I recently got back home from a trip of a lifetime. My lovely wife surprised me, for my half century birthday, with a planned vacation – ALL ABOUT ME. I had expressed my desire to someday travel to a few cities including Cleveland. Yes, Cleveland. Sound familiar? Anyway, I noticed the missus kept using the phrase bucket list whenever discussing our trip with other people. Her terminology sort of rubbed me the wrong way. Call it what you will – simple semantics, “you say tomato and I say tomahto,” or chalk it up to me being a dope, but eventually I felt compelled to make my thoughts on the subject known to her.
I tend to view a “bucket list” somewhat negatively. I see the popular trend as being just a list of stuff a person assumes will bring true happiness once completed, yet if everything on their list is not crossed off before their demise then tragically the person thinks their life came to an end without ever having known complete fulfillment. I do aspire to travel and experience different things, but I certainly don’t need new adventures to possess contentment. Regardless, “bucket list” or not, I had a wonderful time at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, but that was just a portion of our week-long vacation. My trip of a lifetime included another Hall of Fame (also found in Ohio).
The feeling I got when entering Canton’s Pro Football Hall of Fame was akin to how I felt when going through the doors of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There was that familiar aura of greatness inside the hallowed walls of the National Football League (NFL) enshrinement. Only the elite, the best of the best, the cream of the crop, the crème del a crème are inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Their eminence is rewarded with a bronze bust of their likeness to forever be displayed in Canton. No good players, coaches, or special contributors to the game are allowed in the exclusive club: only exceptional individuals are welcomed.
In the recent past, I was guilty of taking those already enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for granted because it seemed as though each and every year several new inductees were being admitted. I thought surely by now there must be hundreds of bronzed busts occupying The Hall. All that is true. There are now 303 individuals (including the 2016 inductees) honored within Canton’s revered facility. However, there’ve been tens of thousands of people associated with professional football since the game’s inception; therefore, in actuality the number of those who’ve been selected is fairly scant.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame includes an informative, up-to-date timeline showing how today’s NFL as we know it came to be. I learned the first player chosen in the very first NFL Draft was that year’s Heisman Trophy winner, but the talented, most sought after player had absolutely no desire to play professional football. The Hall also boasts endless memorabilia and numerous interactive exhibits. I discovered I throw a football just like Hall of Fame quarterback, Jim Kelly (well, maybe not as far – or as tightly spiraled – but somewhat similar nonetheless). I grip the pigskin in the exact manner as the former Buffalo Bills’ legend probably because our hands are the same size.
I was caught a little off guard when I came across a modest display featuring the most perfect picture. The photo was taken at the first professional football game played after the events of 9/11. (The NFL postponed all games for a week out of respect for the lives lost during the attack on our nation.) The inspirational picture, capturing a burly football player bursting through the stadium’s smoke-filled tunnel while proudly waving a life-sized American flag, was both sobering and uplifting. The way the United States came together during that horrific time in history was a thing of beauty. I wish we could experience that type of unity as a nation again without requiring another tragedy of that magnitude to bring us all to our senses.
By far, my favorite part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame was strolling by the rows of busts. They were arranged in chronological order by the year in which each member was inducted. I took my sweet time as I read each name and studied the inductee’s bronzed likeness before proceeding to the next bust. The first grouping of Hall of Famers I came upon, that I was genuinely interested in, were of a few players I had routinely heard of as a child. I certainly knew about Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, and Joe Namath, but I was a little too young at the time to recall ever watching them play. My father has been a lifelong Kansas City Chiefs’ fan, so I’m well aware their Hall of Fame quarterback, Len Dawson, massacred opposing defenses throughout the 60’s. Unfortunately, I can only remember rooting for the Chiefs’ subpar quarterbacks, Mike Livingston and Bill Kenney, during my initial years as a football fan during the late 70’s and early 80’s.
I eventually came across some standouts I could actually remember witnessing firsthand their superior play on the football field. My interest in the bronze busts escalated when spotting many of my favorite players from my youth: Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Terry Bradshaw, and Lynn Swann. I guess there was a time when one could be a fan of both the Cowboys and the Steelers. I also admired Hall of Fame running backs, Earl Campbell and O.J Simpson, around that time. Yes, O.J. Simpson. I even had (and still have) an O.J. doll…ahem…I mean an action figure complete with football uniform and jogging suit (knife not included). Sometimes our heroes fall – and sometimes they fall hard. I was a huge fan of Earl Campbell. I fancied the power running back not only because of his bruising-style of running but also because the Houston Oiler dipped Skoal tobacco (my beloved grandpa’s brand).
After a while I found myself amongst the gleaming heads of the more recent Hall of Fame inductees. Two of my favorite players from the 90’s were Deion Sanders and John Elway although I liked them for entirely different reasons. I was enamored with Sanders’ athleticism as an All-Pro cornerback and gifted return specialist. Watching “Prime Time” return a kick or an interception was anything but boring. The way Deion pursued the end zone with reckless abandon brought everyone to their feet and made opposing teams’ fans cringe. Many times the versatile athlete’s improvised returns would result in choreographed touchdown celebrations. I used to thoroughly enjoy Sanders’ showboating and his high-stepping into the end zone, but with age I’ve come to despise excessive celebrations of any kind on the football field.
John Elway, on the other hand, brought a controlled passion to the game. I can’t say as I cared too much for the lifelong Denver Bronco quarterback at the beginning of his career, but his obvious heart and vigor for the game converted me into one of his fans by the time he retired. (I felt the same way about Hall of Famers, Joe Montana and Brett Favre, and future Hall of Famer, Peyton Manning, at the end of their storied careers. I admit to having a soft spot when it comes to most NFL quarterbacks’ last hurrah. Of course, Tom Brady is the exception.)
John Elway led his team to back-to-back Super Bowl victories, during his final two years in the League, with sheer determination. I was reminded of his tenacity while watching footage of Super Bowl 32 inside the sacred walls of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The highlights showed Elway willing his aged body to perform as though he was a robust rookie. The scrambling quarterback can be seen sacrificing said body, for the slightest extra yardage, in pursuit of a much needed first down. His tremendous effort led to a touchdown – and his 1st Super Bowl ring. The next year Elway was even better, winning Super Bowl 33 and being named the game’s MVP, as the gritty quarterback undeniably went out on top.
Spending a day at the Pro Football Hall of Fame was definitely a dream come true. I wonder what’s next on my “bucket list.” Boston? Washington, D.C.? Paris? Ireland? Perhaps another Hall of Fame?