Enshrinement signals Hall of Fame’s arrival here

At least 20 former players and coaches will travel to Atlanta from around the country this week to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. One will simply drive downtown from his long-time home in Johns Creek.

“When I speak to kids (these days), they kind of look at me and say, ‘Ah, you never played football,’” said Steve Bartkowski, 39 years removed from his last college game and 28 years removed from his last of 11 seasons as the Falcons’ quarterback. “Now, instead of telling them, ‘Go home and Google me,’ I can tell them, ‘Take a trip down to the College Football Hall of Fame.’”

Fittingly, Bartkowski — a college star at California and the No. 1 pick of the 1975 NFL draft by the Falcons — is a member of the first Hall of Fame class that will be enshrined in Atlanta. The ceremony will be held Wednesday night at the Omni Hotel because the hall is temporarily homeless as it relocates here from South Bend, Ind., where its facility closed at the end of last year.

The National Football Foundation announced in 2009 that it would move the college football shrine to Atlanta after 18 years in South Bend because of poor attendance there. Delayed — and for a while threatened — by fundraising difficulties here, the Hall of Fame finally broke ground in January and is scheduled to open in the fall of 2014. Wednesday’s ceremony will mark the most tangible and public evidence yet that it’s all really happening.

The attraction is coming out of the ground on Marietta Street, near Centennial Olympic Park and next door to the hotel where the enshrinement will be held.

Bartkowski joined John Stephenson, CEO of Atlanta Hall Management, the not-for-profit organization formed to build and operate the Hall of Fame here, on the muddy construction site early one morning last week to discuss the project and the enshrinement with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“The project has been talked about for a long time; then we were very quiet about it in 2012 just because we were doing a lot of diligence and re-analysis and fundraising quietly,” Stephenson said. “So, yeah, a lot of people, unless they’ve driven down here by the site and seen it peeking out over the fence, don’t understand that it is really going to be here and be here soon.

“This enshrinement event really is as much a statement that this is going to be here and everybody needs to start getting excited about it as it is a celebration of the Hall of Famers.”

The delays and fundraising problems justified doubts. A management shakeup in late 2011 led to Stephenson, an Atlanta lawyer, replacing Gary Stokan, president of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the project’s leader. Early last year, Atlanta Hall Management undertook a re-examination of all aspects of the project, including budget, scope and even whether to proceed.

But by last fall, a flurry of sponsorship commitments had given AHM the confidence to move forward. With $51.5 million in signed corporate sponsorship deals and $22.5 million in bank loans, the organization had enough money to cover the $66.5 million cost of the project.

There’s another $15 million in state funds for a parking deck, road work and a new entrance to the Georgia World Congress Center’s Hall A, which touches the site.

Once open, the business plan calls for the Hall of Fame to support itself with income from tickets, retail sales and event rentals. The enshrinement ceremony will become an annual happening here.

The 24 former college stars who will be enshrined Wednesday include a Heisman Trophy winner (Ty Detmer), two coaches who won national championships (Phillip Fulmer and Jimmy Johnson) and a number of players who went on to illustrious NFL careers (Art Shell, Art Monk and Dave Casper among them). Twenty of the honorees have confirmed their plans to attend.

But locally, the headliner is Bartkowski, 60, who played for the Falcons from 1975-85, twice making the Pro Bowl.

That he has had to wait almost four decades since his last college game for enshrinement speaks to the difficulty of admission. Just 930 players and 202 coaches from the 4.9 million people who have played or coached college football in the past 144 years — less than one out of every 4,000 — are members of the Hall of Fame, according to the National Football Foundation.

“It’s pretty cool to have this in your backyard,” said Bartkowski, who has lived in metro Atlanta since the Falcons drafted him.

For the past 13 years, Bartkowski — the son of a carpenter — has worked in business development for national builder DPR Construction. DPR this year bought Atlanta-based Hardin Construction; the combined company operates as DPR Hardin here and DPR elsewhere. On the construction site last week, Bartkowski joked that his job might be jeopardized when his employer sees a photo in the newspaper of him wearing a hard hat bearing the name of competitor Brasfield & Gorrie, which is building the Hall of Fame.

At the moment, the construction site is little more than mud and the early stages of a 94,000-square-foot building’s support structure. But as Stephenson and Bartkowski walked through, Stephenson envisioned the place as it will look a year from now.

“We’re standing in (what will be) the lobby,” he said, pointing to a spot where a three-story-tall atrium wall will display the helmets of 750-plus college football teams from the FBS to NAIA levels. That wall will send the message that “this is everybody’s home away from home for college football,” Stephenson said.

Off the lobby will be a 45-yard-long indoor football field as a mingling spot and event space, with a Jumbotron video board on one end. The second and third floors will contain the exhibits, a theater and a “Hall of Fame room” that Stephenson said will replace traditional busts and plaques with high-tech interactive content. On ground level, facing Marietta Street, there will be a retail store.

“It’s amazing to see how what we have looked at for so long on paper is manifesting itself here, physically coming out of the ground,” Stephenson said.

As he and Bartkowski left the site, their shoes caked in mud, the CEO apologized to the Hall of Famer that this year’s enshrinement will be held without, physically, a Hall of Fame.

“You guys kind of got the raw end of the deal with not having a building,” Stephenson said.

“It’s all right,” Bartkowski replied, laughing. “We’re the class that made this happen. That’s going to be my story.”


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been covering developments regarding the College Football Hall of Fame’s relocation to Atlanta for years:

Sept. 24, 2009: The National Football Foundation announces that the Hall of Fame will move from South Bend, Ind., to Atlanta, following a five-year effort led by Chick-fil-A Bowl president Gary Stokan to lure the college football shrine here.

Dec. 2, 2010: A site is selected for the Hall of Fame: a 2.7-acre Georgia World Congress Center parking lot on Marietta Street near Centennial Olympic Park.
June 2011: The scheduled opening date, originally set for fall 2012 and later amended to spring 2013, is pushed back again as organizers struggle to raise the money needed for construction.
Nov. 7, 2011: Stokan steps down as president and CEO of Atlanta Hall Management, the not-for-profit organization created to build and operate the Hall of Fame here.

December 2011: Atlanta lawyer John Stephenson takes over as interim president and CEO.

Feb. 22, 2012: Stephenson says Atlanta Hall Management will re-examine all of its plans amid continued fundraising challenges. Everything is on the table at this point, including whether to proceed.

Sept. 21, 2012: After a flurry of sponsorship commitments, the decision is made to move forward with construction. Stephenson says $51.5 million in sponsorship deals have been signed and another $22.5 million in bank loans secured. He puts the total cost of the project at $66.5 million, not including $15 million in state funding for a parking deck, road work and a new entrance to the Congress Center's Building A, which is adjacent to the Hall of Fame site.

Dec. 30, 2012: The Hall of Fame facility in South Bend shuts down.

Jan. 28, 2013: Construction officially begins in Atlanta, with the opening set for fall 2014. (Meanwhile, artifacts are being stored in Dallas, where the National Football Foundation is based.)

Feb. 4, 2013: Atlanta Hall Management's board of directors says it has removed the "interim" prefix from Stephenson's position as president and CEO.

Aug. 28, 2013: Enshrinement ceremonies will be held in a ballroom of the Omni Hotel, which is adjacent to the Hall of Fame construction site.