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The Virginia Historical Society's New Exhibit Explores Pro Football’s Evolution



A mold of Jerome Bettis’ thigh boggles the mind with its sheer size. An early cast-iron football warmer with heated coils shows how rain-slicked footballs could be turned into rock-hard projectiles. That silver-plated Lombardi trophy is made by Tiffany & Co.

Organized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and sponsored by TowneBank, the exhibit “Gridiron Glory: the Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” at the Virginia Historical Society covers such a wide swath of football culture and history — from its beginning in the late 19th century to the big business and cultural phenomenon it is today — that even nonfans likely will find their interest piqued.

“It’s an opportunity to reach people who might not otherwise think they want to come here,” says Paul Levengood, outgoing chief of the society.

Some might also say that turnabout’s fair play for the husbands and boyfriends who were dragged to last year’s popular “Dressing Downton Abbey” exhibit.

The truth is, there’s enough cultural history memorabilia filling the galleries to provide compelling insights into how the rough-and-tumble game became America’s favorite sport. “It’s very densely packed into the space,” Levengood observes of the 200 objects in the show. “You almost forget where you are.”

A page from the Allegheny Athletic Association’s 1892 ledger dates the first payment to a football player — $500 to W. Heffelfinger “for playing” — effectively documenting the birth of professional football.

The evolution of equipment is traced with Knute Rockne’s inadequate-looking leather helmet and an interactive station for visitors to experience the weight of trying on shoulder pads. What looks like a Baltimore Colts blue onesie from the 1950s snaps at the crotch, an attempt to prevent players from grabbing other players by their shirts.

Marquee names abound, from All-American, Rutgers player-turned-actor Paul Robeson to professional football’s first superstar, Jim Thorpe, whose sideline blanket makes it into the show. Younger visitors may not recognize the medium, but Vince Lombardi’s play diagrams were done on overhead projector gel sheets, which are framed here.

A mold of San Francisco player Jerry Rice’s hands holding a football allows visitors to compare their grip with that of the man considered to be the greatest wide receiver ever to play the game, while armchair quarterbacks will be tempted to place their hands on molds of the various grips of Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly and Warren Moon.

Fans of the Washington Redskins can revel in memorabilia from their three Super Bowl championships, including Doug Williams’ Super Bowl XXII jersey, the showgirl-inspired costumes of the team’s cheerleaders and jerseys won by memorable players such as Sonny Jurgensen, Art Monk and Kirk Cousins.

And for those who think Redskins’ current owner can be arrogant and stubborn, Washington was the last team to allow blacks to play, holding out until 1962 mainly because then-owner George Marshall was “a bit of a racist,” according to Greg Hansard, manager of web and digital resources and the on-site curator.

The exhibit’s focus on Integration: Pro Football’s Road to Equality chronicles the rise of the black athlete, an under-told story that started in 1904 and is ongoing.

Technology resides side by side with memorabilia. Video screens give viewers a choice of “fantastic finishes,” plays that completely changed the last-minute outcome of games over the years, with the older footage the more compelling for the peek at less-manicured fields and more spontaneous color commentary.

Joe Namath’s legendary pantyhose commercial is shown on a screen in Pro Football as a Way of Life, along with commentary by Howard Cosell, an enthusiastic Bill Murray rooting for the Chicago Bears and Vice President Richard Nixon looking almost relaxed at a game.

Whether or not you’re a fan, chances are good that you’ll never get closer to a Super Bowl trophy than at the Virginia Historical Society’s exhibit. Political columnist Mary McGrory famously said, “Baseball is what we were. Football is what we have become.”

That reality is on full display in “Gridiron Glory.” S

“Gridiron Glory: the Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” runs through Sept. 4 at the Virginia Historical Society, 428 N. Boulevard. For information call 358-4901 or visit

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