HOF's 'Bench' -- The best of the best

Steve Doerschuk

Bench strength never looked like this before.

The men on “The Bench” in this case are stars even among Pro Football Hall of Famers.

They’re nine life-like figures converging to form the most striking display on the revamped second floor of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“The idea was to create a magic bench,” said project manager Mike Callan of New York-based CMDD. “They’re greats who never played together but epitomized the game in a cross section of positions and eras.”

The lineup:

- Don Hutson, the NFL’s first “super end,” a 13-year Green Bay Packer and charter inductee in 1963.

- Sammy Baugh, the greatest passer of his day (1937-52, Redskins) and an incredible punter to boot.

- Johnny Unitas, the crew-cut passing legend in high-top shoes.

- Jim Brown, probably Cleveland’s and perhaps football’s greatest player ever.

- Walter Payton, who set an NFL career rushing record before dying young.

- “Mean” Joe Greene, defensive mauler from the Pittsburgh dynasty that won four Super Bowls.

- Reggie White, a sack master who died even younger than Payton.

- Anthony Munoz, arguably the greatest offensive left tackle.

- George Halas, who attended the 1920 meeting in Canton at which the NFL was born.

Assembling “The Bench” was as difficult as assembling an all-star roster. Callan worked with a Hall of Fame team headed by Joe Horrigan, the Hall’s vice president of communications and exhibits.

Models approximating the size of each player were used to make full-body molds. Sculptor Karen Atta created the faces after studying films and photographs and digesting stories reflecting idiosyncrasies and nuances.

Each figure appears to be finished in bronze, but the actual material is an inert compound that does not rust. This is important because the “men” are dressed in clothing they actually wore while playing or coaching in the NFL. Rust would spoil the material.

Hall of Fame curator Jason Aikens traveled to New York with what amounted to a wardrobe worth upwards of $400,000. This consisted of jerseys, pants, socks and other items actually worn by Brown, Payton, Greene and others when they played. Aikens directed the dressing of the mannequins, whose arms and legs are removable. No model could be found with biceps as big as Greene’s were, so padding was used under the jersey sleeves.

“The magic bench,” Callan said, “was a perfect opportunity to utilize the Hall’s fabulous artifacts collection.”

Shoes became an issue.

“They had to be bronze in order to secure them to the bench,” Aikens said. “We didn’t want to bronze original shoes, which we preferred to preserve as artifacts.

“We have a relationship with the people who made the George Clooney movie, ‘Leatherheads.’ They sent us some shoes that were very similar to the shoes worn by the players from longer ago.

“We wound up buying the shoes we used for Reggie White.”

The exercise branched into acquiring a dress worn by the “Leatherheads” character played by Renee Zelwegger.

“This is one of the few times we’ve had a piece of women’s clothing on display at the Hall,” Aikens said. A uniform worn by Clooney’s character is part of the display.

The men on “The Bench” play themselves. The intent, Callan said, was to capture the essence of each Hall of Famer.

Brown appears intense and serious.

“He didn’t talk much during games,” Callan said. “He’d sit by himself on the end of the bench and concentrate on the game.”

The Payton figure is laughing.

“We relied a little on a great photo of Payton during a championship game, leaning back having a grand old time,” Callan said.

Halas, positioned next to the actual stool that was his base of operation during an ancient NFL championship game, exudes a fatherly bearing.

Occupants of “The Bench” seem to interact.

“It puts me in mind of the movie ‘A Night at the Museum,’” Callan said. “You can imagine the figures coming to life and talking to each other after they lock up the Hall of Fame.”

Hall of Fame workers who devoted thousands of hours to overall renovations are hesitant to dote on “The Bench.”

“We’re proud of all of it, really,” Hall of Fame researcher Saleem Choudhry said. “You can’t single out ‘The Bench.’ But it is certainly something that makes people stop and look.”

Canton Repository