Wiedmer: NFL should have game with its Hall of Fame weekend

Wiedmer: NFL should have game with its Hall of Fame weekend

July 26th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Last weekend found 13-year-old Josh Brady playing football at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

A rising eighth-grader at Silverdale Baptist Academy, Josh was the only Tennessean selected to his age group's USA national team that faced two teams from Sweden, one from Canada and a developmental squad from the United States atop Fawcett's fake grass.

Sadly, those are the last football contests to be played for at least a month at the 22,400-seat facility, despite the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremonies soon taking over the city of 85,000 people about 60 miles south of Cleveland.

Not that it's normally that way this time of year. Until the NFL lockout forced its cancellation last week, the Hall of Fame game had been played at Fawcett every year since 1966 as an annual kickoff to the NFL exhibition season and a fitting climax to the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

The St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears were supposed to continue that tradition on Sunday, Aug. 7, delivering a proper exclamation point to the enshrinement of new members Deion Sanders, Marshall Faulk, Shannon Sharpe, Richard Dent, Chris Hanburger, Les Richter and Ed Sabol, the father of NFL Films.

But because millionaire players and billionaire owners couldn't get down to business until the owners were threatened with losing $200 million a weekend during the exhibition schedule, little ol' Canton -- keeper of all that's revered about the game's past, all set to dedicate a $27 million renovation project to boost the Hall's future -- got spit on.

In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that Cantonites were the lone inarguable casualties of the 136-day lockout.

(Note: Neither owners nor players are on the hook for the damage done to the Hall of Fame weekend, though it would surely be a nice gesture for a league that will divide $9 billion in revenue this year to slide a few million Canton's way as a little something for its effort.)

"I certainly think disappointment is a fair word to describe how Canton feels right now," said Joanne Murray, who oversees the Hall of Fame Festival and its 4,000 volunteers for the Canton Chamber of Commerce.

"But we also know the NFL is a business and sometimes a labor dispute is the cost of doing business."

At least one NFL player apparently couldn't care less about Canton's disappointment. Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher -- a possible Hall of Fame member one day -- told the Chicago Tribune, "[The Hall of Fame game] doesn't mean anything. That's one less chance we have to get people hurt. I definitely respect the Hall of Fame and all that stuff, but ... I'm not mad one bit about it being canceled."

Yet despite that cancellation costing his employers $1.5 million in lost ticket revenue, Hall of Fame vice president for communications Joe Horrigan said Monday, "There's no doubt this will have an impact, but the NFL has been so good to us over the years, this was one tough moment in 40-something years of hosting this game.

"Our biggest fear is that people will assume that because the game is canceled the induction ceremony is canceled, and nothing could be further from the truth. This is a 10-day celebration every year with 18 events. We're just having to make do with 17 this year."

Added Murray: "The economic impact of the Hall of Fame Festival to Canton was $31 million last year, so it's the biggest thing we have here, for sure. But the main focus is still the enshrinement ceremony. Our chief concern is that the inductees still feel special, still have a great weekend. This is their moment.

"The way we're trying to look at this, 2013 is the 50th anniversary for the Hall of Fame. So we're saying 2012 will be back to normal, 2013 will be extraordinary."

The locals will tell you that the coney sauce and peanut butter soft-serve ice cream at the Kustard Korner are extraordinary -- and have been since the place first began serving its 40 flavors a quarter-mile from the Hall some 36 years ago.

"The Hall of Fame weekend is our biggest money-maker of the year, by far," said owner Janice Holzopfel, who worked behind the counter as a teenager and bought the establishment with her husband a year ago.

"But a lot of our local customers stay away that weekend because of all the visitors. So we're hoping some of them will come back this year and that will cut our losses. I really just hope the new inductees still have a great time. The game's fun, but the enshrinement ceremony is really what it's all about."

Here's hoping that any player or owner who delayed the end of the lockout until it was too late to play the Hall of Fame game never has a chance to enjoy that enshrinement ceremony as an inductee. Especially Brian Urlacher.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.