When you’re a fan of a historic team like the Chicago Bears, you tend to learn more about sports history than if you are a fan of, say, the Carolina Panthers. When you hear about Walter Payton, you hear about him in the context of Gale Sayers and Red Grange. When you hear about Brian Urlacher, you hear about him in the context of Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus, and Bill George. When you are a fan of the Chicago Bears, you learn that your team had a hand in the creations of the modern offense, the middle linebacker, and the tight end. And of course, along with the history of your own team, you begin to piece together the histories of other historic teams, such as the Packers, Giants, Redskins, Spartans/Lions, Cardinals, and Eagles. You grow older, follow your team more closely, and while you are moving through season upon season, you are also trekking backwards through past seasons, slowly piecing together a history of the NFL.
Of course, there are many fans who do not take an active interest in history, fans who simply enjoy sport in the present. And that’s fine. But for those of us who have come to cherish the past, both the teams and the athletes, there are certain historical landmarks that are must-sees. For years, I’ve looked forward to one day setting foot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Today, I did just that.
For any football fan who has never been to the Hall, I say this with total conviction: make it a priority, as it is well worth the trip. I’ve heard wonderful things about both Baseball’s Hall in Cooperstown, NY and Basketball’s Hall in Springfield, MA, and I plan on visiting both at some time. But for me, Canton is king. It was such a thrill to be surrounded by so much history, to see pictures of old players and displays of all the great teams. There is a whole glass case that commemorates nearly every NFL record ever set, with little pieces of memorabilia from each, and even though quite a few records were set against the Bears, it was still very cool to see. I particularly enjoyed all of the Super Bowl displays; finally my memorization of every SB winner, loser, and MVP seemed validated, as I forced Meghan to quiz me on Super Bowl trivia, of which the museum was filled. All the great photos, classic images forever in my mind: Y.A. Tittle on his knees, bloody and beaten…Dwight Clark leaping over Everson Walls, who can only watch…the Fun Bunch in full fun high-five form…Chuck Bednarik looming over the unconscious Frank Gifford…Leon Lett’s stretched arms, unaware of Don Beebe a step behind…Jerome Brown, fading into the fog at Soldier Field…
As we walked through the hallways, I caught a glimpse of a room on my left. It was dark, and roomy, and filled with space, a large circular room in which the focus pushed outwards to the walls despite the overwhelming area in the middle. The hallways and other displays are bright and filled with color, large glossy photos and hanging jerseys and team logos, but this room was dark, noticeably dark, almost subdued. The room is built to convey a feeling of greatness. These are the great of the great. I had been excited beforehand to see the room—it is, after all, the heart of the Hall of Fame museum—and yet it snuck up on me. I lost my breath as we walked in, as I looked at the sculpted faces on the wall. This was it. The Hall of Fame.
Of the thousands upon thousands of men who have suited up for NFL teams during the past 85 years, as well as the countless number of men surrounding the game—coaches, owners, general managers, commissioners, and other admistrative types—only 235 are in the Hall of Fame. 235 busts have been molded, 235 busts sitting on top of 235 small, wooden planks, all of which are individually lit by 235 different bulbs. No matter the career span or success, a person who has played a game in the NFL has accomplished quite a bit in his field. This is no knock on them, but to see the best of the best, to see a small percentage of people who have worked hard and honed their craft and distinguished themselves from the masses…it was truly remarkable.
One night in Denver, two nights in Lawrence, two nights in Bloomington, and after that Meg and I split further east into Ohio, before moving north to the neighboring towns of Dover—hometown of my good camp friend Adam Stroup, a guy who was a counselor last summer—and the aforementioned Canton. Stroup and I had not hung out since the final day of camp in August of 2004, and I was pumped when I realized that our trip was going to take us over to his place. And that’s we are now, the three of us hanging out on Stroup’s backyard wooden patio, listening to Kind of Blue and reminiscing about camp, while also engulfing Meghan in our camp stories. Meghan’s a camp person herself—she was a camper and a counselor at Michigan’s Camp Echo—so she has a good feel for this sort of thing, but even with her lengthy background in the area, there is no way to fully know North Star simply through story, in the same way that I’m sure there’s no way to know Echo in that fashion.
The phone rings in the midst of our conversation. It’s Dad.
“Hi there. How’s the trip?”
“And where are you today?”
Oh crap. Quick thinking required. “North Dakota. Right near Fargo.”
“Near Fargo? You went pretty far East.”
“You’re not kidding. But we’ll be heading back west to cut down through the Dakotas and then into Nebraska.”
“Nebraska? There’s nothing to see in Nebraska. You should come in for Passover.”
“It’d be nice…” He pauses, trying to weaken me, but I’m not biting. “…anyhow, were the Bulls on in North Dakota tonight?”
“You kidding? What happened?”
“Bulls won 92-91.”
“Oh hell yeah! Meg,” I motion to Stroup to stay quiet, “Bulls won 92-91 tonight. Against New York, right?”
“Yeah. It was quite a game. Back and forth throughout the fourth, and then with the Knicks up two, our old friend Jamal Crawford missed a pair from the line.”
“Gordon then won it with a runner with five seconds left.”
“HOLY CRAP! Gordon again???!!!”
“I know. It’s really his time.”
“Well, I’m going to get off the phone. I’ve got to get up early tomorrow, and Mom and I are going to watch some of The Great McGinty on AMC.”
“Ah, well, you’ll enjoy that. Tell Mom I say hey and I love her.”
“I will be sure to. Tell Meghan we say hello. Have a good night, Jack.”
“You too, Dad.”
I hang up the phone, and Meghan is looking at me.
“I had to tell him something. It sounded good enough.”
“Why North Dakota?” Stroup asks.
“We’re surprising my parents for Passover on Saturday, so right now we’re telling them that we’re farther away than we actually are so that they will be surprised.”
“Ah,” Stroup says. “I dig. A caper.”
I look at him, squarely. “That it is.”
My phone rings again. It’s Dan.
“Hey man. Guess where I am.”
“Dover, Ohio, at the residence of one Adam Stroup.”
“Reaaaaaly…well tell him I say hello. Meghan as well.”
I look up. “Dan says hello.”
“Holy shit, Dan Lichtenstein? What up, buddy?”
“They both say hi. What’s going on?”
“I’ve heard a rumor.”
“And that is?”
“You and Meghan will be coming home for Pesach.”
“That is correct, sir.”
“Cubs play on Sunday. I’m going with Rutkoff and a few other people. I’ve got an extra ticket. You interested?”
“OH man. I’d love to. But the Bulls play Sunday. Game 1. I’ve been waiting seven years for this game. It’s a must. Sorry man. Thanks, though.”
“Perfectly understandable. In that case, I’ve got two tickets to the Bulls game. You want them?”
I’m shocked. Only Dan Lichtenstein could come through with multiple tickets to multiple games on the same day. “Are you serious?”
“What about the Cubs?”
“Well, I’m still going to that game. You could just take these two Bulls tickets and go check that out.”
“Yeah. Check out the Bulls for Game 1. Yeah.” Sure, we’ll stay and hang around with y’us. With Alice Cooper…
“So? Are you serious? Obviously I’m in. Dude, this is huge.”
“Glad you can use them. Give me a call when you get into town. You can get them and we can get some lunch or something.”
“Sounds perfect, Dan. Wow. Dude, thank you so, sooooooo much.”
“Don’t mention it. Enjoy your time with Stroup, and have a safe rest of the trip.”
“Will do. Thanks again.”
“I’ll talk to you later.”
We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy! We’re scum! We suck!