In a state that is college basketball crazy, I often feel like an outsider as a hardcore NFL fan. If someone asks who my team is, my instinct is not to mention Cardinals or Wildcats, but rather to chime in with Green Bay Packers. That’s usually when I get an eye-roll.
And when I say I’m a hardcore fan, I don’t mean I have six Aaron Rodgers jerseys and a hat that looks like cheese – I mean that I check Google news several times a day for Packers news, even during the off-season. I mean that I can tell you who the Packers’ current fifth-string tight end is (Colt Lyerla). I mean that last year I was in eight fantasy football leagues and Packers running back Eddie Lacy was a starter on seven of them.
So, when I stepped into the 5,000-square-foot exhibit called “Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame” at Frazier History Museum last week, I was at once giddy and emotional. Looking around at the NFL relics spanning the sport’s many eras, I was taken back to my first clear memory of watching the sport with my father one Sunday afternoon. I was maybe 5 years old, and when my mom called us for dinner, I didn’t want to turn off the Chicago Bears-Detroit Lions game. Yes, even at age 5, football came before food – it came before everything.
Hardcore NFL fans take note: If you’ve never experienced the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, this is truly the next best thing. Comprising about 200 items direct from Canton, Gridiron Glory spans pro football’s history in a comprehensive look at where it began, from the “birth certificate” – a contract that marks the first time a player was paid to play football – to a full-size instant replay review booth where you get to confirm and reverse challenged calls using the same technology NFL officials use.
I could barely pull myself away from that replay booth, but I knew it was only fair to give someone else a turn.
And then there’s the old equipment, such as early football uniforms that look more like ladies’ corsets, with helmets that look like they belong on WWII pilots – a far cry from the colorful, flashy uniforms NFL players sport today. But it’s history, and it’s history of what is today the most popular sport in America.
One of several audio/video attractions is titled “Football as a Way of Life,” but it actually focuses on the sport as popular culture and the role it has assumed in modern society, helped along by the innovative storytelling of NFL Films. The NFL fan base isn’t one that sits and applauds politely for its team – it is one that paints itself in team colors and wears cheese on its head. It lives for the team.
In the latest annual Harris Poll, which determines the relative popularity of pro sports in the United States, pro football claimed 35 percent of all votes; its closest competitor was Major League Baseball, with a relatively puny 14 percent.
Of course, this is nothing new. The survey is in its 30th year, and in 1985, the first survey had the NFL narrowly in front of MLB, 24 percent to 23. The NFL has been increasing its popularity ever since and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Frazier’s exhibit also pays tribute to local NFL heroes, with a special section featuring jerseys, helmets, balls and the like. Obviously, Golden Boy Paul Hornung has his own display, but many others are recognized, from Phil Simms to Frank Minnifield to Johnny Unitas.
And for the young at heart (and those in better shape than me) there is an attraction that tests your passing accuracy, as well as one that gives you a chance to kick a simulated game-winning field goal as the clock ticks away. I didn’t hit a single kick, but I still got a smile from the announcers ridiculing my lame attempts with wisecracks like “Not even close!” and “Where was that going?”
Another must-see is the “NFL’s Road to Equality” exhibit, focusing on Jackie Robinson-style pioneers Kenny Washington and Woody Shode, who broke the NFL’s color barrier in the 1940s.
And if you are a fan of a particular team, you’ll find something to love, I promise. You also may find something to make you angry. One attraction, “Fanastic Finishes,” allows you to watch highlights from famous last-second finishes, like the Music City Miracle. As I approached it, a man was busy watching famous highlights when suddenly he touched the screen and “The Catch II” appeared.
I instantly recognized the 1999 playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and my Packers when Steve Young threw a miraculous last-second touchdown pass to a young Terrell Owens, who had green-and-gold-clad defenders draped all over him. The Niners would go on to play Atlanta in the next round while the Packers went home. I can still hear Pat Summerall bellowing, “Owens made the catch!” Bastard.
But the instant I recognized the play, I had to walk away from the exhibit. I could feel my body clenching just thinking about it. I won’t do this to myself again, I thought as I walked away.
Of course, the Packers’ footage in the “Dynasties” video exhibit later made me happily teary-eyed – such is my nearly lifelong love for the Packers. But that deep connection I feel is also for the game itself – for me, American football is simply beautiful to behold. It is the ultimate representation of human confrontation and the ultimate battle of wills.
It all culminated, for me, in the Super Bowl room, at the center of which sits a glass-enclosed Lombardi Trophy, the ultimate prize for winning the NFL’s biggest game. Surrounding it are memories from seasons past, topped by a ring of flatscreen TVs showing scenes from Super Bowls down through the decades, from Bart Starr to Terry Bradshaw to Malcom Smith. (If you don’t know who Malcolm Smith is, you are a casual fan.)
I’m glad I was in that room alone because, awash in memories that go back to my toddler years, I couldn’t stop the tears. It sounds ridiculous for a grown man to shed tears at an NFL exhibit, but I’m not ashamed at all. Thank you, Frazier History Museum, for giving me 5,000 square feet of joy.
Admission to “Gridiron Glory” is $18.50 for adults, and $10 for children 5-13; children 4 and under are admitted free. There are discounts for active and retired military, seniors and college students. Member discounts apply. The exhibit runs through Aug. 31, and Frazier History Museum is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.