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The Suburbanite
  • Pro Football HOF reaches out to America with traveling exhibit

  • As the Pro Football Hall of Fame celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2013, its leaders in Canton embarked last year on a new marketing strategy in places like Pittsburgh. A slice of the Hall also is headed to New Orleans — home of the Super Bowl in February — and St. Louis in 2013. The first stop for this traveling exhibit?

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  • The Strip District is tucked into a historic neighborhood near the Allegheny River. Summer days here are alive with street vendors, hawking in front of art studios and antique dealers.
    Near the edge of this market district is the Sen. John Heinz History Center, named for the late Pennsylvania senator whose family company created the famed ketchup and has its name on the Steelers’ hulking stadium down the river.
    As the Pro Football Hall of Fame celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2013, its leaders in Canton embarked last year on a new marketing strategy in places such as Pittsburgh.
    A slice of the Hall also is headed to New Orleans — home of the Super Bowl in February — and St. Louis this year.
    The first stop for this traveling exhibit? It was a natural pairing with Pittsburgh, a city which in 2012 celebrated the 40th anniversary of Hall of Famer Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception,” as well as the Steelers’ 80th season.
    The 5,000-square-foot exhibit sits on the first floor of the Heinz History Center. A fitting quote from the late senator adorns a glass wall outside the building:
    “What makes a society thrive are citizens determined to see shared ideas realized — realized not just for the select few, but, as our pledge says, ‘for all.’ ”
    Some Canton residents shared such an idea 50-plus years ago. The Hall of Fame — now a thriving shrine recognized around the world — opened its doors Sept. 7, 1963.
    ‘WHET THEIR APPETITE’
    The Hall’s marketing strategy is simple: Bring a morsel of Canton to the rest of the country to entice people — NFL fans and nonfans alike — to travel to Ohio for the full meal.
    Stephen Perry, HOF president and executive director since 2006, also is trying to expand the Hall’s national footprint. NFL broadcasts this season have featured promotions for the Hall of Fame and teams have worn 50th anniversary patches on their uniforms.
    “What we want to end up with is to take the national and international brand recognition the Hall of Fame has and leverage that to have events and a presence in different parts of the country,” Perry said. “ ... While the Pro Football Hall of Fame continues to have its core presence in the cradle of football forever in Canton, Ohio, we will have activities going on around the country.
    “We hope to whet their appetite to see more of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
    ‘IT’S GREAT STUFF’
    The Pittsburgh exhibit features some items never before displayed for the public, plus interactive features such as an instant replay booth commonly seen on NFL sidelines on Sundays.
    “There has never been an exhibit more encompassing than this,” said Joe Horrigan, the Hall of Fame’s vice president for exhibits and communications.
    Page 2 of 3 - Visitors can enter the booth, watch a play that was challenged by a coach, view different angles and decide whether to reverse the call. Visitors can also try on a helmet fitted with microphones that have crowd noise and hear the actual play NFL quarterbacks get from coaches in the huddle.
    Both interactive exhibits also are available in Canton.
    “I think it’s great stuff,” said Anne Madarasz, museum director at the Heinz History Center and co-director of its sports museum. “You can’t argue with the quality of materials. There is a depth and reach in their collection.
    “For them to put so much out and have it travel as long as it’s going to travel is remarkable.”
    One of the first things to greet a visitor to the exhibit is a large wall featuring the names of all 273 Hall of Famers. There are no busts, though — those have stayed in Canton.
    Encased in glass is Franco Harris’ gold jacket with the shirt and tie he wore to his enshrinement in Canton in 1990. Harris, who is on the board of trustees at the Heinz History Center, brought the shirt and tie.
    Because of the tie-in with the “Immaculate Reception” — Harris’ improbable catch that won a Dec. 23, 1972, playoff game against the Raiders — the exhibit also features a statue of Harris catching the ball just before it hits the turf.
    The ball in the statue looks to be several inches off the ground. Videotape of the famed play suggests the ball was mere millimeters off the ground — if that — when Harris grabbed it.
    “Hey, it’s Pittsburgh,” said Brady Smith, who works for the Heinz History Center.
    SO IMMACULATE
    Harris found the shoes he wore for the Immaculate Reception in the bottom of a closet and brought them to the exhibit in a Giant Eagle bag to be displayed.
    The Pittsburgh exhibit opened in October with a black-tie tailgate party. Harris and Frenchy Fuqua — the Steelers running back whose controversial collision with late Raiders linebacker Jack Tatum led to the “Immaculate Reception” — entertained at the party with a schtick they’ve often done about the fabled play.
    The Steelers, who never had won a playoff game at the time, faced a fourth down in the waning seconds as quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass for Fuqua as he was being hit by Tatum. The ball caromed back to Harris, who finished the unlikeliest 60-yard touchdown pass in NFL history. The Steelers won the game and went on to win four NFL titles over the next decade.
    Did the ball carom off Fuqua or Tatum? Again, videotape was inconclusive. Under NFL rules at the time, if it was Fuqua, the play should have been ruled an incompletion.
    Page 3 of 3 - Fuqua told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in September that late Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. told him never to reveal that answer.
    Rooney, ironically, missed the play while riding down an elevator at old Three Rivers Stadium. The control panel from inside that elevator car also is on display at the Hall of Fame exhibit at the Heinz History Center.
    “I think a lot of people look at the stuff the Hall of Fame sent and have to wonder, ‘If this stuff is here, what is in Canton?’ ” Smith said. “There must be so much more to see in Canton.”
    The Pittsburgh exhibit closes on Sunday. That’s when the exhibit will become 7,000 square feet and head to a World War II museum in New Orleans for the Super Bowl. After that, it will spend the summer in St. Louis.
    THE NEXT 50
    The Hall of Fame hired Gallo, a Cleveland company with a solid reputation of helping museums design and display traveling pieces, to build the exhibit.
    Pittsburgh’s “Gridiron Glory” isn’t the Hall’s only off-site exhibit, either. “Pro Football and the American Spirit” opened in the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., in October. It features football players in the military, and among its items are Pat Tillman’s Army Ranger uniform and Hall of Famer Art Donovan’s Marines uniform.
    Perry said that the Hall of Fame will remain in Canton, even though it is dispatching slices of itself across the country. He said his leadership team is looking toward the Hall’s next 50 years here.
    “You always want more success,” Perry said. “We’re doing just fine in Canton in terms of being a successful organization. Canton is the cradle of football. You hear many Hall of Famers say it, and John Madden made the statement that that is a historical fact that will never ever change and the football shrine should always be here.
    “I think there’s a consensus about that now, even if there wasn’t 20 years ago.”
    A key member of that consensus is NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has publicly championed Canton as the home of the Hall in the last few years.
    The Hall’s current $27 million renovation — the largest in its 50 years — also is a signal that the shrine isn’t going anywhere. The construction project is the hallmark of the Hall’s “Future 50” project, which Perry says is setting the foundation for a second half-decade of the Hall in Canton.
    “We don’t take anything for granted,” Perry said. “We have to continue to make this institution better and improve. It would not have been appropriate for us to rest on our laurels and do nothing.
    “As times change, things need to change. We are incorporating technology to bring the sounds and vibrant scenes of the game to life here.”