Changing history


A new "For Pete's Sake" blog appears each Thursday.

I’ve spent more than two decades working in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s archives. In fact, no one in our institution’s history has called the archives home for longer. That’s my pat on the back since holding that distinction also means that I’ve never had a window in my office (direct sunlight isn’t conducive to protecting football’s largest collection of rare documents.)

Over that time I’ve read, studied, compiled, written, and enjoyed a hefty amount of material about the NFL and its past. Despite that fact, I’ve really only touched the surface on the nearly 20 million pages of documents we house in Canton.

Because of the sheer vastness of information, there has to be a fair amount of trust in the sources for this material. But, occasionally our work in the archives uncovers inaccuracies and it’s our duty to “change” history. Strangely, it’s happened twice to me in the last week!

Sometimes altering historical facts can be significant and other times they’re just minor revisions. Regardless, we treat the process with the utmost importance and do our due diligence in trying to provide accuracy.

One of the first times I was exposed to this process came fairly early in my tenure at the Hall of Fame. I was working on a painstakingly tedious research project revolving around win-loss records for coaches. In that research, I found a discrepancy regarding George Halas’ win total. I mentioned the nugget to my direct supervisor Joe Horrigan (then curator and today still my boss as the Vice President – Communications/Exhibits … he got an office window in the mid-1990s!).

Joe then spent several weeks probing the win total. This was a particularly important fact at the time considering Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula was moving in on the mark. Joe finally verified through multiple sources that Halas was credited with one too many wins in 1942. Halas had entered into military service part way through the year and it was clear he was away from the Bears sideline for the sixth game of the season in which he was given the win.

So, the work we do at the Pro Football Hall of Fame is not only to preserve the game’s history but occasionally change it. That’s what happed in 1992 when the NFL altered Halas’ win total based on our research. In the end, it meant one less win that Shula needed to become the league’s all-time winningest coach.


Last week on a much smaller scale, I corrected a bit of history by happenstance.  I wrote a blog about the Kansas City Cowboys, an NFL team in the mid-1920s. While scouring some of our files, I found a slight conflict in the actual date that the team was admitted to the NFL. So my assignment of writing the blog was given a detour as I was forced to spend some time in our files to verify the date. Without boring you with the details, it ends up that the proposal to admit the KC franchise to the league occurred on the first day of an NFL Owners meeting (which was we had as the official date) but the motion was voted on and accepted the following day. So, if you check out this list on our website, we now have the correct date as we quietly updated the page.

On any given day, our research team fields multiple inquiries from fans, members of the media, the NFL teams themselves, and the NFL office in New York.

So, while enjoying my son’s lacrosse game on Tuesday night I glanced at my Blackberry. It was a request from the NFL office inquiring about the date of when the NFC aligned as part of the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. I quickly replied saying I’d follow up in the morning as I was well aware our files contained many articles about the process. It’s a memorable moment in NFL history mostly because the unusual manner in which the roadblock in negotiations was resolved. After countless meetings could not satisfy the owners, Commissioner Pete Rozelle placed five proposals in a vase and had his assistant draw one out! That entire story I’ll save for another time (perhaps a future blog?).

In any event, I came into the office yesterday morning and handed the assignment to pull the articles from our files to our new summer intern Darian Thomas from Kent State. I anticipated that it would be a fairly easy task and we’d get back to the league with a prompt answer. But, soon Darian’s research involved our Researcher Jon Kendle and later me as we uncovered a mistake to the NFL’s history!

As it turns out, there’s no mistake that the NFL owners finally agreed on an alignment for the new NFC on Jan. 16, 1970. But as we found that info, we noticed that the date of the AFC layout was not matching in various sources. Most of the NFL’s publications listed the date of that meeting as May 17, 1969. In fact, that was the date immediately reported in the 1970 NFL Record Manual. But other sources listed May 10 as the date. Because we take our mission so seriously we had to dive deeper to see why there was a discrepancy.

Perhaps, the owners met on May 10 but didn’t ratify the realignment until the 17th seemed like a logical answer to the mistake. As it turns out, the error apparently was just a typographical one that was picked up and repeated for 40 years! Tens of articles and other sources verified that the meeting took place on May 10. Further scrutiny by us confirmed the date after we studied the official meeting minutes of the AFL from that day.

So, I reported the findings that Jon, Darian, and I uncovered to the NFL. And with that, we have “changed” history. We didn’t “steal” a win from “Papa Bear” Halas but  we do feel good in that we continue to make sure the NFL’s history is as accurate as it can be, no matter how small the fact!

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