Canton's Labor of Love

Canton's Labor of Love

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Volunteers make Enshrinement Celebration possible

There is a display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, that salutes the best fans throughout the NFL. The individuals in this display are fans of a specific team - the Hogs in Washington, for example, or Fireman Ed of Jets fame.

But you won't find a display honoring perhaps the biggest overall fans of the sport. The Hall doesn't need to build such a display. The honor belongs to the people of Canton themselves - and they put on their own display every summer. It's called the Pro Football Hall of Fame Festival.

This year's  festival revolves around the Aug. 3 enshrinement of five new members of the Hall of Fame - Marcus Allen, Elvin Bethea, Joe DeLamielleure, James Lofton, and Hank Stram - the core around which more than a week's worth of activities take place. There will be parades, concerts, civic events,  autograph sessions  and more - nearly 20 events in 11 days, with attendance for these events expected to total 700,000 - and it's all made possible by a massive volunteer effort.

If ever there was a labor of love, this is it.

Dave Motts
"This is the right-sized community, in the right part of the country, with the right background."
- Dave Motts

"It's just been a terrific experience, because people at all levels of the community come and help in various ways," said John Bankert, the executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "From being a doorman, to making sure you have a pass for events, to being a transportation chairperson, to hospitality… all those different things that make this an unusual event for the guests that come in. And when they leave, they wonder, 'Why is this so important to these people?' Well, they appreciate the heritage of the National Football League being founded here."

As the story goes, Canton is the home of the Hall of Fame for three reasons: 1) the first pro football league, the American Professional Football Association, was founded here in 1920; 2) the Canton Bulldogs, which featured the legendary Jim Thorpe, were one of football's early powerhouses; and 3) the citizens of Canton worked hard enough to earn the  site designation.

A Canton businessman named Bill Umstattd deserves much of the credit for rallying the citizens of Canton around its football heritage. As chairman of the Timken Company in the early '60s, Umstattd was tired of hearing from outsiders about his community's bad reputation. At the time, Canton was better known in some circles for its red-light district than for its football background. Umstattd wanted to do something about that, which is why he made the proposal to the NFL and had the Timken Company put up $100,000 - one-fourth of the money necessary to have the Hall built in Canton.

The community came forth at that point and helped raise the rest of the money. Initial donors who pledged $300 or more to the effort received a lifetime pass to the Hall. Bankert recalled one gentleman who didn't necessarily have the $300 to give, but pledged to pay it off at a rate of $15 a month.

"In terms of giving more than his means, this guy jumps to the head of the class," Bankert said. "And that kind of love for the sport continued over the years."

Fast forward to 2003. There are more than 3,500 volunteers who make the Pro Football Hall of Fame Festival possible.

"This is the right-sized community, in the right part of the country, with the right background," explained Dave Motts, Vice President of Marketing/Operations at the Hall of Fame. "And that's why the people of this community play such an integral part in the festival. It's ingrained in them, which is why there is such a high level of volunteerism."

Ray Hexamer, a local radio executive and native Cantonian who served as General Chairman of the festival in 2001, used to question the number of volunteers involved. "But after being up close and personal with it, there really are that many," Hexamer said. "A lot of them take their vacations to work the festival, putting in just hours and hours and hours of work. And they're not getting paid. They're doing it out of passion and hometown pride."

Among the highlights of the festival are a fireworks night that draws more than 100,000 people and the Saturday morning parade that draws about 225,000 spectators and is syndicated on national television. The Pro Football Hall of Fame Festival gets bigger every year.

"The growth has been remarkable, and the town has responded every step of the way," said Motts, who has been involved in the event since he was a kid - working as a runner on ABC's broadcast of the annual Hall of Fame preseason game that always followed the enshrinement ceremonies on Saturday afternoon.

Since 1999, when the expansion  Cleveland Browns made their debut, the  Hall of Fame Game has been moved to Monday night (the  Chiefs and Packers meet in this year's game). "

For all the people of Canton do to paint their community in a positive light for those watching around the country, that's really just a fringe benefit. Their efforts, organizers say, are geared entirely toward the new enshrinees and the past Hall members who come back to Canton every summer.  Nearly 120 of the 143 living Hall of Famers will be in attendance next weekend to welcome the  Class of 2003.  The record number of returning members is part of NFL Homecoming taking place in connection with the Hall's 40th Anniversary this year.

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