Bankert, Hall have come a long way

08/01/2003

by Vic Carucci, NFL.com
Special to Profootballhof.com

"I walked in the front door and never walked out."
— John Bankert, Executive Director, Pro Football Hall of Fame

CANTON, Ohio -- It was only a part-time job, something to help pay for college but not offering any particularly great opportunity for the future.

Thirty-nine years later, John Bankert is smiling about where that lowly position in the audio-visual department of the Pro Football Hall of Fame has led him.

"Really, I walked in the front door and never walked out," the Hall's executive director said.

As the Hall celebrates its 40th anniversary by officially inducting five new members on Aug. 3 and welcoming back 115 of its 221 members this weekend, Bankert will barely find enough time to breathe, let alone eat and sleep.

John Bankert stands outside the Pro Football Hall of Fame in CantonBut as the shrine's longest-tenured employee -- who also happens to be a Canton native -- he can't help but reflect on all that he has witnessed and experienced through the years. Along the way, he has watched the Hall's growth from virtual infancy into a nationally renowned museum.

"The only reason we're in existence is to perpetuate the history of the game and to honor its greatest heroes," Bankert said. "That has to be the focal point of what we do and how we run the building. And I'm proud to say that very few people leave here with a bad taste in their mouth. Sometimes something will happen where they maybe had a bad experience -- maybe the projector broke or something like that -- and you may get a letter from somebody.

"But all in all, the people are delighted with the experience. Our biggest challenge is to get them here and then have them go back to their hometowns and say, 'Hey, you really ought to go see that place.'"

As fate would have it, Bankert's first encounter with the Hall didn't even take place in Canton. It took place in Ft. Lee, Va., when he was stationed there during a stint in the Army. Shooting pool in the base's day room one early September day in 1963, Bankert happened to look up at the television to watch a feature story about the Hall's grand opening in his hometown. He knew that Canton was the birthplace of pro football, but until then had been unaware that it would serve as the Hall's headquarters.

After leaving the Army in 1964, Bankert enrolled at Canton's tiny Malone College. He hadn't given the Hall much thought since watching the TV piece. Then, while seeking part-time work, he noticed that the Hall had an opening for a projectionist to show football footage to visitors. Having worked with audio-visual equipment in high school and the military, Bankert figured it would be right up his alley.

At the time, the Hall had only 17,000 square feet of floor space, which was far too much for its slim collection of memorabilia and smattering of exhibits. Today the floor space has expanded to 83,000 square feet to accommodate more than 50,000 artifacts, about a third of which are on display.

"Most people, whenever they build a museum or something like that, they would have a garage or a barn filled with memorabilia and say, 'Gee, we really should create something where we could get this out so that the public could enjoy it and understand the heritage and history of the game,'" Bankert said. "But when they organized the Hall of Fame, it wasn't because there was all of this material available. It happened because the community got behind it and convinced the National Football League that this is the place it should be.

"But six months before its opening, there were no artifacts to be found in the Hall."

Then, a group of striking newspaper reporters in Cleveland volunteered to travel across the country to help boost the Hall's collection. As word spread about the Hall's pursuit of items pertaining to the history of football in the United States, many unsolicited items began to arrive on its doorstep.

Perhaps the most noteworthy was a sideline blanket from the Canton Bulldogs, one of the original franchises in professional football. Jim Thorpe, a Hall-of-Famer and legendary figure in sports, had apparently worn it. The Akron, Ohio, man who donated the blanket to the Hall had had it wrapped around a tire jack to keep it from rattling in the trunk of his car.

"He knew what it was, but he didn't know what to do with it," Bankert said. "But when the building was opened, everybody knew what to do with their football memorabilia."

Once the earliest exhibits were established, the Hall's next challenge was to find customers. In '64, attendance reached 63,000, but once curiosity seekers had their fill, it dropped significantly over the next four or five years. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the NFL began running television commercials promoting the Hall as part of its network-television game coverage. As a result, attendance climbed: 63,000 became 80,000, which became 120,000, which became 220,000, which became 330,000 in 1973.

Attendance has been up and down since, but Bankert said that the average has been at about 200,000 for the last decade.

"It isn't just a matter of building a facility like this, opening the doors and expecting people to stop by," said Bankert, who was named executive director of the Hall in 1996. "You have to work hard. You have to go after groups, such as the Boy Scouts, to come through. You have to make the facility available to people who might want to rent it out for an evening for a private function. We've had a lot of those."

But the Hall's financial success relies heavily on its two highest-profile events: The induction ceremonies, televised by ESPN, and the annual Hall-of-Game game, which has become the traditional kickoff for ABC's Monday Night Football. Induction Week includes 21 events over nine days, and involves more than 4,000 local volunteers.

For the second year in a row, the ceremonies will be held in Fawcett Stadium. They were held there in the early years, but moved to the steps of the Hall because small crowds left too many empty seats in the stadium. But last year, more than 17,000 fans jammed Fawcett. The majority were Buffalo Bills fans on hand to witness the induction of Jim Kelly.

"Jim Kelly brought so many people to the Hall of Fame, we're thinking about enshrining him again," Bankert joked. "But I'm just so proud to be part of this. Whenever you watch an NFL game on television, every now and then you'll hear an announcer -- while talking about a great job a player is doing passing or catching or running -- say, 'If he keeps that up, he's going to go to Canton for sure.'

"Well, they're not talking about Canton, Ohio, for making Hoover Vacuum Cleaners or Timken Steel. They're talking about the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"It's been a terrific ride for me. It's been a wonderful ride for the community."

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