Photo courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame
CANTON, Ohio — When the Bengals rookies arrive here Saturday for their Pro Football Hall of Fame tour, if they thought by now Paul Brown was just the name of a stadium then they're in for a surprise.
The NFC rookies offered a sneak peek when they completed their NFL orientation with Wednesday morning's trip to the Hall that could have been just another game of six degrees of Paul Brown.
By the time Hall researcher Jon Kendle gathers his group of Redskins and Rams rookies at the exhibit honoring the breakthrough of the color line that Brown helped engineer with his first Cleveland Browns team in 1946, they have already passed his championship game balls, as well as his legendary porkpie hat and game plans that redrew the Xs and Os.
It is 21 years after Brown died. It is 37 years after he coached his last game. It is 42 years after he led the Baby Bengals to the AFC Central title in just their third season and 45 years after he founded the Bengals and was inducted here.
Relevance? Everyone talks relevance these days. How about still appearing in the playbooks of kids born in the last decade of your century.
"Paul Brown was very instrumental in the mindset that it didn't matter what race, creed, color you were, he wanted the best athletes," Kendle is telling his group. "He wanted the best football players on the field playing for him. Those Cleveland Browns teams were something special in those days."
Kendle notes that the Los Angeles Rams were also integrated that year, but Kenny Washington and Woody Strode were past their primes. For the Browns, Marion Motley, a Canton guy known to Brown from the Massillon wars, and Bill Willis, the nose tackle that played for Brown at Ohio State, were beginning Hall of Fame careers.
Kendle himself is slightly six degrees of Paul Brown. He was born in Northeast Ohio 31 years ago, back when Brown was going to his first Super Bowl as general manager of the Bengals. Despite the geography, as a grade-schooler Kendle was seduced by Cincinnati's rollicking offenses and has been a fan ever since in the Battle of Ohio.
In the display next to Brown's rookie contracts for Willis and Motley, Kendle turns to a photo of another former Brown. A good 16 years after Willis and Motley, Brown pulled off another color-blind deal when he dealt running back Bobby Mitchell for Syracuse running back Ernie Davis, the man the Redskins took No. 1 overall in the 1962 draft.
"I don't know if any of you guys from the Redskins have had any interaction with Bobby Mitchell yet," Kendle says. "The Redskins were the last team to (integrate) when they signed Bobby Mitchell."
That gets raised eyebrows from Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor, Griffin has enough grace and brains that convinced Washington to start the Capitol's biggest rehab project since "The New Frontier" with him after a blockbuster trade brought the draft's second pick. So it's no surprise RGIII gets this.
"I was not," says Griffin, asked if he had been aware about when and how the first African-Americans reintegrated a game that had been white since 1933. "It took a lot of time. I wasn't aware how that process came about. Very surprised (about some things). The Redskins being the last team to integrate. It was a tough time back then. None of us had life experiences like that."
We are officially in the six degrees of Paul Brown.
Joe Horrigan, the Hall's media chieftain, greets the rookies first thing Wednesday morning with how The Hall ended up in Canton in 1963. Meeting them in a lecture-type hall in the Hall's new and spacious events center, he sketches out how the city is where the forerunner of the NFL was founded in 1920 on running boards in a car dealership and it's where the Canton Bulldogs established the pros' first dominant team.
Since Horrigan is crushed for time, he can't get into the entire story, where Brown has a couple of footnotes.
(Doesn't it always seem like there's always a few historical Ibids with Brown?)
While the debate raged during the late '50s where the groundbreaking should be, Brown used his enormous influence to push Canton, just 10 miles from where he began his career in building Massillon as America's first celebrated high school football dynasty.
Horrigan also gets into how the NFL came to be and how it waged war with the AFL during the 1960s.
"It's amazing for us who grew up with the Super Bowl," Horrigan says later, "but you can't assume that people that young know how it came to be and what role it played in the merger."
Another footnote. Six degrees of P.B. in the late sixties. Back when the NFL honchos were suddenly getting lukewarm to the idea of a merger that had been announced in 1966, a year before the Bengals were born.
When things began to get bogged down a few years later because of realignment and other factors, Brown and son Mike Brown, the current Bengals president, had a big card in the fight to get the merger done. They believed the clause in their franchise agreement saying the team had to be in a league containing both the AFL and the NFL would hold up in front of any judge. And influential owners like Jack Kent Cooke of the Redskins agreed, helping get the merger to the finish line.
Kendle's colleague and fellow Hall researcher Saleem Choudhry really gets into the six degrees of Paul Brown on Saturday. He'll be the tour guide for both the Bengals and Browns, the teams Brown founded 31 years apart and still play twice a year in the AFC North despite strikes, lockouts, free agency, new stadiums, and franchise movements.
"His name is going to come up quite a bit," Choudhry says. "We'll be talking about his artifacts in the Moments, Memories and Mementos Gallery. Plus, we talk about the history of each team and that's going to be pretty easy to do with both teams right there. We talk about rivalries and things like that and it will fit right in."
For one thing, the players will get to see the hat with the description, "On game days Paul Brown in his signature hat looked more like the Cleveland Browns business manager than the team's head coach. In reality he was one of the game's most innovative coaches, as evidenced by in-depth scouting reports and game preparation sheets."
The hat is a product of Mike Brown's invitation to Horrigan and his archivists to PBS several seasons ago to sort through Paul Brown's papers and keepsakes in a job so big they ended up loading up a van and taking it back to Canton for study.
Many Bengals will no doubt be surprised to hear that their stadium is named after a guy that was already in the Hall of Fame when he founded the Bengals. Many Browns, no doubt, will be surprised that the man that led their franchise to 11 championship games won his last three division titles three hours to the south.
But there will be enough current stuff to keep the kids interested. The Bengals get pretty good play in the video that sets up Hall of Famer Carl Eller's remarks ending their trip to Canton.
Left tackle Anthony Muñoz, celebrating the 14th anniversary of his Hall induction this summer, talks about how going the extra yard in his preparation put him over the top. When last year's rookie honor roll is trotted out with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Broncos linebacker Von Miller, it is Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver
Eller gives the rookies a chill when he tells them how humbled he is to stand before them and talk about the dignity of the game and they respond with a warm standing ovation.
But the exhibit that seems to draw the interest and buzz from players is the African-American Pioneers section. It did Wednesday and it did two years ago when the Bengals took a tour before they played the Hall of Fame game against the Cowboys.
"I would say that it seems to interest the players when they see the exhibit," Kendle says.
The exhibit spurs conversations like the one with RGIII on just how exactly Mitchell became a Redskin. Griffin, the reigning Heisman winner, knew Mitchell had been traded for Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner who never played a snap for Brown because he died of leukemia. Griffin recalled a recent banquet where he followed to the dais the man that replaced Davis at Syracuse, Pro Football Hall of Famer Floyd Little.
"Floyd Little was so inspirational, when I followed him at the dinner I called him Ernie Davis," Griffin says. "That's the way he talked about the whole situation. It was as if he took on Ernie Davis. After the dinner my dad said, 'You know, you called Floyd Little Ernie Davis.' But no one said anything because they knew where you were coming from."
Griffin was so inspired that he watched the 2008 film The Express to learn more about Davis. More six degrees of P.B. The movie portrays Browns owner Art Modell dealing with racist Redskins owner George Preston Marshall when it was actually Brown that made the moves to secure the heavy backfield of Davis and Jim Brown that he wanted on the Cleveland tundra.
"The classic line of that movie is when Floyd is talking to Ernie and telling him he wants to be the best black running back to ever come out of college and high school," Griffin says. "Ernie corrected him and said, 'You don't want to be the best black running back. You want to be the best running back.' "
Right this way for the tour, Bengals and Browns. Welcome to the NFL, Six Degrees of Paul Brown, and what relevance really means.