into the thanks-but-no-thanks category.

You mean you don’t want that football I caught in the end zone at Lambeau Field five years ago? You aren’t interested in the chinstrap that a player tossed to me after a regular-season game in 1975? You’re saying no to a pair of cleats actually worn during the 1987 playoffs?

Now don’t get the wrong idea. The Hall is always looking to expand a collection of three-dimensional objects, and rare documents that currently exceeds 50,000 (less than a third of which is on display in Canton). In fact, it adds about 300 pieces each year. Some, such as Smith’s gear, are so obvious their acquisition was arranged months in advance. Others, such as the contract of the first Latino to play in the NFL or the uniform of a player who took part in the first indoor pro football game (at Madison Square Garden in 1902), arrive purely by accident.

Yet, it is not a simple case of acquiring anything with even the slightest connection to the game. The Hall only wants items pertaining to professional football in the United States. And it only wants those that carry significance worthy of inclusion in a national shrine.

“What we try to do is separate ourselves from being just an accumulation, and the difference is that there’s purpose and scope to what we collect,” says Joe Horrigan, the Hall’s vice president of communications and exhibits. “We could be a sports bar and collect anything related to football, but that isn’t what we’re about. We freeze-frame moments in football, so we want artifacts that are milestones or representative of specific individuals or events. And, of course, the more significant that person or that event is, the more interest we have.

“We’re not just decorating. We could have a haberdashery of clothing. We want it to be significant so that someone walks into the Hall and says, ‘I remember that game … I remember that play … I was doing this when that happened.’ It’s kind of like listening to an old song and your memory goes back to a day in your life.”

The Hall couldn’t always afford to be so choosy. When it opened its doors in 1963, its policy was: We’ll take anything you want to give us. But as the collection grew, so did the Hall’s standards.

And teams and players began making a bigger deal out of the process of contributing to the Hall. They began calling Canton and arranging for a representative -- usually Horrigan -- to be present for on-field ceremonies for the presentation of items immediately after a record-breaking moment.

But these don’t always come off without a hitch. Horrigan remembers being in Detroit when the Lions’ Mel Gray was about to break the league’s all-time record for combined kick-return yardage in a game against the Minnesota Vikings. On the first kickoff he fielded, Gray picked up the record-breaking yards, all right, but he also fumbled. A Viking picked up the ball and returned it for a touchdown.

“Now the Vikings are celebrating in the end zone, and my heart is in my mouth because I’m afraid the guy is going to throw it into the stands,” Horrigan recalls. “Then an astute Lions equipment man realizes what happened and literally chases the guy over to the Vikings’ sideline to get the ball from him. The guy had wanted to keep the ball, but the equipment man explained to him that the record had been set and that the Hall was there to collect the ball. We held the ceremony after the next kickoff so it wouldn’t have to follow a negative play for the Lions.”

 

Hall VP-Communications/Exhibits Joe Horrigan (left) with Jason Aikens, Collections Coordinator

Horrigan and Hall collections coordinator Jason Aikens stress the importance of staying informed about not only pro football history, but also about history in the making. They constantly seek unusual, but defining, items that will help tell the story of the game for many generations to come. For instance, Horrigan sees historic potential in the rookie contract that Willis McGahee signs with the Buffalo Bills. The former University of Miami running back has the unusual circumstance of becoming a first-round draft pick only months after undergoing major reconstructive knee surgery that could keep him from playing until 2004.

“Right now, he’s just a rookie, but there might be a great story coming down the line,” Horrigan said. “We have to always look to the future and ask, ‘How might this play out in history?’”

Then, of course, there are items that literally fall into the Hall’s lap.

In 1999, a woman’s random phone call to Aikens led to her donating a contract her grandfather, Ignacio Molinet, signed to play fullback for the Frankford Yellowjackets in 1927. It turned out he was the NFL’s first Latino player.

 

Uniform worn by Harry Mason who played in the first indoor professional football game.

About 20 years ago, Horrigan was walking through the Hall when a 70-year-old man taking a tour stopped him to say that his father had played professional football and that he had his uniform. When  the man identified his father as Harry Mason, Horrigan immediately recognized him as a participant in the first indoor pro football game on a dirt field covering the hardwood floor in Madison Square Garden. Mason was a member of a Syracuse team that played in a round-robin tournament called the World Series of Pro Football, a year before Major League Baseball used that term for its championship. The man offered to donate the uniform, but only if Horrigan would pick it up himself. No problem. The man ended up living about three blocks from the home of Horrigan’s mother in Buffalo, NY.

Acquiring items from high-profile events -- such as Smith becoming the league’s career rushing leader -- isn’t always quite as simple.

“It used to be that you dealt directly with the club because the club had the final word on player artifacts,” Horrigan says. “Things have changed in the last 10 to 15 years where players have become more involved with the control of their own artifacts.”

In an effort to meet many demands for memorabilia from one of the game’s most important records, Smith wore four jerseys against the Seahawks -- one for each quarter. He gave the Hall the one he wore in the third quarter, even though he set the record early in the fourth. In addition, the Hall received a game program autographed by Smith, a goal-line pylon marking the 150th career touchdown that Smith also scored in the game and the play sheet of then-Cowboys offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet containing the play that was called on Smith’s record run.

“Most of the time players are surprised and flattered when we ask for something,” Horrigan said. Atlanta Falcons  quarterback “Michael Vick said he literally fell back on the trainer’s table in awe when he learned the Hall wanted his shoes from when he set the single-game rushing record for a quarterback last season (with 173 yards at Minnesota on Dec. 1, 2002).”

What are next big artifacts on the horizon?

The Hall is waiting for the NFL’s first 300-yard rushing game. And it continues to keep a close watch on Jerry Rice, the league’s all-time leading receiver who already has several items in Canton.

“Every ball he touches is a record,” Horrigan says. “But what you want is the first one and the last one. It’s hard to know when that last one will be. If he were to announce, ‘This is my final game,’ you might want to be at that game and maybe get that jersey and that last ball he catches.”

But, please, no ice-cream makers.