A hundred years in the making, the Founders Exhibit was unveiled Saturday at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, whose family donated $1 million to the hall for the exhibit, oversaw the opening ceremony.
The exhibition looks at team owners through the century-plus that the NFL has been in business. It includes a mural featuring the 32 current owners sitting in and around a Hupmobile, the auto being sold at Ralph Hay's showroom in Canton where the league was started in 1920. The photo was taken two years ago in Phoenix, with hopes that the exhibit would open last year.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It wasn't until March that the display was begun.
“We must understand what the NFL is today started back then,” said David Baker, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame.
Wilf, who along with brother Mark and cousin Lenny bought the Vikings in 2005, paid tribute to the men and women who have owned NFL teams and made the league the most popular sport in America.
“It's a story that can't be told without telling the story of individuals who played a part and those who carry it forward today,” Wilf said. “We are very much traditionalists and this is something we'd like to have our children and theirs more involved in at that level.”
Included in the exhibit is an interactive showing not only current ownership of every team, but all of the owners through the decades. There also are tributes to the AFL — such owners in that league as Lamar Hunt, Ralph Wilson and Al Davis are enshrined in the hall — and the development of the draft.
Wilf's parents were holocaust survivors; he was born in Berlin. The family moved to New Jersey in the 1950s and began what Zygi calls “our Americanization to sports.” The Wilfs would build houses for New York Giants players, and in 1961 considered buying the AFL's New York Titans. But his father, Joseph, basically said “What do I know about football?”
The family apparently learned well. In 1967, the Wilfs tried to purchase the Philadelphia Eagles and, in 2000, the Jets. Five years later, they took over the Vikings and are considered among the most enlightened and progressive owners in the league.
“Football and family are intertwined, and we learned that early,” Zygi Wilf said. “We were passionate as fans and that has certainly carried over as owners.”
Among the owners most prominently displayed in the exhibit are those whose families have been heavily involved in running their franchises: the Maras with the Giants, Rooneys with the Steelers, Hunts with the Chiefs, Bowlens with the Broncos, and Davises with the Raiders.
The exhibit is built where the original entrance to the hall once existed. It had become an unused space, and now it is a spot where fans — and there were several dozen on hand for the ceremony Saturday — can look back at the power brokers and ground breakers of the NFL.
“It is a long time in coming,” Wilf said, “and very welcome.”
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