Pro Football Hall of Fame is more than a museum

Canton, Ohio, is the birthplace of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and from where the sport still gets its heartbeat.

Built with brick and mortar, the Hall is a strong and sturdy building, much like the men who play the game it honors. It is also so much more than just a physical structure that showcases the past.

Instead, the place USA Today calls the number one sports museum in the U.S. seems to be living and breathing — alive with a mixture of passion and purpose.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is open to visitors now, just as it always seems to be open to new ideas and issues.

The Hall is certainly filled with exhibits that keep its guests inside an average of three to five hours per visit, but on a daily basis it also deals with everything that is going on in the game and within the country.

“We live by a mission here,” said George Veras, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s chief operating officer and executive producer.

“We want to honor the heroes of the game, preserve its history, promote its values, and celebrate excellence everywhere. It really starts with the way we treat our fans.”

At the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there is a family feel. Football is America’s game, and in that sense, the Hall has a big family.

At 6-feet, 9-inches tall, David Baker is the Hall’s very big president and CEO, and he has a larger-than-life personality to match. Baker said his goal is to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame “the most inspiring place on Earth.”

Veras sees the inspiration at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on a daily basis. A 10-time National Sports Emmy Award-winner as a producer and director of television live events and documentaries, Veras is constantly touched by the moments he does not have to script.

Football is an important part of so many lives, and the emotion is real and raw.

There was the time Tom McNulty, who was battling pancreatic cancer, showed up at the Pro Football Hall of Fame unannounced.

Veras took a call in his office with a request to see if anything special could be done for McNulty, a huge Broncos fan, during his visit.

With the use of a spare Hall of Fame gold jacket, Veras knew exactly what to do.

“I grabbed a gold jacket and ran down to where Tom McNulty was,” said Veras. “We put him in front of John Elway’s bust for a picture, and he then says, ‘I feel like my cancer has left.’ I will tell you that he went back to Denver and his wife texted us and said, ‘You’ve given him hope.’ He went into hospice and decorated his whole room with Hall of Fame gear.”

That one story only scratches the surface of what the Pro Football Hall of Fame is all about.

There is the Hall’s program, #HuddleUpAmerica, which works to provide a forum for diverse and unfiltered opinions using the lessons from the football huddle.

After all, the huddle is a place where heated debate often occurs, but after a team breaks from the huddle, the goal is supposed to be the same.

“We created #HuddleUpAmerica in response to Colin Kaepernick kneeling,” Veras said of the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s peaceful protest in 2016. “We did not do that with a position, but saying we are a place to have that discussion.”

Veras said the Pro Football of Fame is still addressing current events.

“We did a whole #HuddleUpAmerica around the issues surrounding the death of George Floyd,” said Veras.

“We had Troy Vincent, we had the head of security for the NFL Cathy Lanier, we had a police chief, and we had four high school kids with Hall of Famers Aeneas Williams, Champ Bailey, and David Baker.

And, by the way, they all spoke freely. And by the way, there was no blowback. They all had different points of view.”

The Pro Football Hall of Fame seems to have as many programs and strives to be in as many places as it has members.

Redskins Hall of Famer Darrell Green started the “Strong Youth, Strong Communities” initiative, which the Hall expanded through a partnership with the health care company Centene.

“We have had conferences with police chiefs and young African Americans about how they can talk to each other,” said Veras. “We’ve been to 29 cities changing lives.

Green went into the Hall of Fame in 2008, the same year as his former Redskins teammate Art Monk. In fact, Monk’s 22-minute ovation is still the longest in the history of Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies.

This year’s ceremony has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it probably should be on every football fan’s bucket list.

“We’ve had some of the most famous people in the world come here for the enshrinement weekend and they are so impressed, “said Veras.

“They will tell you it’s better than the Super Bowl. It is not corporate. It is down home. It is straight and direct. It is so inspiring.”

The stated goal of the Pro Football Hall of Fame is to inspire, and that certainly comes through in the messages of the Hall of Famers themselves.

“These guys do not talk about their place in the game,” said Veras. “Kenny Easley talked about Black Lives Matter, and that was in 2016. In 2018, LaDainian Tomlinson — one of the greatest speeches in history. I’m of mixed race, my story is America’s story.”

Stories and more can be found in Canton. Under guidelines from the state of Ohio, the Hall is maintaining social distancing in its spacious complex, with about 800 entries per day.

Tickets can be purchased in advance online, but the Hall is also welcoming walk-up visitors.

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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