Top 10 Historic Artifacts

Top 10 Historic Artifacts

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Story Written by Jason Aikens, Pro Football HOF Curator


The Pro Football Hall of Fame has been collecting and preserving the history of the game since 1963, and since 1997 I have served as Curator. I suggested to our Chief Operating Officer and Executive Producer George Veras that we produce a list of our most historic artifacts and ask media, historians and the public “What is your Top 10?” Showing the utmost confidence in my knowledge, George tasked me with choosing the Top 10 and writing this article on my thoughts.

This endeavor has been like choosing between my children. You love all your children and each one is unique and special in their own way. I see the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s collection of artifacts and documents as a family as well. It is part of a Curator’s creed to treat each object equally no matter its intrinsic value. Any coach will tell you it takes everyone on the roster to make a successful team and as the saying goes there is no “I” in team. However, I feel recognizing these ten pieces not only honor the great moments they represent, but also honor the contributions from all individuals who have paved the way for these moments to occur.

Number 10 is a piece of artificial turf from the “Immaculate Reception.” Four years after this famous game, the artificial turf at Three Rivers Stadium was being removed. Franco Harris, the man who made the “Immaculate Reception” in the closing seconds of the Pittsburgh Steelers 1972 Divisional Playoff Game against the Oakland Raiders, noticed it was being replaced and saved a section from the stretch of field where the famous play occurred. It was this play that turned around the fortunes of the Steelers franchise and started the team on the path to four Super Bowls in six seasons.

Number 9 is the game ball from what is now known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” This was the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. The contest was deemed “great” for many reasons. Not only was it the NFL’s first foray into sudden death overtime, but it also featured 17 Pro Football Hall of Fame members whose names now seem larger than life, like Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, and New York Giants assistant coaches Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. The game is seen by historians as a turning pointing in NFL history where the league was thrust into the national spotlight and on its way to becoming the most dominant sports league in the United States.

Number 8 is the uniform worn by Walter Payton on Oct. 7, 1984. Every sport has its most sought out record. In Major League Baseball, it’s the homerun record. In the the NBA and NHL, it’s points records. In the NFL, the one of the most storied records is career rushing record. Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith who broke this record successively are legendary figures of the game. Of the three that set this record, the Pro Football Hall of Fame was able to preserve the complete uniform of Walter Payton wore on that historic day The Hall of Fame also has a jersey worn by Smith in 2002 when he eclipsed Payton.

Number 7 is the Draft Card submitted by the New England Patriots during the 2000 NFL Draft to select Tom Brady in the sixth round. This Draft Card is symbolic of the Patriots unprecedented six Super Bowls in eighteen years and Brady’s incredible quarterback . For me, the Draft Card is historic because it symbolizes that greatness can be found anywhere and achieved despite what anyone thinks. Brady was chosen 199th overall but he used the misjudgment of NFL executives and draft experts as fuel to win the most games and most Super Bowls than any player in NFL history.

Number 6 is Pat Tillman’s Army Rangers Dress Uniform jacket. Moved by the events of 9/11, Tillman turned down a lucrative contract offer from the Arizona Cardinals in 2002 to enlist with the Army Rangers. Tillman died in 2004 while serving his country in Afghanistan. His Army Ranger jacket, donated by the Tillman Family, has not only been on exhibit at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but also at the National War World II Museum in New Orleans and The 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. Many times, I have witnessed visitors moved to tears upon viewing this symbol of Tillman’s patriotic service. Tillman took the values of courage and sacrifice that he learned playing on the football field to the field of life.

Number 5 are two pieces that belong as one. After a bitter and costly war, the NFL and the AFL agreed to merge in 1966 and play each other in a World Championship Game that today is known as Super Bowl I. The Pro Football Hall of Fame has preserved two footballs from that first Super Bowl: the Wilson “Duke” football used by the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the AFL Spaulding “J-5V” football used by the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. The fact that both sides could not agree before the game to one brand of football signified the gulf between the two leagues. In the end, both sides agreed to meet each other in a game that has become America’s most watched and anticipated sporting event.

Number 4 are Marion Motley’s and Bill Willis’ 1946 rookie player contracts. These contract signings by the Cleveland Browns, along with the contract signings of the Los Angeles Rams by Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, put an end to a dark chapter of history (1934-1945) in the NFL when the league did not employ African American players. The Rams were forced into signing Strode and Washington to secure the right to play in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Paul Brown, however, chose to sign Motley and Willis of his own free will. Brown believed in having the best players on a team regardless of race or ethnicity. Motley’s and Willis’ success on the field paved the way for African Americans to have better opportunities in professional football and beyond.

Number 3 is Jim Thorpe’s Carlisle Indian School sweater. Thorpe was the first great American athlete to play professional football, and signed with the Canton Bulldogs for $250 a game in 1915. He would eventually be named the NFL’s first President when the league was founded in Canton, Ohio in 1920. His name gave credence to the new league. Always humble, Thorpe never set out to save a collection of history to honor his legacy. Thorpe was a larger than life sports figure, yet this sweater is one of the few artifacts directly tied to him that has survived.

Number 2 are the meeting minutes from the historic meeting that took place in Canton, Ohio on Sept. 17, 1920 when the National Football League was formed. Representatives of ten professional football teams including Chicago Bears founder George Halas, met in Canton to form the league, first known as the American Professional Football Association. The franchise membership fee set at that first meeting was $100. The NFL is currently the most popular sport in the United States and generates nearly $15 billion in revenue annually.

Number 1 is what we at the Hall commonly refer to as “Pro Football’s Birth Certificate.” The Hall of Fame’s most historic artifact is the 1892 Allegheny Athletic Association Accounting Ledger proving that William “Pudge” Heffelfinger was the first football player to be paid professionally.

You may ask why would there need to be prove that someone was paid to play football professionally? American football began amongst colleges and universities and for many decades there was a movement to not spoil the game with professional athletes. Heffelfinger himself never admitted he was the first to be paid. He wanted to become a college coach and did not want his name associated with being a professional “ringer.”

Soon after colleges began playing football, private athletic clubs such as the Alleghany Athletic Association and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club formed teams of their own. Rivalries between the various athletic clubs created a demand to find the best players. In order to recruit those players teams found they had to pay them. Heffelfinger’s signing to play one game for $500 led to a  “Wild West” in pre-NFL professional football. Players soon began  jumping from team to team forcing the clubs to pay higher and higher salaries. The wild scenario that continued to grow over more than 20 years led club owners  to realize that the formation of a professional league structure was necessary. This takes us to the birth of the NFL a where the game is today.

One definition of historic is “having great and lasting importance.” These pieces from the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s collection were chosen because they represent some of the most impactful events in the history of professional football. I invite you to share your opinions. Let the debate begin.

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