Football Hall of Fames for College and Pro Athletes Welcome and Amaze in Atlanta and Canton

The Civil War had been over for a short four years, and baseball was starting to stake its claim as America's pastime. Today's football fans would have to use a lot of imagination to recognize the game as football. Visitors to the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio can hear the stories behind behind the birth of one of America's iconic sports.

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In the mid-1800s on the campus of Rutgers College, today Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a new sport was about to touch down. What is recorded as the first football game ever played took place on November 6, 1869. Rutgers beat the College of New Jersey, today Princeton University, by a baseball-like score of 6-4.

Early Football

It was more like a hybrid of soccer and rugby, and the ball was round, made of rubber and resembled something you would roll down a tenpin alley. Passing the ball was not allowed. Neither was running with the ball. The only way to score was by kicking the ball into one's opponent's goal.

The name Pudge Heffelfinger might sound like the name of a cartoon character, but he is an integral figure in the game's development.

In western Pennsylvania, an area that in the future would become some of the most fertile ground for producing football players, Heffelfinger accepted payment of $500 to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association in a football game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. This the earliest evidence of an athlete paid to play football, thus making it the genesis of professional football.

These are among the many stories told in two complexes, the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. College football thrived long before pro football did. In fact, it would be three decades from Heffelfinger's payment to the founding of the National Football League.

College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, Georgia

Chronologically, the football story begins with the college game. But the College Football Hall of Fame has had a restless past. Plans for a college football hall of fame to be built on the Rutgers campus emerged as early as 1967 but the idea never reached fruition. Two college football halls of fame were built, one adjacent to Kings Island, a theme park outside Cincinnati, then one in South Bend, Indiana, but attendance at both fell far short of expectations. The third version of the hall opened in Atlanta on August 23, 2014. Atlanta has no special relationship with college football, other than the fact that it's the capital of a state that is college football crazy.

The initial eye-stopper in the College Football Hall of Fame is the wall of helmets; there are helmets from 773 colleges and universities decking the wall in the entrance lobby. Just after entering, a hall staff member will help you register with one college team and receive an all-access pass. Immediately afterwards, your team helmet will light up. With your possession of the pass, your school's name will pop up as you explore the museum, in hands-on activities from singing the college's fight song to calling a play-by-play, which is then played back on a monitor with your school's mascot is superimposed on your face. Hands-on rules here; the entire ground floor is a practice field where visitors can practice passing, kicking, and tackling.

Memorable games, legendary coaches and all the accoutrements of the college football experiences are explored. Visitors can do everything from play coach by design formations to choreograph a half time routine. Traditional rivalries are examined, going back to the turn of the last century when the Ivy League dominated the game. As early as 1894, Yale beat Harvard, 12-4.

One of college football's most storied rivalries had a bizarre genesis. While watching Nebraska play at Notre Dame in 1925, the wife of USC's athletic director, Glynn Wilson, convinced Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne's wife to visit Los Angeles for a break from Midwest winters. She convinced Knute and ever since 1926 the Trojans and the Irish have annually played for bragging rights.

Like other distinctive college football pastimes, tailgating's roots go way back. Life-sized tableaux of fans in coonskin coats with wicker picnic baskets give way to the mid-century when The Grove at Old Miss was the Holy Grail of tailgating parties. Twenty-first-century high tech tailgating is represented with live mobile satellite television systems for cars and RVs and gas-powered margarita blenders.

The actual hall of fame might section might seem underwhelming. There are no plaques or busts here. Inductees are listed year by year on panels that can be turned, and at the push of a button you can learn about each member. With 1,201 hall members, this is the best way to conserve space and leave room for more interactive galleries.

Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio
On the other hand, Pro Football Hall of Fame members are eternized with bronze busts. The total number of inductees there through 2017 is 310. Not surprisingly, overlap exists within both halls. Both extensively cover the game's evolution with myriad examples of equipment and uniforms, as well as the development of formations, from the T formation to the dime defense. In the pro hall you can eyeball a leather helmet from football's Neanderthal days, then don a miked modern helmet to listen to a coach feed plays and strategies into your ears.

The pro hall has been renovated and updated several times, the last in 2013. But the iconic Jim Thorpe sculpture is still there,greeting visitors as it has for years. The difference is its surroundings. Not far from Thorpe is one of the newest first floor exhibits, a collection of football cards dating from 1888. Like baseball cards, the earliest football cards came with packages of tobacco, and the first full set of football cards was released in 1894 by Mayo's Cut Plug. The 1894 cards are small and sepia-toned and all the players are from either Yale, Harvard, or Princeton. The most valuable of all? Joe Namath's 1965 rookie card.

The requisite retired jerseys and commemorative footballs are here, like the two-tone ball honoring Bill Belichick's 200th regular season win. But what might be even more inspiring are personal stories of noteworthy players. Pro football had its own color barrier -- of a sort. There were black players from the beginning, but when times got tough and jobs were scarce, especially during the Great Depression, positions went to white athletes. The NFL fully integrated when Kenny Washington and Woody Strode joined the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color line.

High tech meets tradition in "A Game for Life," a holographic theater experience in which players who excelled beyond football tell how the game helped them develop character. Visitors sit in a mock locker room and watch as former Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page explains how after retiring from the game he attended law school and now occupies a bench on Minnesota's Supreme Court. Retired Bill's quarterback Jim Kelly talks about overcoming personal tragedies, the death of a young son and his own bout with cancer.

Galleries cover a wide range of topics: "Pro Football Today," "The NFL's First Century," and the "Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Gallery" with the Lombardi Trophy shining front and center. And love them or hate them, you can thank the New England Patriots for giving the fans seven of the most exciting Super Bowls in the last 15 years. If you visit any time from now until next spring, you will relive the Patriots' improbable comeback in Super Bowl LI in the lively Super Bowl Theater. Not far away are computer kiosks where you can design your personal Super Bowl ring.

You can also play a bit of dress-up by suiting up in shoulder pads, or compare your build to a NFL athlete by seeing how your hands, arms, and thighs compare to the corresponding body molds of NFL players such as Willie McGinest, Cortez Kennedy, and Jerome Bettis. It can be humbling.

Note: The Pro HOF has ambitious plans

Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village (Johnson Controls is a multinational company that manufactures air conditioning equipment, car batteries and other related products) is being constructed around the hall of fame building. Included will be: a football and youth sports complex with eight state-of-the-art turf fields; a four-star hotel and conference center; a center for excellence with an Academy of Corporate Excellence and a medical component for health, wellness, rehab and research; and the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Experience with virtual reality and interactive activities including a football-themed water park. Estimated completion date is 2020, the NFL's centennial year.


You'll probably be staying overnight and these national brands offer breakfast included.

Fairfield Inn & Suites -- Downtown
Homewood Suites by Hilton

Canton, Ohio
Fairfield Inn & Suites -- Canton South
Comfort Inn

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Michael Schuman is the author of 46 books and hundreds of articles. He has also won 14 NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) awards for excellence in travel writing.
Photos by Michael Schuman.

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