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Top 10 Artifacts of Inspiration

Top 10 Artifacts of Inspiration

04/13/2020
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The Game of football teaches many values including commitment, integrity, courage, respect, and excellence. These values are sources of inspiration that we can all apply to our lives. 

The Pro Football Hall of Fame has many pieces of history in its collection that not only represent records and historic moments, but also great stories and challenges. As our nation faces its greatest health challenge in over 100 years, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has sifted through our vast collection to find our “Top 10” artifacts that represent stories of inspiration. 

The Number 10 most inspirational artifact on our list could easily be ranked as the most asked about artifact of the Hall’s collection.

It is the kicking shoe worn by Tom Dempsey, who recently passed away after a courageous battle against Covid-19. The shoe is from the 1970 NFL Season when he kicked a then-NFL record 63-yard field goal. In the years that followed, many kickers tied the record and Matt Prater eventually broke it for the Denver Broncos when he kicked a 64-yarder before the end of the first half against the Tennessee Titans on Dec. 8, 2013. Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal on Nov. 8, 1970 has the distinction of being a game winner and he shattered the previous record of 56 yards set in 1953.

The real miracle was Tom Dempsey himself. He was born with no toes on his right foot and no hand on his right arm. Dempsey’s dominant leg was his right and special shoes were designed to compensate for the shape of his foot. He began playing football as a youngster because he liked to hit. Dempsey played on the offensive line throughout his youth, high school and college career, but also served double duty as a place kicker.     He initially tried out for the Green Bay Packers as a lineman, but found he was physically overmatched. 

Undaunted, Dempsey started concentrating on kicking and earned a roster spot on the New Orleans Saints. He became known for not only his place kicking but his deep kickoffs and willingness to take on blockers in kick coverage. “Undaunted” could have easily been Dempsey’s nickname. Going into the 1970 NFL season Dempsey was 1 of 11 in field goal attempts of 50 yards or more and before the game against the Lions, he was struggling, hitting only 5 of his 15 field goals attempts that season.     

As the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions approached their Week 8 contest, the Saints were 1-5-1 and had just fired their head coach Tom Fears. The Lions were 5-2 at the time and were battling for a playoff spot. Dempsey started the game well against the Lions converting field goals of 29, 27 and 8 yards.     

More miracle events led up to the record kick. With 11 seconds left in the game, the Lions took a 17-16 lead on an Errol Mann 18-yard field goal. The Lions could have run more time off the clock before the kick, except quarterback Greg Landry called a timeout too early before the field goal that put them ahead. After the ensuing kickoff, the Saints had the ball at their own 28-yard line with 8 seconds left. Saints quarterback Billy Kilmer then threw a 17-yard pass to wide receiver Al Dodd to set up Dempsey’s attempt from the 45-yard line with two seconds left. Replays of the reception showed Dodd did not get both feet down, but there were no instant replay rules in 1970. 

After the record kick, Dempsey went on a hot streak hitting 9 of his next 14 kicks. Surprisingly, during the rest of his 11-year career, he never made a field goal longer than 54 yards. 

Dempsey’s story shows there is no reason to let physical differences hold you back from what you want to achieve. His shoe is now on a national exhibition of artifacts from the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s collection titled “Gridiron Glory, The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.” The exhibition has been seen by millions making Dempsey’s shoe one of the most viewed shoes in American History. Not bad for a guy who just liked to hit people. 

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Number 9 is the Draft Card submitted by the New England Patriots during the 2000 NFL Draft to select Tom Brady. 

This Draft Card is a lesson to general managers in all professional sports that greatness can be found anywhere. The card, also, shines a light on the life lesson we could all learn from Tom Brady’s career and personal story. 

To say Brady was underestimated coming out of the University of Michigan is an understatement. His senior year at Michigan he continually battled a younger quarterback for the starting position. Six quarterbacks were drafted ahead of Brady before he was selected by New England in the 6th round with the 199th overall pick. Brady, however, didn’t underestimate himself nor did he allow the opinions of others to affect his goals. Brady went on to win an unprecedented six Super Bowls giving him the acronym nickname “GOAT” or “Greatest of All Time.”     

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Number 8 is the Purple Heart that belongs to a man who is near and dear to Pittsburgh Steelers fans and United States military veterans alike. 

In 1968, the Steelers drafted Rocky Bleier out of Notre Dame at running back. During his rookie season, he was drafted again - this time by the United State Army. He volunteered for duty in South Vietnam where he was eventually wounded in action.
 
On August 20, 1969, Bleier and his platoon were sent to set up a secured landing position needed for helicopters to fly out casualties from an earlier battle. The platoon immediately fell under heavy hostile fire. Rocky was first hit by enemy rifle fire, and later by grenade blasts, seriously injuring both legs.

Bleier was told he'd never play football again, however, he returned to the Steelers in 1970 determined to make the team. In 1972, after three operations and nearly two years of extensive rehabilitation, he fought his way back into the lineup, and in 1974, became a starter. 

A thousand-yard rusher in 1976, he started on all four of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl winning teams, before retiring in 1980 as the Steelers’ fourth all-time leading rusher. Bleier’s experience it is a story about the value of courage and character as well as another value that should be celebrated more: patience.     He waited through war and pain and ultimately fulfilled his dreams. The Purple Heart Bleier was awarded is now permanently preserved in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Number 7 on our list are the shoes worn by Danny Villanueva as place kicker and punter for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the "Ice Bowl." 

The historic matchup between the Cowboys and Green Bay Packers turned out be the final game of Villanueva’s eight-year career (1960-64 Los Angeles Rams and 1965-67 Cowboys) in the NFL. The shoes don’t make our list just because they are an inspirational story of surviving -13-degree temperatures. They make our list because Villanueva’s life experience is an inspiring story of success on and off the field.     

Villanueva was known as a “straight ahead” kicker which was the common technique of the era. The shoe with the flat front was used for kickoffs, field goals and extra points. For punting, Villanueva switched to another shoe in the collection. 

Villanueva’s greatest success, however, came in the business world. He was co-founder of Univision, the leading Spanish language network in the United States. Villanueva began his career in television in 1962 as Sportscaster for KMEX, which was a small Spanish language station in Los Angeles.

Villanueva later became owner of Spanish International Communications Corporation, which was bought by Hallmark in 1987 for $260 million and renamed Univision. He remained at Univision until 1990 and later acquired financial interests in Univision’s rival Telemundo, and in the LA Aztecs and LA Galaxy soccer teams. 

Amazingly, Villanueva was born in a two-room hut in New Mexico to Mexican missionaries, but never let his humble beginnings slow him down. Villanueva used the life lessons learned on the football field to have an impact on one of the greatest business careers of any American.   

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Number 6 on our list is David Tyree’s helmet from the New York Giants’ historic upset of the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. 

Tyree was the unlikeliest hero of the unlikeliest championship team. The Giants were a 10-6 Wild Card team entering the 2007 NFL Playoffs. Tyree’s experience is an inspirational story of tenacity. Going into the Super Bowl, Tyree only had four catches all season and was listed as a backup receiver on the depth chart, but he continued to work hard to be ready when his opportunity came.

What an opportunity it was as the New York Giants were down 14-10 late in the fourth quarter. Facing a third and five at their own 43-yard line, with 1:15 left in the game, Eli Manning of the Giants went back to pass and broke three tackles from Patriots defensive linemen and heaved a deep pass towards New England’s 24-yard line. Tyree, who was covered by Patriots Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison, made a spectacular catch by pinning the ball against his helmet. He maintained control of the ball all while being dragged to the ground by Harrison.

Another interesting fact is that Tyree’s mesmerizing catch would be the last of his career. He battled injuries which limited his ability to make it back on the field. However, no one’s final catch has been more memorable or more historic.   

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Our Number 5 most inspirational artifact is Kurt Warner’s jersey from Super Bowl XXXIV. 

The Kurt Warner story shows that self-esteem, belief in one’s own abilities and never giving up are traits and characteristics that can be extremely rewarding. Warner himself would also credit his faith and the support of his family. Both gave him the ability to not listen to doubters and go from the grocery store clerk to Arena League to Super Bowl MVP. 

Why was Warner unable to make it into the NFL until he was 27 years old? He was invited to the Green Bay Packers training camp in 1994 but was cut before the regular season. The major obstacle was his competition, the Packers quarterback depth chart consisted of future Hall of Famer Brett Favre, Mark Brunell, who would become a Pro Bowler with the Jaguars, and former Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer. 

Warner, who was stocking shelves at a grocery store shortly thereafter, later joined the Iowa Barnstormers where he starred in the Arena Football League. The St. Louis Rams noticed his talents and signed him in 1998 as a backup quarterback.

In the 1999 NFL preseason, the Rams starter Trent Green suffered a season ending- injury. Head Coach Dick Vermeil famously stated, “We will rally around Kurt Warner and we’ll play good football.” 

Technically Vermeil lied, the Rams played great football, setting what was then an NFL record for points (526). With Warner as the trigger man the offense, led by Hall of Famers Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Orlando Pace, became known as the “Greatest Show on Turf.” The season finished with the Rams outlasting the Tennessee Titans 23-16 and Warner throwing for a then Super Bowl record 414 yards and the game winning 73-yard touchdown pass to Bruce. 

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Number 4 is Chuck Bednarik’s World War II Air Medals. 

Bednarik is famous for being noted as the last of the “60 Minute” men. He played center on offense and linebacker on defense for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1949-1962. His story is a testament to endurance and fortitude. The pinnacle of his career came in the 1960 NFL Championship Game when he played 58 minutes and made a late, game-saving tackle during a 17-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

Even before Bednarik was a hero on the football field, he was a hero off it. During World War II he served in the US Army Air Corps and completed a 30-mission tour over Germany as a B-24 waist gunner. "There was anti-aircraft fire all around," Bednarik recalled. "You just waited for your turn to get hit, but ours never came." 
For his courageous service, Bednarik was awarded the Air Medal and four Oak Leaf Clusters, the European Theater Operations Medal and four Battle Stars, and the Good Conduct Medal. 

The B-24 was the successor to the B-17 but didn’t have the greatest reputation. Many felt it was more susceptible to anti-aircraft fire than the B-17.     The official name of the B-24 was “Liberator” but unofficially it was known as the “Flying Coffin.”     

Airmen who could complete 30 missions on a “Liberator” earned a trip home and became a member of what was known as the, “Lucky Bastard Club.” Bednarik would be the first to admit that he faced more danger as a B-24 gunner than he ever did on the football field. (link on the B-24 https://www.nationalww2museum.org/visit/museum-campus/us-freedom-pavilion/warbirds/consolidated-b-24-liberator)     
Bednarik’s courage made him a hero and it was only natural for him to play 60 minutes a game at the center of the field. He had always met the tough obstacles dead on. 

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Number 3 is Johnny Unitas’ iconic high-top black shoes that are not just a symbol of excellence, but also an inspirational symbol of perseverance. 
Unitas was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 9th round of the 1955 NFL Draft but was cut before the regular season. Undeterred, Unitas signed for $6 a game for the semi-pro Bloomfield Rams on the eastside of Pittsburgh. With a new baby on the way he also took a job in construction to make ends meet.

That next offseason, Unitas received a phone call from the Baltimore Colts. Their head coach, Weeb Ewbank, was friends with his college coach and Unitas was invited to training camp. The Colts soon noticed his talent and signed him to a $7,000 contract and by Week 4 of the 1956 season he became the starter. 40,000 passing yards later, Unitas became well known for his iconic high-top shoes that he continued to wear into the 1970s, contrary to low top white shoes popular at the time. Unitas’ high top shoes are an icon of his era and a symbol of the obstacles he overcame to achieve success. 

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Number 2 is Pat Tillman’s Army Rangers Dress Uniform jacket. Tillman’s story belongs on every list. After the terrorist attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Pat was inspired to serve his country. He turned down a lucrative contract offer from the Arizona Cardinals in 2002 to enlist with the Army Rangers. Tillman died tragically in 2004 while serving his country in Afghanistan. 

Tillman courageous story had been told numerous times and was a main feature in the Hall of Fame exhibition titled “Pro Football and the American Spirt,” dedicated to how professional football and its players have responded in times of national crisis. The Tillman Family donated his Army Ranger jacket and the Arizona Cardinals donated his jersey to the Hall of Fame.

A few years later a Green Bay Packers fan donated a football that Tillman intercepted to the Hall of Fame. The inspiration would continue at the league level as the Arizona Cardinals commissioned a statue of Tillman outside their stadium. The NFL launched its current “Salute to Service” program which has a large focus on Tillman. Tillman’s message of service and sacrifice continues to inspire Americans to this day and will continue to do so into the future. 

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Our Number 1 is Marion Motley’s and Bill Willis’ 1946 rookie player contracts. 
The signings by the Cleveland Browns, along with the contract signings of Woody Strode and Kenny Washington by the Los Angeles Rams, put an end to a dark chapter of history (1934-1945) in the NFL. During that era, the league did not employ African American players. Sports often mirror society. At the time, no major American institutions were integrated. Major League Baseball was integrated the following year by Jackie Robinson. 

Unfortunately for Strode and Washington, they did not enter the NFL at the prime of their careers. Washington was a 28-year old rookie and Strode was 32. All four individuals were not welcomed by opponents. All four faced cheap shots and abuse from opponents and players. Motley and Willis in particular faced death threats. 

Despite threats and abuse, Motley and Willis shined. Browns head coach Paul Brown knew both men as he coached Willis at Ohio State and Motley at the Great Lakes Naval Station in World War II. From the very first practice Willis, who played middle guard, a position like today’s middle linebacker, ran circles around the Browns future Hall of Fame center Frank Gatski. His speed, strength and solid tackling earned Willis all-league honors seven times. 

Motley’s running power as a fullback became the stuff of legend. He had the size to play on the line, but his speed and ability to break tackles were a natural for the running back position. Despite the late hits and taunts, he averaged an unheard of 8.2 yards per carry during his first year in professional football! He would earn all-league honors five times during his career. Both Willis and Motley laid the foundation of the Cleveland Browns dynasty of the late 1940s and early 1950s. 

The image of Strode, Washington, Motley and Willis on the field gave hope to millions of African Americans that they could live the American dream. The walls of segregation began to crack, and the Civil Rights movement gained steam. Willis’ and Motley’s dominance made professional football evaluators look foolish and lessoned the prejudice of their teammates and fans. Their success blew open the doors for many more African Americans players.

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The Pro Football Hall of Fame considers itself the most inspiring place on earth because we are the repository for the tales of the heroes of the game and the artifacts that symbolize their excellence. These artifacts and their stories display acts of heroism and courage that can be emulated, and they also provide examples of what obstacles can be overcome to achieve success.

We hope you found inspiration in these artifacts. There are sources of inspiration in the game of football and everywhere in our world that can make a positive impact in our daily lives and in society. 

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