Every so often, the topic arises. Sometimes a familiar face at church in Portland, Ore., will walk up to Robert Dean and remind him he has this 1991 Pro Set trading card of a scrawny 14-year-old.
Or the Dean family will just wander on the topic, which no doubt ends with fond memories of Canton, Ohio.
It was 1991 when Dean was traveling with his family through Ohio and accidentally found the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a stop they weren’t particularly planning. When Robert, the youngest of the Dean clan, made his way through the turnstile, he became the five millionth guest to visit the Hall.
|Then and now. Robert Dean with his family in a recent family photo and his Pro Set trading card from 1991.
Of course, the Hall of Fame made a big deal out of it. Dean was lavished with gifts, including T-shirts for all the Deans that read “FIVE MILLIONTH VISITOR, a $1,000 shopping spree in the gift store and a lifetime pass to the Hall.
“I still have a Raiders ‘throwback’ hat I got there,” Dean said. “My dad has a jacket, but my brother lost his to a girlfriend. They broke up, and she kept the jacket.”
Dean still is a Raiders’ fan.
But he isn’t 14. He isn’t gangly.
He is 26 and an implant coordinator in surgery at St. Vincent Hospital. He has been married to Angela since August of 1999. They have two children, Eric, 2, and Gregory, 1. Another is on the way.
“Not a whole lot of people know about me outside of Canton,” Dean said. “It has come up a couple of times among friends, and they can’t believe it. Then I get out one of the cards and show ’em. I put all the cards of me in plastic sleeves. I have about 700 or 800 left. They gave me about 1,000.”
It is 2,500 miles from Portland to Canton, and you can bet much of the talk on the way back home — it’s a 40-hour drive — centered around the family’s blind luck that day.
The Deans were driving their oldest son, Jeffrey (now 30 and a missionary in Mongolia) to college in Indiana. They were passing through Ohio from Pennsylvania when dad “took the scenic route” — some of the Deans believe he missed the exit for the turnpike — and traveled down Route 62.
“When we got there, we knew something weird was going on because there were all these cameras,” said Kathy Dean, Robert’s mom. “My husband figured they were making a commercial or something. We were lollygagging around and all of a sudden, Robert is the five-millionth visitor.
“We still have all the T-shirts. We just moved, so I know they were packed in boxes. A lot of people from all over mailed us stuff. People all over Ohio mailed newspaper articles.”
When the Deans returned to Oregon, a family member called Portland television stations. No one bit on the story.
So, for a dozen years, Robert Dean occasionally has been acknowledged as visitor No. 5,000,000.
Hall of Fame officials had no way of locating Dean.
About two hours searching the Internet and more than two dozen wrong number calls to Portland — note to Portland subscribers, we do not telemarket too much in Oregon — we finally found Robert. It was, for the love of journalism research, the last call of the evening.
That is when Kathy answered and put us in touch with Mr. Five Million.
“We were just cruising the country,” Robert Dean said. “I couldn’t understand how the Hall of Fame picked Canton.”
Actually, Canton picked the Hall of Fame.
“I know that now, after reading the history,” Dean said. “If you don’t know the history of the NFL and Canton, you wouldn’t understand it. People in Portland have no idea about it.”
While his older brother was at college, occasionally friends would ask who the scrawny kid on the baseball card was.
“My brother,” was the answer.
Few believed it until Robert Dean sent back a few autographed cards for the students on the campus of Fairhaven Baptist College in Chesterton, Ind. By the time Robert arrived four years later at Fairhaven, he was a legend.
“It was pretty cool because right after that, people at my church would stop me and tell me they got my card in a pack the other day,” Robert said. “It was neat to see people go buy packs of cards to see if they could get me. Some people asked for autographs, and I don’t mind.”
Forever, Canton has an adopted son in Portland.
Since his famous trip, Robert returned to the Hall of Fame twice. Both times he used his lifetime pass.
“I went back in 1997 and saw the GameDay theater, and I was very impressed with that,” Robert said. “The pass is getting kind of worn. I’m going to have to get it laminated because I plan on using it again. Hey, it’s a free place to get in to when I get back there.”
When the Hall of Fame Game or the enshrinement ceremonies are broadcast on live TV, at least one fan 2,500 miles away has fond memories. The Dean family, undoubtedly, talk about their adventure through Canton and brush with fame.
“One day next summer, I’ve talked to my wife about this, we plan on getting out that way,” he said. “In 2004, we’re going to do something like that. And I’ll use my lifetime pass.”
One day, little Eric and Gregory will be old enough to understand dad’s affection for Canton. Surely, he’ll save a trading card, or two, for his sons.
You can reach Repository sports writer Todd Porter at (330) 580-8340 or e-mail:
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