pilgrimage The NFL's face-painted fanatics infiltrate
"Pro Football's Best Weekend"
by Brian O'Neill
I admit it, I'm a football fan. I'm not talking
Buckeyes either. That's strictly amateur, a
nice appetizer to start off your weekend. It's
no surprise that Sunday is when NFL games are
played, because that's the Sabbath, a holy day,
the day the Lord rested--no doubt with a remote
in one hand and a Schlitz in the other.
Canton is the sport's Mecca, two hours northeast
of Columbus. For one weekend in August, a pilgrimage
is made by fans, media and the warriors themselves,
transforming the hamlet into a hub of energy
and excitement. The locals don't seem jaded
or terrified. They dutifully spit-shine their
Browns mailboxes for the parade of tourists,
and even the Canton dwellers pine for a glimpse
of an NFL hero or two.
As new inductee Dan Hampton, a former defensive
lineman for the Bears who called his 29 operations
and 4,000 stitches "a badge of honor,"
put it, "It's hard to believe that a town
like Canton can put something together like
this. It's awesome."
"Would you like to see my ass?": The
question came from a woman affectionately known
as The Bone Lady. She was hard to miss amidst
the throng of humanity loitering around the
hallowed Hall of Fame grounds for this year's
big weekend, August 3-5; even among the face-painted,
costumed fanatics, she stood out with her huge
faux-beehive covered in doggie treats, large
Milk Bone in her gloved hand and various pro-Cleveland
Browns slogans plastered over her burnt sienna
skirt. Lifting up the skirt, she showed off
a sentiment shared by many a Browns fan, emblazoned
on her rear: "Steelers Suck."
The BoneLady, who's real name is Debra Darnall,
has lived in Columbus for the past 15 years.
You might see her huge SUV trawling the streets
here--it's as inconspicuously decorated as she
is. She had the distinction of being the first
bona fide (or in her case, bone-a-fide) Hall-of-Famer
I met on the trip, from the class of 2001.
Yes, The BoneLady is in the Hall of Fame, the
fan's wing to be exact. She was picked by Visa,
sponsors of this enshrinement, after writing
an essay about her diehard love for the Browns.
"I didn't watch a single NFL game for three
years after the Browns moved," she recalls.
"Not even the Super Bowl."
Baseball is once again threatening to hold its
fans hostage through another work stoppage,
while the NFL inducts its fans into the Pro
Football Hall of Fame. You do the math.
Jim Kelly Day: Buffalo is a lot like Columbus--the
Bills are the Buckeyes, the heart and soul of
the town, with the Sabres and Blue Jackets serving
as curious diversions that natives like to see
do well, but won't knock themselves out over.
Kelly was the heart and soul of the Bills, making
him the heart and soul of Buffalo, their equivalent
of Archie Griffin.
course, Kelly didn't help matters by personally
inviting 1,200 of his closet friends to join
him in Canton. Kelly's entourage made P. Diddy's
posse passè--it took up five area hotels,
and he tracked down Pop Warner coaches, his
centers from every level he played, coaches,
family, friends and the valet guy who parked
his car once.
They were all over the place. While in line
for the bathroom, behind me was former Bills
defensive end Phil Hansen, and in front of me
an invitee of Kelly's, summoned because he knew
Kelly's brothers who lived in Richmond, Virginia.
"Is there anyone here from Buffalo?"
asked former Bills coach Marv Levy as he presented
his quarterback. After the enthusiastic applause,
he rhetorically added, "Is there anyone
left in Buffalo?" To be sure, it would
have been a great day to loot western New York.
exhibition game: The induction ceremony highlights
the NFL's past, but the Hall of Fame exhibition
game, the first of the season, showcases the
future. This year it was the old-guard New York
Giants playing against the Houston Texans in
the first-ever game for the expansion team.
During the teams' practices, fans screamed for
autographs from players, renowned announcer
and videogame shill John Madden, and a couple
guys who were just hanging out. It turned out
they were members of the NYPD and FDNY who came
along as guests of the Giants. Watching them
sign every hat and ticket stub handed to them
was a cool experience, putting into perspective
who the real heroes are.
Attending Enshrinement Weekend is a lot crazier
than going up to the Pro Football Hall of Fame
on a sleepy weekend in March, and we didn't
get to see as much of the Hall's exhibits as
we would have liked because of the sheer press
of activities set up for patrons. But for football's
true fans, it doesn't matter when you make the
pilgrimage--every day is a holy day in Canton.
August 15, 2002 Copyright © 2002 Columbus
Alive, Inc. All rights reserved.
more information or to inquire about personal
appearances, please contact Debra at
614-371-1910, or via our online contact