For months, Kent Stephens has been unpacking the history of college football.
It arrived at his office on two tractor-trailers, each full of cardboard boxes containing treasures. He opened one box and pulled out a Heisman Trophy, opened another to find a jersey Red Grange wore in the 1920s, opened another that contained dirt dug from the site of an 1869 game. And then there was a box holding the most famous trombone in college football lore.
Stephens is the long-time historian and curator of the College Football Hall of Fame, which is scheduled to open in downtown Atlanta in late August. As construction continues on the 94,000-square-foot facility, many of its eventual contents are stored in a room inside the Hall of Fame’s offices at the Georgia World Congress Center. Amid the boxes, stacked floor to ceiling, there is barely room for Stephens’ desk, which is tucked in one corner.
He surveys the space and describes it this way: “Right now it looks like the final scene from the movie ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ But instead of having wooden crates, we have cardboard boxes.”
He estimates the boxes contain 5,000 artifacts and 15,000 publications, all shipped here from Dallas, where they had been stored since the Hall of Fame’s former home in South Bend, Ind., closed in December 2012.
The Dallas-based National Football Foundation voted five years ago to move the attraction here from South Bend, where it struggled to draw crowds. The project stalled for a while amid fundraising challenges, but construction finally began in January 2013 on the $66.5 million facility across Marietta Street from Centennial Olympic Park. Officials say the hall is on schedule to open in about 100 days, just in time for football season.
Stephens, 60, is the only staff member who made the move from South Bend. He knows what is in all of the boxes, having procured most of it in his 24 years with the Hall of Fame.
“I remember the day they told us we were going to close in South Bend,” he said. “I really didn’t worry about what was going to happen to me, but I remember I got really upset because of all the stuff I’d collected all these years. I felt it all belonged to me, and I didn’t want to give it to someone else. I thought, ‘That is mine. I collected it. I took care of it.’”
Then he laughed at himself, knowing the history of college football belongs to all who have played, coached, watched and loved the game.
“Our oldest piece of memorabilia isn’t older than dirt. It is dirt.”
A story in every box
The smallest box from the two tractor-trailers contains a piece of the place where college football began: a soil sample from the site of the New Brunswick, N.J., field where America’s first intercollegiate football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton on Nov. 6, 1869.
“Our oldest piece of memorabilia isn’t older than dirt,” Stephens said. “It is dirt.”
By the time the hall opens, he also hopes to have on display the newest piece of memorabilia: the championship trophy of the College Football Playoff that begins this year.
That trophy would compete for attention in a collection that includes just about every piece of hardware in college football, from the Heisman to the NAIA championship.
There are stories in almost every box.
Take the trombone, for example. It’s the one Stanford band member Gary Tyrrell was carrying Nov. 20, 1982, when California player Kevin Moen ran over him on the final play of an absurdly improbable Cal victory. Stanford took a 20-19 lead with four seconds to play. On the ensuing kickoff, Cal players lateraled the ball five times before Moen took it into the end zone, colliding with the trombonist.
About 20 years ago, Stephens decided that trombone belonged in the Hall of Fame.
“I got (Tyrrell’s) contact info from the Stanford alumni office,” he said. “When I called him, told him what I wanted, he was very agreeable. But he said, ‘Well, if this is a scam, it’s the best one that has ever been perpetrated on me.’”
Then Tyrrell said: “When I was still a student at Stanford, some presumably Cal students snuck into my dorm room. But they stole the wrong trombone.”
Tyrrell sent Stephens the correct one, housed in a case with a Grateful Dead sticker on it.
Then there’s the program from the Yale football team’s Dec. 6, 1873, game in New Haven, Conn., against Eton, a visiting team from England.
Stephens noted football was more like soccer and rugby at the time and “did not become what we would call football today until the 1880s.” Still, that 1873 game program piqued his interest anew about a month ago. Based on his subsequent research, he believes a future prime minister of England played in that game.
The Hall of Fame’s artifacts cover a wide spectrum. There are jerseys of famous players, helmets that tell the story of the evolution in equipment, game balls from momentous events, shoes or other gear worn by players during record-breaking feats.
The most valuable piece, Stephens figures, is a jersey worn by Red Grange, the Illinois halfback of the 1920s known as the Galloping Ghost because no one could catch him.
“In South Bend, I think that jersey was the only thing we kept on display all the time,” said Stephens, noting most exhibits are rotated in and out. “He was to college football as Babe Ruth was to baseball.”
Finding his dream job
Stephens majored in broadcasting at the University of Cincinnati, worked at a public television station for a while, then “for some crazy reason” — his words — bought a dry-cleaning business. In his mid-30s, he enrolled in graduate school at Ohio State, studying sports management. In sports history courses, he noticed, “I’m the guy who raises his hand every question.”
“I didn’t know what to do with sports history,” he said. “I thought maybe work for a Hall of Fame or something.”
He went to work for the College Football Hall of Fame in 1990, when it was located near his hometown of Cincinnati. He accompanied the hall when it moved to South Bend in 1995.
He has been an avid college football fan since childhood, initially attracted to the game by Cincinnati native Roger Staubach’s Heisman Trophy-winning season with Navy in 1963.
Fifty-one years later, Stephens said there’s one artifact he’d love to have in the Hall of Fame that he hasn’t been able to acquire: the jersey Staubach wore in the 1963 Army-Navy game. The former quarterback has held on to it.
“The Navy uniforms of that time period were, I think, the best looking uniforms in the history of college football — really interesting numerals and stripes and stars,” Stephens said. “In 1963, when Navy was going for their fifth consecutive win over Army, they put ‘Drive for Five’ on the back of the jerseys.
“I’ve been trying to get Roger Staubach’s ‘Drive for Five’ jersey all these years. I’ve had it on loan, but not to keep forever.”
Hall goes high tech
The artifacts shipped to Atlanta did not include the 1-square-foot sculpted plaques that commemorated each of the 1,100-plus Hall of Famers in the South Bend facility. Those are still stored in Dallas, a victim of technology. Long a staple of sports shrines, such plates aren’t part of the plan here.
Instead, information about the Hall of Famers — statistics, interviews, game-action videos — will be accessible via electronic displays and downloadable to smartphones.
“It’s going to be much more interactive and cutting edge,” Stephens said. “I’m kind of an old-school guy, but this gives you an opportunity to tell stories better than when you were confined by space. The neat thing is that all the information you get in the museum, you can take home with you.”
While the Hall of Fame won’t have plaques, it will feature a towering wall displaying helmets of every college football team at the Divisions I, II, III and NAIA levels — 767 helmets in all.
Some of the artifacts that will be on display in late August have been sent to Seattle, where a company is making mounts for them. The rest continue to share Stephens’ work space. One countertop holds Heisman, Outland, Campbell and Sugar Bowl trophies. One wall contains countless boxes crammed with media guides covering many decades. In the office lobby, there are six metal lockers used by Notre Dame’s football team in the 1930s.
“I’m kind of in my own little world here,” Stephens said.