Football fame is the name of their game

08/05/2007 12:00 AM

08/05/2007 7:11 AM

Are you ready for some football?

How about the Pittsburgh Steelers against the New Orleans Saints this evening?

For one weekend every year — this weekend — all eyes turn to Canton, a quiet city in northeast Ohio. Millions tune in on their televisions. Thousands are drawn here in person. Celebrities come to town to pay homage.

This is where Bill Walsh and John Madden are enshrined. This is where Joe Montana reigns in the pantheon of quarterbacks.

This is the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which held its annual enshrinement ceremony Saturday, capping a week that included rock concerts, rib burnoffs, a hot-air-balloon race and today's Steelers-Saints game.

The nation's shrine to the gridiron is located just off I-77, about an hour south of Cleveland, in what appears to be a giant orange juicer. (Or you could argue it's a football-shaped cathedral. Yoube the judge.) Inside is everything a devoted fan could want. There are contemporary artifacts, such as a uniform worn by LaDainian Tomlinson, the San Diego Chargers running back who last year broke the single-season record for touchdowns scored. For history buffs, there's a shoe worn by Tom Dempsey, of the New Orleans Saints, who kicked an NFL-record 63-yard-long field goal in 1970. (If you think the shoe looks a bit odd, remember that Dempsey had only half a foot.)

There are exhibits explaining the history of the game, including why the Hall ended up in Canton in the first place. Answer: The city of about 80,000 people was home to an early pro-football powerhouse, the Jim Thorpe Canton Bulldogs. It was here that what became the National Football League was founded in 1920.

There are photo galleries and Super Bowl rings. The Hall even has a rotating theater and interactive exhibits that allow visitors to tackle trivia or toss a pigskin.

The centerpiece of the collection, though, remains its many bronze busts, one for each enshrinee. These regal reminders of the legends of the game are inspiring in a way that the plaques or portraits of other halls of fame cannot match.

As a reminder that this is a living museum, the sport's faithful gather here every summer to enshrine a new class of athletes, making it the best time to visit by far. This year's class is highlighted by Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin and Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas.

For football widows and others who aren't tuning in every Sunday in the fall to watch football, there are things to enjoy as well for the entire week leading up to football's greatest weekend.

There's a fireworks display downtown, and the annual ribs burnoff this year featured rocker Pat Benatar and country singer Darryl Worley at the county fairgrounds. There was also a fashion show and a balloon race featuring 70 hot-air balloons.

And who doesn't love a parade? The Timken Grand Parade the morning of the enshrinement ceremony is one of the longest and best in the country.

The 2.2-mile route was lined by 200,000 people Saturday. This being a football-inspired parade, there were plenty of former players sprinkled throughout as well.

Like a great football game, the excitement is over far too soon.

But also like a great football game, you can't wait to experience it again.

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