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Canton, birthplace of the NFL, ready to celebrate the league’s centennial, even if coronavirus puts a damper on the party

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 9/12/2020 By Susan Glaser, cleveland.com
a man holding a sign: Artist Dirk Rozich puts some finishing touches on his new mural, The Founders, in downtown Canton. It features Jim Thorpe, coach and player for the Canton Bulldogs, and Ralph Hay, the Bulldogs owner who organized the meeting that led to the creation of the NFL on Sept. 17, 1920. The mural is located at 537 Cleveland Ave. NW. © Susan Glaser, The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com/TNS Artist Dirk Rozich puts some finishing touches on his new mural, The Founders, in downtown Canton. It features Jim Thorpe, coach and player for the Canton Bulldogs, and Ralph Hay, the Bulldogs owner who organized the meeting that led to the creation of the NFL on Sept. 17, 1920. The mural is located at 537 Cleveland Ave. NW.

CANTON, Ohio — One hundred years ago this week, representatives from 11 football teams gathered at an automobile dealership in Canton to talk about forming a league. The National Football League was born.

There was no photo of the meeting, but North Canton artist Dirk Rozich recreated the scene in a stunning mural that hangs on one side of Canton City Hall. It’s one of more than a dozen pieces of football-themed art that would have greeted visitors to the city this week for a multi-day Centennial Celebration of the sport.

One official described the event as a kind of coming-out party for Canton, an opportunity to change the perception of the city, similar to the way the Republican National Convention gave Cleveland a boost in 2016.

But the celebration has been canceled, another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We spent the past three years working on all of this,” said Allyson Bussey, president of Visit Canton, the region’s tourism bureau. “It’s really quite sad.”

Still, city and community leaders are looking forward and trying to stay positive, pointing to several permanent investments that they hope will position Canton for the next 100 years.

Among those projects: a stunning, new outdoor gathering space downtown with a football theme. The city’s new Centennial Plaza, a 2-acre park, features two stages, a 60-foot video screen, café -- and the engraved names of every person who has ever played in the NFL, more than 25,000 in all.

The 11 player-recognition pylons – one for each decade — will be dedicated this week during halftime of the national broadcast of Thursday’s Cleveland Browns-Cincinnati Bengals game.

And there are numerous other football-related developments occurring throughout the city, this week and beyond:

* Work has resumed at the Hall of Fame Village Powered by Johnson Controls, the ambitious development occurring on several hundred acres surrounding the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The development had stalled in recent months, while officials worked to secure financing for the $900 million project. Demolition is occurring on site, and the village expects to break ground this week on the 75,000-square-foot Constellation Center for Excellence, a football-focused research and office space. Its front fa 1/4 u00e7ade will become the end-zone scoreboard for Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. In addition, the village-owned DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, formerly the downtown McKinley Grand Hotel, is expected to reopen in October after a $21 million renovation. And an indoor waterpark, fieldhouse, on-site hotel and other projects should be under construction in the coming months, as well, said Anne Graffice, executive vice president of public affairs for the Hall of Fame Village.

* Two more works in an ambitious series of public art will be unveiled next week – the Ice Bowl, commemorating the 1967 NFL Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys at a frigid Lambeau Field; and the formation of the American Football League in 1959. The two are part of “The Eleven,” chronicling the 11 greatest moments in pro football history.

* Planning continues for August 2021, when the Hall of Fame expects to hold two separate enshrinement ceremonies – for the 20 members of the delayed 2020 class and those chosen for the 2021 class. The ceremonies are scheduled for Aug. 7 and Aug. 8, 2021. The Hall has dubbed next year’s festivities “Twice the Fun in ’21.”

“We hope it’s one of the biggest gatherings in football history, with Super Bowl-type of enthusiasm around it,” said Rich Desrossiers, vice president of communications for the hall.

In addition to the cancellation of this week’s centennial celebration, Canton also experienced the loss of visitors and tourism dollars from the canceled annual enshrinement events, which take place in early August. The events usually draw as many as 700,000 visitors, generating $35 million to $40 million in economic impact, according to Bussey.

The Centennial Celebration was expected to draw nearly as many, with every living former NFL player invited. “That was the original goal,” said Bussey. “We were going to fill up all the hotels in Stark County.”

She said the planning committee kept scaling back the plans until a decision was made in mid-August to cancel the entire thing.

Angus, the planning director, was circumspect about the decision. “A centennial is just a mark in time. It’s disappointing, but I know that there are good things to come.”

The former planning director in Cleveland, Angus helped shepherd the city’s Public Square renovation to completion in preparation for the RNC. He advocated for a similar civic space when he arrived in Canton in 2017, saying, “We need to be ready for the centennial.”

The new park, designed by Columbus firm MKSK, is intended to better link downtown Canton with the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Fame Village, about 3 miles north, which draw about 1 million visitors annually. “There’s always been a desire to draw those visitors downtown,” said Angus.

Though the city owns and built the park, the Hall of Fame will provide programming and maintenance. Among the possibilities – as soon as large gatherings are permitted again – concerts and festivals, the live streaming of NFL games and more.

Among the plaza’s features: gas fireplaces, choreographed lighting, movable furniture, a play garden and a social garden. Four steel spires, 65 feet tall, are inspired by the rotunda of the Hall of Fame building, designed to resemble the seams of a football.

What may attract the most attention: 11 steel-and-glass pylons, between 6 and 8 feet high, with the names of every NFL player “who has ever played one down,” according to Desrosiers. Visitors will be able to use cell phones to access digital information about the players listed.

The plaza, originally scheduled to be finished this week, is expected to open to the public in October.

Two blocks from the park is Dirk Rozier’s newest piece, completed this week, a two-sided mural dubbed “The Founders.” It features Jim Thorpe, the 1920s-era coach and player for the Canton Bulldogs (and future Olympian), alongside Ralph Hay, the owner of the Bulldogs.

This piece, like Rozier’s mural on Canton City Hall, was created at the request of Hay’s grandson, Dr. James King, who passed away in 2018.

It was Hay who organized the meeting among team owners at his downtown Hupmobile dealership on Sept. 17, 1920. One hundred years later, it’s an event worth a grand celebration. It just won’t happen this year.

If you go: Commemorating the NFL centennial in Canton

There is no big celebration in Canton this month, but there are ways to commemorate the anniversary of the NFL’s founding. Some suggestions:

Visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame: The museum is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, with COVID-protocols in place. Admission is $21-$28 (under 6 free). Information: profootballhof.com

Travel the Canton Football Road Trip, created by Visit Canton: Stops include the Hall of Fame, the Paul Brown Museum in Massillon, numerous public art displays, the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, Bender’s Tavern and more. For information: visitcanton.com/trip-ideas/pro-football-history-road-trip/.

Take a walking tour of football-themed public art: Check out The Eleven, a $2.2 million partnership between the hall and ArtsinStark, celebrating the 11 greatest moments in football history. Seven of the works are finished, with two more to be unveiled this week. Among the events commemorated: the NFL draft, the AFL/NFL merger, the reintegration of pro football, Super Bowl III and more. For information: artsinstark.com/the-eleven/, visitcanton.com/pro-football-hall-of-fame/the-eleven/

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