The final day is Hall of Fame day. The rookies clear out of the Bertram at 7 a.m. and load onto five charter buses headed down the Ohio turnpike for Canton. A marching band from McKinley High greets them at the entrance, playing a rendition of Waka Flocka Flame’s “O Let’s Do It” that delights Lions tight end Eric Ebron.
The 10th pick of the draft is the most visible rookie at the NFC symposium, with an auburn-frosted mohawk fade and a constant, magnetic grin. The Lions’ resident rookie storyteller puts the homie in bonhomie. If there was an NFC symposium prom king vote, he would win in a landslide.
The rookies hear a message from HOF president Dave Baker before embarking on tours. The Lions and 49ers are paired together as one of the final groups.
Niners third-round center Marcus Martin, the youngest member of the team at 20 years old, arrives as the tour begins at 9:04 am. He overslept and had to catch a ride with NFL staff. The group passes an exhibit featuring an archaic football helmet from 1901 featuring a nose protector that is said to have done more harm than good.
“I swear on everything,” says Ebron, “I’d have been playing basketball.”
They happen upon a mural boasting Art Shell as the first black head coach in the NFL’s modern era, in 1989. The rookies are incredulous.
“That’s crazy,” mutters one. “1989?”
“That’s like when Tupac got shot,” says another (he’s only seven years off).
The tour moves slowly as the groups ahead create a backlog, but soon the Lions and 49ers enter the Hall’s holy grail—the dark, dome-roofed room filled with the bronze busts of every man enshrined. Most of the players skip the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s and go straight to Lawrence Taylor, Class of 1999. A few hang back and click through the video boards showing highlights of every enshrinee. Lions defensive lineman Caraun Reid zooms to Colts legend Art Donovan, who attended his high school in the Bronx. In another group, Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy paced his teammates and supplanted the tour guide, rattling off positions and college and statistics for Hall of Famers going back to the 60’s.
Turner stops to admire the bust of Bill Walsh, the late 49ers coach. “I always have to see my guy when I go on,” he says.
Turner played linebacker for the 49ers from 1980-90, when Walsh and Dr. Harry Edwards started a resource for players’ lives off the field. At first, Edwards focused on degree completion, bringing in professors from the University of San Francisco to teach classes at the 49ers facility
“The whole idea of a resource at the club was Bill Walsh and Dr. Edwards,” Turner says. “At some point down the road the league adopted player programs, which became player engagement and spawned all of this.”
In another room, encased in glass, sits the next Lombardi trophy, which will remain in Canton until Super Bowl week in Arizona. Niners rookies agree to take a picture with the trophy, their team having been within a game of winning it in each of the last two seasons. Bruce Ellington thinks there in fact taking a video and breaks into a Nae Nae to everyone’s delight.
At Ebron’s urging, the Lions skip on posing with the trophy. “We don’t even want to get near it,” he says. “We don’t want to jinx it.”
They file up a curving ramp and into an amphitheater with two big screens and a rotating base of seats that spins the viewers 180 degrees as they take in NFL Films’ account of the 2013 playoffs, and the Seahawks’ domination of the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Niners rookies file out uninspired. Someone else won the trophy half of them had just posed with. Why should they marvel again at the Legion of Boom four months after the fact?
Fourth-round cornerback Keith Reaser is especially annoyed: “I’m tired of hearing about the damn Seahawks.”
Back in the big lecture hall the players are getting antsy, wondering when it will all be over. Ebron, relaying a story to a fellow rookie 20 feet away, is reminded not to say n—–. In light of the league’s effort to eradicate the word, Player Engagement reps gently remind young black players on their word choice dozens of times over the course of the symposium.
“My bad,” Ebron says, “my brotha…”
The charter buses wait outside and several dozen autograph seekers have lined up along barricades guarded by smiling police officers.
When Troy Vincent revamped the symposium, he brought in recent retirees who were his contemporaries. He also put an emphasis on men who shared his strong Christian faith. Hall of Famer Aeneas Williams, who will give the symposium’s final address, fits the bill on both counts.
“Think about how you want this thing to end,” says Williams. “Warren and Cris talked about making changes outwardly and not inwardly. When God changed my spirit, it wasn’t that I was made perfect. The difference that Christ made is that there’s now a thought before my actions.”
There are contradictions at work here, which Williams is bold enough to point out, and which seem to be inherent to the symposium. Beware of all women one speaker suggests, but treat all people as equals, says another. Do the right thing vs. Maintain the appearance of doing the right thing.
That the NFL has no problem with presenting these contradictions belies the homogenous reputation of the league. As the disparate career path of Hall of Famers Sapp and Williams will tell you, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And in putting both speakers in front of the rookies, the NFL recognizes the value of a shotgun approach in education, and concedes that asking this group to assimilate to one way of doing things is as arrogant as it is flawed.
He finishes with a request that all participants stand and chant after him, “Begin with the end in mind!” At his urging, it crescendos after a dozen repetitions, then fades as several in the back of the room begin to look at one another incredulously. Surely, this thing must end soon. It does, after maybe two dozen chants.
Four days after it started in a darkened hotel ballroom, the symposium ends at the doorstep of football’s cathedral, under blue skies. The rookies file onto the buses, which will take them to the airport, which will lead to that critical month they’ve been talking about. They can smell what’s left of the summer.