published Sunday, August 17th, 2014

Wiedmer: A night to remember at new college football hall of fame

Chip Kent and his son C.J., 9, of Suwanee, Ga., watch from their sleeping bags as the movie "Rudy" is played during a sleepover in the College Football Hall of Fame just after midnight on Aug. 14, 2014, in Atlanta.
Chip Kent and his son C.J., 9, of Suwanee, Ga., watch from their sleeping bags as the movie "Rudy" is played during a sleepover in the College Football Hall of Fame just after midnight on Aug. 14, 2014, in Atlanta.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Ask 100 college football fans what they like best about the sport and chances are you'll get 100 different answers.

Lifelong Tennessee fan Clay Pogue, for instance, might write: "College football is great because you get to see guys put it all on the line for their state and teammates before some become tainted by the money and it becomes a job."

Notre Dame supporter Tom Darrow, whose father was a Golden Domer grad, could choose to pen: "In 1956, my father boarded a bus with one suitcase in Green Bay, WI, for the long ride to South Bend, Indiana. He worked serving food in the priests' dining hall for four years and worked his way through the University of Notre Dame. I realized a few years ago that I was really proud of my father for working his way through Notre Dame and laying the legacy for my sister and me. Growing up a Notre Dame fan and having it amplified through my four years as a student and now as an alumnus has taught me much about college football."

Those are portions of the essays that won Pogue from Estill Springs, Tenn., and Darrow from Murphy, N.C., a free night's campout at the new College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta courtesy of Chick-fil-A, which sponsored the contest.

"Oh, it was great. Chick-fil-A really rolled out the red carpet," said Darrow, a businessman who splits his time between Murphy and Atlanta. "They even had 20 kids or so lining the entrance to the Hall when we arrived, cheering us on. When they saw my Golden Dome hard hat with the Mother Mary statue on top, a couple of them even sang the Notre Dame fight song."

Because Chick-fil-A is a founding sponsor of the new Hall at 246 Marietta St., it also just opened a restaurant that's attached to the Hall and has a giant window that looks out over the Hall's 45-yard football field.

And since both Darrow and Pogue guessed they eat at the restaurant chain five times a week -- chocolate milk and chicken biscuits each morning for Darrow, the No. 1 combo meal for Pogue -- they'll no doubt enjoy that view sometime in the future.

But last Wednesday night, Darrow, Pogue and their wives pitched tents and rolled out sleeping bags on the field as they joined the 98 other essay winners (with one guest each) from across the country for a "Night in the Hall." One winner even flew in from Hawaii for the event.

"We got to run through tackling dummies and catch passes," said Pogue, who runs a card shop, Clay's Collectables, in Tullahoma. "And they gave us all kinds of freebies, from 52 Chick-fil-A sandwiches, to coolers, to two tickets to the Kickoff Classic between Ole Miss and Boise State. We even got a Peach Bowl Nerf football."

They also all got to view the football movies "Rudy" (a huge favorite with Darrow) and "We Are Marshall," though Pogue admitted, "I fell asleep before the Marshall movie ended."

What they saw inside the Hall's new walls would keep any college football fan awake, however.

"I went to the Hall when it was at Notre Dame," Darrow said, "and it was great. But this one's better. It's so interactive, really high-tech."

Added Pogue: "It's amazing. With just a push of the button you can find out everyone who's ever made the Hall of Fame from your school."

According to Darrow, Notre Dame has the most players enshrined in the Hall with 44, followed by Southern Cal with 39 and Michigan with 34. Alabama and Tennessee are tied for the most in the SEC with 23 each.

But while diehards such as Darrow and Pogue no doubt lean toward the traditional aspects of the facility, which opens Aug. 23 to the public, Hall of Fame CEO John Stephenson recently told a media tour that appealing to the traditional fan wasn't the main goal.

"It's got to be fun," he said, which might be why Stanford band member Gary Tyrell's trombone case from the infamous California-Stanford game of 1982 -- when Cal's Kevin Moen ran through the Stanford band for the winning score on the last play of the game -- is on display.

"It's got to be engaging. It can't be just a hall of fame," Stephenson added. "Most of the building is an attraction you can have fun in, even if you aren't a college football fan."

Yet Darrow was quick to say, "For people who are college football fans, you have to go."

Darrow, 49, is such a college football fan that he and his wife, Anne, spent the night in the Hall despite the fact he had to board an 8 a.m. flight for Chicago on Thursday to address Notre Dame's MBA students in South Bend that afternoon. And Anne doesn't even root for the Irish. She's a North Carolina Tar Heels supporter.

The 44-year-old Pogue has a similar problem with his wife, Ellen, who grew up in Missouri.

"But the Vols are growing on her," he said.

The anticipation of another college football season is growing on everyone. We're now less than two weeks away from Texas A&M visiting South Carolina and Vanderbilt hosting Temple on Thursday, Aug. 28, when also the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga plays at Central Michigan.

And as that excitement builds, one sentence from Pogue's essay should find a permanent place in the new Hall, engraved in giant letters, if only to showcase what makes college football and its fans so unique, especially in the South.

Wrote Pogue: "I have big hopes for the Vols this year, but if they beat Alabama, no matter what else happens, it's a great year."

The Chick-fil-A cow couldn't have said it better if he was wearing orange-and-white checkerboard overalls.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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