The Pro Football Hall of Fame will visit Tacoma on Saturday for a three-and-a-half month run at the Washington State History Museum.
Helmets, shoes and jerseys, primitive documents and trophies collected by long-forgotten franchises are among the 200 artifacts on display, each telling a story about how the sport evolved from a second-rate, semi-pro operation to a multibillion dollar business.
An elevator panel skeleton, salvaged from a demolished stadium, is not obviously relevant to such an exhibition, but it not only tells a story, it tells a story that resembles a parable.
On Dec. 23, 1972, Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney left the owner’s box at Three Rivers Stadium to console his valiant but seemingly beaten team. Down 7-6 to Oakland in the AFC playoffs, the Steelers were facing a fourth-and-10 at their 40-yard line, with 22 seconds remaining and no time outs to be had.
Rooney was renowned for his heart, but it had been broken so often that he knew, just absolutely knew, his team’s last chance was tantamount to no chance.
So he headed for the elevator and the quick ride to the field level. It was during that ride when Terry Bradshaw’s pass deflected off Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum and into the hands of running back Franco Harris, whose “Immaculate Reception” touchdown still ranks as the most consequential play in NFL history.
Art Rooney, who spent his entire adult life waiting for the Steelers to win an important game, missed out on the magical moment because he gave up hope when hope was still alive.
Which is how an elevator panel became part of the movable feast called Gridiron Glory. Originated in 2012, the Hall’s version of a national touring show will make its only Pacific Northwest stop in Tacoma.
It took several years of behind-the-scenes work for Tacoma to land the Gridiron Glory exhibition. Upon enjoying a sneak preview of the show this past Tuesday, the word “coup” came to mind.
What did Tacoma offer that Seattle couldn’t? Well, there’s that state history museum component.
“It’s an exhibit about football but also an exhibit about us – us a culture, us as a society,” said Mary Mikel Stump, the museum’s director of audience engagement. “Each of the objects tells a story in and of itself. But gathered together, they tell a story that starts in the early 1900s, essentially when people were moving to the urban cores. They were working and had a little bit of liquid income and had a lot more free time.
“Football as an entity became intersected with how people spent that free time.”
Progress wasn’t seamless but, rather, a succession of starts and stops and restarts. Take equipment. Before helmets were introduced, many players wore hard-rubber nose-guards that caused more injuries than they prevented.
Because rules didn’t specify that the nose-guards be worn over the nose, they often were used as weapons.
The notion of uncontrolled barbarism is at odds with another, quite more quaint artifact: a sideline blanket worn by the great Jim Thorpe.
Former Cleveland Browns quarterback George Ratterman is not in the Hall of Fame, but the helmet he wore in 1956 is historically significant. It was equipped with a short-wave radio device that enabled coach Paul Brown to communicate with him.
The experiment was another example of hit-and-miss.
“Did you hear the last play we called?” Brown recalled asking Ratterman after a three-and-out.
“I guess not, coach,” Ratterman answered. “All I heard is that there was a robbery at Third and Main.”
Among the artifacts is another helmet, worn by Detroit Lions linebacker Joe Schmidt in 1962, designed to measure the impact of hits to the head. The NFL covered up the danger of concussions for decades, but a history exhibit has no integrity if it denies the unpleasant side of history.
The sneak preview underscored how history tends to be fluid. Rachel Knapp, the Hall of Fame’s curatorial assistant, was installing Cortez Kennedy’s football shoes into a case Tuesday when she learned the most beloved of former Seattle Seahawks had been found dead at his Florida home.
A replica of Kennedy’s bicep is on display. The idea was to enable guests to marvel at the sheer size of Kennedy’s arms, but now it’s a shrine.
Virtually every aspect of pro football is covered in the show: race, science, pop culture, economics and strategy. There’s a lot to learn, but with the help of interactive exhibits, Gridiron Glory is less a history class than a field trip so fun it feels like recess.
There’s also a Seahawks-centric wing that will allow fans a glimpse of the Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl 48. (Heads up: the trophy is on temporary loan only through June 11. Then it goes back to the Hall of Fame.)
Several special events have been scheduled in conjunction with the floor show. “Brian’s Song,” the 1972 TV movie about the bond cancer victim Brian Piccolo developed with fellow Bears running back Gale Sayers, will be shown in the museum auditorium on June 23. “Invincible,” based on the dream-come-true aspirations of a Philadelphia bartender who earned a spot on the Eagles roster, will be shown on July 28.
An NFL youth combine day is set Aug. 5, when kids can test their agility through football-related activities.
For adults, a “Two Pint Conversion” night, on July 13, will replicate a tailgate party with local craft brews. Because capacity is limited, guests are encouraged to purchase tickets at the museum’s website.
Planning ahead is rarely a bad idea, unless you’re the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and there’s 22 seconds left for one last Hail Mary pass.