Living

Don’t punt on the opportunity to visit College Football Hall of Fame

Editor’s Note: This is another in the “Georgia On My Mind” travel series about interesting places within a couple of hours’ drive of the midstate.

ATLANTA -- It’s difficult to imagine a museum in this country that personalizes its content for its patrons the way the newly opened College Football Hall of Fame does.

When football fans enter the facility, they are issued a visitor’s badge that contains a radio frequency identification chip. Visitors can program their badges with the option of following a particular college or university throughout three levels of exhibits so that, for example, a University of Georgia fan can go through the museum with an emphasis on Bulldogs-related items and activities.

Should patrons want to sing along, karaoke-style, with the UGA fight song, for example, they can do so and have a video emailed through the radio-frequency technology as a keepsake.

John Stephenson Jr., president and CEO of the College Football Hall of Fame, said that when the decision to move the museum from South Bend, Indiana, to Atlanta was made in 2009, designers of the facility were given free rein in how the new building would function.

“When they started building this attraction, museum, it was basically, ‘What do you want to do?’” he said. “This is what they came up with.”

Stephenson said rather than a traditional style hall of fame, with busts or plaques to commemorate those enshrined, designers came up with a building that still has its artifacts but merges the latest in technology to educate the public.

Malia Mack, the facility’s marketing coordinator, said it’s the interactive part of the hall of fame that makes it extraordinary.

“It’s a world-class experience that everyone can enjoy, people of all ages,” she said. “There’s a lot of new technology here. It’s not, by any means, a museum. You can get a new experience each time you come.”

VIRTUAL TOUR

As visitors register their badges, they do so under a giant mural composed of 36 individual football-themed paintings by famed Georgia artist Steve Penley. When they register which college they wish to follow, the corresponding helmet on a display of 768 helmets lights up and will stay lit for the rest of the day.

Each program that fields a football team, regardless of level and including the NAIA, is represented in the display, Mack said.

The ground level consists of interactive football skills challenges, which Mack says is usually the highlight for younger attendees but has participation among all ages.

Fans line up to attempt a field goal, run through tackling dummies and throw a football through a net. The indoor field is under a 36-foot HD TV screen, which is constantly showing either live games or highlights of games during the season.

On the second level, fans can see some of the famous hardware associated with the sport, including the Heisman Trophy and the newly designed national championship trophy that will be presented to the winner of the national title game Jan. 12.

With the trophies is a group of computer screens showing highlights of the football season. When a patron approaches the screen, the radio-frequency chip sends a signal that will automatically start showing highlights of games involving the selected school.

Nearby is the building’s 150-seat theater that shows a 10-minute film called “The Game of Your Life.” Narrated by 30 hall of fame inductees, it shows an often dizzying mashup of highlights that makes viewers feel like they are on the field of play during a game.

Fans then can move through a variety of displays, both static and interactive, beginning -- perhaps appropriately -- with tailgating. Fans can record videos of themselves singing their fight song or taking part in an ESPN “College GameDay” broadcast. Patrons can ask the likes of Hall of Famer Peyton Manning about various aspects of the game, including his teammates, leadership and his daily routine when he played at the University of Tennessee. The players have pre-recorded answers.

Perhaps the display that best reflects the old and the new of the museum is the one devoted to Georgia Tech Coach John Heisman’s playbook. The actual playbook, complete with Heisman’s illustrations and handwritten notes, is in a display case while fans can interactively use a touchscreen to flip through the pages of the book. Next to it is a display of screens in which fans can learn basic football plays from former coaches such as Lou Holtz and Terry Donahue, program the X’s and O’s into the screen and then watch footage of the play being executed.

The rest of the floor includes a display that pays tribute to historically black colleges and universities’ programs (which produced players such as Walter Payton and Jerry Rice) as well as the United States service academies. Three mannequins wear split uniforms -- half of the uniform is the military uniform of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force service academies, while the other half is the football uniform of each school.

Other interactive displays on this level include a viewer, which allows a fan to see a stadium from a 360-degree rotating angle; a recording booth in which a fan can call one of several famous college football plays; and a screen in which a fan can build a college football program from the ground up, involving all aspects -- creating facilities, recruiting players, setting training schedules and dealing with alumni.

The third floor is dedicated to those enshrined in the hall of fame. On glass etchings, each inductee class is listed. Rather than reading a series of plaques and busts of the inductees, such as with other halls of fame, there are several touch screens available for fans to find a particular individual or college and learn about who is enshrined. The displays include a mini-biography, statistics and honors, along with records achieved, photos and video, when available.

There’s also a display dedicated to the National Football Foundation, which founded the hall and is responsible for selecting those who are enshrined. The displays have famous players and coaches discussing how the principles of college football shaped their lives.

REACTION

The College Football Hall of Fame opened in Atlanta in late August. Because the facility hasn’t been open for six months, Stephenson said officials are waiting to release attendance figures.

So far, however, the number of fans coming through has kept everyone busy.

“We’re very pleased,” he said. “Let’s just say that.”

The hall of fame also can be rented for private functions and corporate events. Since it’s connected with the Georgia World Congress Center, it already has hosted several events related to conventions being held at the center.

Located near Centennial Park in Atlanta, it’s just minutes to walk to or from other attractions in the area, such as the World of Coca Cola or the Georgia Aquarium. Because each facility caters to such a different audience, Stephenson said there’s little competition among all the attractions. Rather, they complement one another.

“The more good stuff here, the better for everyone,” he said. “The whole Centennial Park area is all world-class attractions. There’s a real festival atmosphere around here. It’s the safest zone in Atlanta, according to the (Atlanta Police Department).”

On a visit last Tuesday, the Hall of Fame was packed full of fans wearing either Ole Miss or Texas Christian University gear in anticipation of the Chick-fil-A Bowl game held on New Year’s Eve. Many of those fans said they visited Atlanta specifically with the hall in mind.

Russell Wilson, of Carrollton, Mississippi, said he was pretty overwhelmed by the experience.

“This is outstanding,” he said, moments after reading John Heisman’s playbook. “I had read about it. ... Having it here in the South is great. The technology (used for ‘The Game of Your Life’) is just incredible. It makes you want to go out and play football.”

Wesley Sparkmon, of Franklin, Tennessee, went to the hall with his father, Bill, as part of their trip to Atlanta to cheer on Ole Miss. The younger Sparkmon took the time to record Georgia radio announcer Larry Munson’s famous “Lindsay Scott” call from the 1980 Georgia-Florida game.

“The thing that stands out is the whole personalization of it,” he said.

“This was one thing we had to do,” Bill Sparkmon said of their visit. “It’s been a real pleasant experience, one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve ever had. ... There’s just so much for anybody who calls himself a college football fan to do.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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