My First Enshrinement Weekend

Special to
By John Thorn

I am not exactly a newbie in Canton, but until this weekend I had never attended an enshrinement. I had written and edited several football books in addition to the newly released Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book (with the Hall’s Joe Horrigan).* But even after working for two years to compile that book with the museum staff, today—after my first induction weekend—I understand the Hall, and pro football, differently. Mingling with the excited fans and the honored players—some who began their careers more than 60 years ago, others who look like they could don helmet and pads today—has shown me why we Americans love this game.

It is a truism among sports fans that much of the appeal of baseball is its linkage of past and present in a seamless web; it is the game of our grandparents and our grandchildren, and connects us across time and space. Also, it is commonly held that pro football is a game that, like America itself, reinvents itself every generation—and that because the game of recent years is so thoroughly changed, the players of the past could not compete on the fields of today.

This view of pro football is proven wrong by the presence on the podium of new inductees Jack Butler, who began his pro career in 1951, and Curtis Martin, who ended his pro career only yesterday, relatively speaking, in 2005. One played defense, the other offense, but both were of about the same size and would have been standouts in any era. Four others in the Class of 2012 are linemen—Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman, Cortez Kennedy, and Willie Roaf. The last two routinely played at over 300 pounds and might have had as tough a time competing in the 1930s as Red Grange and Mel Hein would have playing halfback and center today.

Consider the state of the game in the year of my birth, 1947. At that time, except for punters and place-kickers, the NFL permitted no substitutions during a possession and only three substitutions when the ball changed hands. If we could turn back the clock to that year, most of the players would be forced to play both offense and defense and to stay on the field for an extended time. Guys who are naturally big will be able to play, but they will have to consider slimming down. And that might decrease injuries and increase player career longevity, while placing a higher premium on agility and stamina. But all these Hall of Famers, of whatever shape and size, would have found a way, because it is the mental game they played that won for them an enduring place in Canton.

It is undeniably sad to see some returning stars struggle with a slowed gait. Others, though sturdy enough, have visibly aged from the trading-card images we hold in our minds, when they and we were young. Yet when massed together at the various events honoring them in Canton, they are clearly athletes still, from the inside out. And this is the direction that counts for us fans, too, as we relive our youth through fleeting contact with our heroes of days gone by.

At Canton we see that all the Hall of Famers, from George Halas and Jim Thorpe to the class of 2012, form paving blocks on the road to today’s great game; they are linked with one another, and each is indispensable in his own unique way. The game of the past is visible on the playing fields of today. Here at Canton, we take part in a living history.

* Including Total Football, The Hidden Game of Football, The Armchair Quarterback, Pro Football’s Ten Greatest Games.

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