The call of Canton

John Randle, Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice are among the players being inducted this year. Eric Angevine

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"Does anybody know what this is?"

Gary Brahler holds up a rather nondescript object. It's white, roughly rectangular and about two inches thick.

"This is the only donated item that was ever taken back by the player who donated it," Harry Rotunno says. "These are Brett Favre's thigh pads. He donated them to us after his 'last game' with the Packers. They're the only kind he uses, and the manufacturer doesn't make them anymore, so when he unretired, he asked us if he could have them back."

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Appreciative chuckles rise from around the room. Everyone here is thinking the same thing: Best keep those thigh pads handy; you never know what Favre might decide to do this year.

Brahler, 59, and Rotunno, 60, are volunteers at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Both natives of the Hall's hometown of Canton, Ohio, they offer their free time on weekends, giving presentations in the atriums and conference rooms of the Hall for whoever shows up. They do it because they love the place, because they're fiercely proud of what it represents. They do it partly, one suspects, because the stuff is so darn cool.

It's the Harry and Gary show, and according to these two dedicated docents, only 5 percent of the items owned by the Hall are on display at any given time. It's their happy job to bring selected items from the other 95 percent of the treasures out of the archives and into the light from time to time.

Favre's prodigal thigh pads are part of a presentation that showcases the more unusual items that have been given to the modest-looking museum located in a leafy burg of Canton. There is also an elevator panel donated by the Steelers. It seems Art Rooney left to go down to the field and console his team, which was losing 7-6 in the 1972 AFC divisional playoff. While he was in the elevator at Three Rivers, he heard a deafening cheer reverberating through the massive structure.

That's right. Rooney was in the elevator during the "Immaculate Reception." His tongue-in-cheek donation of the only thing he could see at the time is evidence of his sense of humor about the famous play.

That's what makes the Pro Football Hall of Fame so special. The items have a patina of history about them. They serve primarily as touchstones to call up the memories that are couched in the players who lived the big moments and the fans who lived and died with the heroics of the men on the field. There's at least one dreamy smile and one shiver of awe in this building for each fan who visits Canton.

If you're going ...

Should you make the pilgrimage to Canton, consider visiting these establishments for a bite or a beverage:

Cup o' joe
Muggswigz Coffee and Tea Co.
137 Walnut Ave. NE
Canton, OH 44702
330-452-6336 | Website
This downtown space offers a high ceiling, communal or solitary seating options and computer access. Have the staff serve up one of its specialty drinks in a giant mug and meet some friendly locals, or get your beverage to go and wander around the colorful Arts District.

Home-cooked meal
Kennedy's B.B.Q.
1420 Seventh St. NW
Canton, OH 44703
Kennedy's is the perfect lunch place, as long as you don't mind being too full for dinner. The fall-apart pulled pork should be enjoyed with the unique house relish. Finish up with a slice of Troyer's Amish pie and get a pound of meat to go.

Ice Cream Parlor
1401 Fulton Road NW
Canton, OH 44703
330-452-6844 | Website
First sign of quality: The special dishes have names. There's the garlicky, oniony Wimpy burger and a belly-buster called The Executive. The Taggart's Olive Nut sandwich is simply named, but the taste is more than the sum of its parts. Best of all is the Bittner, a dreamy concoction of vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup and delicious roasted pecans. The old-fashioned soda fountain serves up milkshakes, coolers and phosphates. Jimmy Stewart never had it so good in Bedford Falls.

Football's heartland

The name Canton is synonymous with the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Red Grange is "in Canton" the same way that Babe Ruth is "in Cooperstown." In each case, the character of a small town has become part of the mystique of the institution. It's somehow fitting: Each bust in the Hall of Fame represents a man who started out as a boy in his own neighborhood, perhaps fantasizing about the day he'd become a legend.

One member of the Class of 2010 came from beginnings so humble, he never dared to think he might end up immortalized in bronze. John Randle, former defensive tackle with the Vikings and Seahawks, had more immediate concerns.

"I never thought it would be possible," Randle told ESPN Sports Travel. "At those times, I just saw myself trying to make the team, just trying to be on the team in college. It was the same way when I got to the NFL, just trying to make it. I never thought, when I was in college, that I'd ever have a chance to play in the NFL. I just never thought about it."

Randle's route to the league went through Trinity Junior College, then Division II Texas A&I (now A&M-Kingsville). The 6-foot-1, 287-pound defensive lineman went undrafted in 1990, yet here he stands, ready to put on a gold jacket and give a speech in the middle of the Hall's adjacently located Fawcett Stadium with classmates Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Russ Grimm, Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little and Rickey Jackson.

Why is Randle here? Because of his standout work ethic. His path to the Hall went not only through a small school but a pile of quarterbacks. He's a living reminder that it's not where you start, it's where you finish that counts.

The HOF building itself is a testament to the effects of persistence. When the original space -- the distinctive round, stone building that looks a bit like an old-fashioned orange juicer -- opened in 1963, it was just two rooms and 19,000 square feet of space. A series of renovations has increased the Hall's footprint to more than 80,000 square feet since then, but you'd never know it from the outside. Standing on Harrison Avenue, the view reveals only the small rotunda, with Fawcett Stadium -- site of the annual Hall of Fame preseason game that is Sunday's culmination of this week's Enshrinement Festival -- looming above on a slight incline.

The stadium is owned by the Canton City School District, though it looks entirely too large for high school sports, especially from the vantage of the press box area. Rotunno and Brahler assure me that it's not just built up for the one weekend per year when hordes descend on Canton to see the inductees and the Hall of Fame game. High school football games are big business in Ohio. Fawcett, which opened in 1938, is home field to McKinley and Timken high schools, as well as two universities -- Walsh and Malone. In December, the 22,400-capacity stands are packed for three state championship games.

That passion for the game, regardless of weight class, is one big reason the Hall is in Canton. Locals lobbied hard for the right to be the home of the game's repository of heroes. The gridiron runs deep in Canton's bedrock. The Canton Bulldogs were a founding member of the NFL's predecessor, the American Professional Football Association, which was founded in 1920. The local team took league championships in 1922 and 1923 and boasted the world's most recognizable football player -- the legendary Jim Thorpe -- on its roster as far back as 1915. A full-size statue of Thorpe greets visitors in the main entry, at the base of the spiral ramp that leads up to the first exhibits.

In the official Hall of Fame gallery, where the busts reside, fans can use a bit of helpful technology to get around. Large video touch screens allow visitors to find favorite players by name, team and position. The screens also play short clips of defining moments in each player's career. According to one Hall staffer, the current configuration has room for roughly 17 more years' worth of new busts.

Locals love their Browns, but the Hall itself is nondenominational. One hulking group of visiting guys saunters through, clad in a welter of competing jerseys: Colts, Saints, Browns, Bengals and even the locally reviled Ravens are represented.

There's even a prominent display commemorating "The Drive," during which Broncos quarterback and 2004 inductee John Elway took his team 98 yards in just under five minutes to even the score in the 1987 AFC championship game. As any amateur historian knows, the Broncos went on to win that game with a field goal in overtime. Against the Cleveland Browns.

Ouch. But even that moment of horror for local fans is welcome here. There's no crying in football.

Small-town party

When the 2010 enshrinement ceremony is over and the last fans file out of Fawcett Stadium after the Hall of Fame Game matchup featuring the Cowboys and Bengals, Nichole Cardinale will start thinking about 2011.

The Hall of Fame's manager of admissions and special events puts a great deal of work into making sure the big weekend goes off without a hitch. Volunteers and staff from the museum coordinate with still more workers from the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce to put on a world-class event in what is normally a quiet and content Midwestern town.

"The Enshrinement Festival is really 18 events spread over 11 days," Cardinale said.

She points to Thursday's program dubbed "First Play."

"Somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 kids will line up and pass a football all the way from the downtown building where the NFL was founded to the front steps of the Hall of Fame," she said. "It's a really neat event."

August is traditionally a hot month in central Ohio, but it has to be one of the best times to be in Canton. There are fireworks, concerts and an impressive parade in the week and a half leading up to Saturday's enshrinement ceremony at Fawcett Stadium. (The speeches originally were held at Fawcett Stadium before moving to the front steps of the Hall of Fame building in 1966. The ceremony was relocated back to Fawcett in 2002, increasing the audience size from some 11,000 to more than 22,000 spectators now.)

Mixed in with those public extravaganzas are some smaller, more intimate gatherings, where inductees get a semiprivate moment to relish the trappings of a dream come true. One such event is the Enshrinees Dinner, which takes place the evening before the ceremony. It's here, at the Canton Memorial Civic Center, where the Class of 2010 will first try on the iconic gold jackets they will don for a television audience Saturday.

"I got a chance to see the bust while they were working on it. It looks kind of like me, so I'm OK with that," Randle said. "I'm looking forward to putting on the gold jacket. For me, that's going to be the biggest moment. Because that's when you know it's for real."

Asked if he thinks he might shed a tear or two during his speech, Randle replied, "Yeah, I do. I'm going to try pinching myself; maybe take a safety pin and stick myself to make me feel a little tougher. I know I will be emotional, because it's just such an honor."

It's rare when football heroes and football fans can get to know each other at ground level. Tickets for events with the incoming class often sell out quickly, but a sharp-eyed football aficionado should be able to spot one or more of the 80 or so past inductees who return to town for the event.

"Coordinating the returnees is one of the biggest behind-the-scenes jobs we have," Cardinale said. "They participate in the Saturday morning Timken Grand Parade, and we make sure fans have as much access as we can give."

It can be a tight squeeze for a city of about 78,000 people. The side streets around the Hall have limited parking, so guests are directed to the fairgrounds just south of the hub of activity around the Hall. It's a modest $5 to park there all day, with a $3 ride on the shuttle bus adding little to the total expenditure. Food and drink options abound inside the Enshrinement Festival perimeter.

For those who can't make it to the Enshrinement Festival, there is plenty going on throughout the rest of the year. Cardinale coordinates ladies' nights for women who love (or want to learn to love) the game, and there are special events for Bike Night, Halloween, Veteran's Day and the Super Bowl. Enterprising guests can buy a special ticket called the Hall Pass, which offers discounted fare to Canton's Hall of Fame and Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

There's definitely something to be said for visiting Canton on an average day to see its other attractions. The McKinley Monument pays tribute to the town's presidential connection, as does the nearby First Ladies' Library. With its neighborhood sidewalks, leafy parks and old-school local restaurants, Canton is like a Frank Capra vision of small-town America.

Make yourself at home. Canton is the kind of place where people want to end up. That goes for players and fans alike.

Eric Angevine is a freelance writer and editor from Charlottesville, Va. He is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com and the editor of the college basketball website StormingTheFloor.net. He can be reached via e-mail at stormingthefloor@gmail.com.