50 years of NFL history come to The Henry Ford museum

Karen Dybis
Special to The Detroit News

Their names resonate across generations: Dutch Clark, Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson. Pretty much everyone has a favorite NFL player.

The scope of how the NFL has grown and innovated over the decades, the plays that made history and the people who desegregated the sport are among the stories shared in "Gridiron Glory," the interactive exhibit on display at The Henry Ford museum.

"Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame" is on tour with artifacts from the Canton, Ohio, museum, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The 6,000-square-foot exhibit includes everything from the dramatic Vince Lombardi Trophy and the heavy curtains of an authentic interactive instant replay booth to the weathered leather on Knute Rockne's 1919 Massillon Tigers helmet.

The museum with the Pro Hall of Fame has put a local stamp on the exhibit, said Tom Varitek, The Henry Ford's program operations manager. For example, The Henry Ford created a replica of the neon-lit sign that features the Detroit Lions' logo of a football player astride the mighty jungle king; similar signs hang in several places around Ford Field, Varitek noted.

There are similarities between football and the automotive industry, which is a significant part of The Henry Ford, Varitek said. For example, the first time a football player was paid to play the sport happened in 1892; the first production automobile came about in 1896. Pro football's so-called "birth certificate," or the 1892 accounting ledger from that paycheck, is part of the exhibit.

"Like the museum, football appeals across generations. There's a player that everyone identifies with. My dad remembers Bobby Layne. I remember Barry Sanders. And my son has Calvin Johnson," Varitek said.

The sport's past is as rough and tough as one might expect. For instance, Varitek said early football players such as Rockne wore exaggerated nose guards for practical reasons, such as protection. But certain ringers also exploited the fact that the guards made their faces virtually unrecognizable, thereby allowing them to play for multiple teams and in as many games as they wanted.

The interactive displays are what make this exhibit so compelling. There are the cutouts that show just how sizable a linesman's leg muscles are — you can't help but put yourself inside them to marvel at their girth. The instant replay booth has the heavy headphones you must wear to hear the action; such intimacy forces you to concentrate on the outcome, like a referee might.

Among the finest yet most extreme moments is within the circular room where the Lombardi trophy stands. Televisions blare within the darkened space, battling for your attention against the sights of the gleaming trophy and the back-lit jerseys of pro football's greatest players. That line between the chanting crowd and the polished players is purposeful, Varitek said.

"That's what football is — there's motion. There's color. There's noise. It's this bigger-than-life experience," Varitek added.

The exhibit also includes Lions memorabilia on loan from the Ford family, including pictures of former Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. enjoying a game with his father Edsel around 1938. That is displayed next to a vintage Lions ticket, Sanders' iconic jersey and a Lego replica of Ford Field.

Ultimately, fans will find the league's history, its push toward integration and its reverence for technology all packed inside this unique exhibit, Varitek said.

"It is a success story about taking a product, developing it and fine tuning it to ultimately develop a relationship with the fans," he said.

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

The Henry Ford

Oct. 3-Jan. 4

20900 Oakwood, Dearborn

Admission free with Henry Ford Museum ticket

(313) 982-6001