All this way, and he can't look. The dude drove 2,500 miles, and he won't make eye contact.
"I can't do it," the superfan says, smiling, pacing, futzing with Joe Namath's nose. "I have to work up to this."
We are in the heart of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is in the heart of this blue collar burg, where the National Football League was born in 1920. We are surrounded by severed heads, hundreds of 'em, some grinning, some scowling, all glowing. There are great Roman noses, swoops of Elvis hair, collars that make them look like astronauts. It's awesome in here, eerie, not unlike the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark . . . you know, if Indiana Jones were a slotback for the Green Bay Packers.
This nervous pacing guy is a stranger, but he's also a football fan, so I feel his angst in this hallowed gallery. I try to calm him down, crack a joke. I tell him O.J. Simpson's bust is reminiscent of Urkel. I tell him Fred Biletnikoff's bust makes him look like a member of the Doobie Brothers. Silver and Black, keep on rolling . . .
"You don't understand," says Neal Armstrong, 30, a community organizer living in Portland, Ore., but who grew up in Denver. "I've been dreaming of coming here since I was 7, okay? This is big."
I get that. I do. I just spent 20 minutes staring into the hard eyes of my fellow Syracuse alum Jim Brown, the greatest running back of all time, enshrined here in 1971. Brown's sculpture is smaller than most, but it's compact, cool, stern — which is pretty much Jim Brown in a nutshell. Brown's glowing head is a popular stop, seeing as how he starred for the squad just up the road, the Cleveland Browns.
Armstrong makes his way 'round and 'round this solemn, shadowy room. He's headed for 2004, the year his hero was inducted into this spectacular museum. He's getting closer, closer: 1991 (Earl Campbell) . . . 1992 (John Riggins) . . . 1993 (Walter Payton).
"My best piece of memorabilia is a picture of me and John Elway in a Macy's when I was 7," says Armstrong, walking sideways, his eyes not leaving those severed heads. "If my home was on fire, that would be the one thing I'd make sure to take . . ."
"Well," he says, reaching out to the woman next to him, flashing her a grin, "that and my wife."
Oh yeah: the wife. Laura Lisenky rolls her eyes and smiles. Yep, that's why they're in Canton today: John Elway, old No. 7, goofy-toothed quarterback for the Denver Broncos. They drove 2,500 miles for a total man-crush. There are a lot of man-crushes going on in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
With hands on his face, jaw dropped low, Armstrong finally makes it to the class of 2004, to the bust of Elway. There he is, charming grin intact.
Armstrong is quiet, a moment of peace for all that brutal beauty, all those Sunday tears, all those steeple-handed prayers.
Finally, he speaks:
They say football has replaced baseball as our national pastime ("they" being Howie Long, Terry Bradshaw and some sweaty guy cooking brats at a Bucs game). I'm not sure if that's true, but it should be. It makes sense.
In 2009, we are a hyperactive nation, an addled community of video games and instant replay, of high-def hits and arrogant celebrities. We crave bursts of action, bright colors, drama, touchdowns. There is no sport more tech-savvy, more in tune with our modern mores, than football, and that has made all the difference.
With head-spinning flair, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which just celebrated its 45th anniversary, understands our needs, our obsessions, our crushes. Touring this place isn't like playing a video game; it's like living one, as in-your-face and fun as a ferocious game of Madden 2009.
Sure, the museum has the classic stuff, the history, the past. You'll see the first football (which looks like a dusty pumpkin), the first helmet (which looks like Princess Leia's hair), the first pro contract (signed in 1892 by Pudge Heffelfinger, of the Allegheny Athletic Association Football Club. Way to go, Pudge!).
You'll also find Brian Piccolo's jersey (yeah, Brian's Song, get ready to weep, gentlemen) and Broadway Joe's bloody knee brace. Visitors to the museum (about 200,000 a year, well behind Cooperstown's 350,000 annual draw) are greeted by a 7-foot statue of Jim Thorpe, the first big name to play pro football.
But for all of its humble reverence, for all its mementos posed and tagged within Lucite display cases, the Pro Football Hall of Fame wants to keep the modern fan entertained, jazzed, juking. The Hall of Fame Gallery is an earnest, quiet room, two-hundred-plus men immortalized in bronze. But in the center of the room is a holographic Super Bowl ring, something straight out of Star Trek. Go on, try to grab it, everyone else does. Next to that are touch-screen LCDs that flash an array of extensive facts, figures and footage on your favorite Hall of Famer: Michael Irvin laying out for a pass, Bucs star Lee Roy Selmon stalking his prey.
(Tampa Bay is well represented at the Hall of Fame: There's a tribute to Doug Williams in the African Americans in Pro Football exhibit, plus the Bucs' 14-karat Super Bowl XXXVII ring is here, complete with 54 diamonds. "That's a nice one," says fan Tom Terebesi, 47, of West Haven, Conn. "I hate the Patriots; their ring was sooo gaudy. The Bucs' ring was nice.")
In the Moments, Memories & Mementos Gallery, darkened exhibits light up upon approach. Step forward — flash! — there's Roger Staubach's jersey, Captain Comeback. Look at that — flash! — you could fit a family of five in Jack Lambert's Nikes.
The Hall of Fame's smartest move — and one of the reasons the sport of football itself is so successful — is recognizing not just longtime fans, but new ones as well. Great swaths of the museum are dedicated to current and up-and-coming stars: Tom Brady's uniform from Super Bowl XLII, Adrian Peterson's uniform from his single-game rushing record night in 2007. Among those are giant flat-screens with highlights from the latest games. History, still being made.
If you think the GameDay Stadium Theater, the requisite movie room, is going to be a sepia-toned travel-slog through a year in the NFL, hold onto your helmet: As the scene shifts from training camp to the glory of fall Sundays — all narrated with great basso profundo by NFL Films legend John Facenda — you'll be seeing a crashing, smashing Mike Alstott on screen, but you'll be thinking Walt Disney. Because this theater doesn't sit still. It spins.
If the kids (and adults) aren't winded by now, almost the entire bottom floor of the Hall of Fame is stuffed with interactive games, including an Xbox 360 Live Center, where you can play Madden on a small screen . . . or a really, really big one.
And if the kids still aren't tired, just step outside.
The Hall of Fame is flanked by football fields: to blow off steam, to re-create, to dream. There is a small one, artificially turfed with line markers, where kids can zip passes like Peyton Manning or run like Randy Moss or sack buddies like Derrick Brooks.
There's also the massive concrete might of Fawcett Stadium, a.k.a. Pro Football Hall of Fame Field, where the inductions are held. This year's enshrinement ceremony will be Aug. 8. (See today's Sports section for a full list of 2009's inductees.) You can walk onto that field, too, throw a pass from the 50, watch it land sadly on the 30.
Today, dozens of children from Mercer Elementary in Shaker Heights, Ohio, are scampering all over outside: running, throwing, laughing. Eve Hussell, 9, and Anna Dietz, 10, are playing with a mini football from the gift shop. They throw just as well as the boys. And they know it.
As I leave, I watch a kid wearing the replica jersey of Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu pose and flex and mimic his favorite player. No doubt about it: It's a budding man-crush. And there's a very good chance that, if Troy and his wee fan keep their ends of the bargain, they'll meet again someday, with Elway, Brown and Namath all looking on.
Sean Daly is the Times' pop music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.