(This story originally appeared on the cantonrep.com website)
By Tim Botos
CantonRep.com staff writer
CANTON — Meeting a Pro Football Hall of Famer, face-to-face, can turn grown men and women into little kids again.
Proudly marching from the autograph-signing table, lifetime buddies Chris Clark and Joe Kreger locked eyes and slapped hands in a high-five moment of football male bonding.
The good friends are 45 years old.
Like most middle-agers, their lives are filled with day-to-day worries and responsibilities. But on special weekends such as this, it’s OK to be a kid again. Clark lives in Jackson Township. Kreger owns a pizza shop named Pinky’s back home in Petaluma, Calif.
“Whenever we get a (San Francisco 49er), I come to see my good buddy Chris,” said Kreger.
This year, that 49er was Jerry Rice.
Clark and Kreger each lugged an oversized canvas-covered replica of tickets from Aug. 7 enshrinement into the Hall of Fame theater on Sunday afternoon for autographs. Tickets for the 90-minute session with all seven of this year’s inductees were sold out long ago — at $500 apiece.
Hall of Fame officials have said the mass signing is one of its biggest fundraisers of the year. They declined to give specifics, but a portion of the ticket fees stay with the Hall.
The only rules: Rice and Smith signed only flat items — no balls or helmets. The two Hollywood stars of this year’s class capped off the session with a 30-minute signing period of their own, though, where they did sign other items, such as jerseys for as much as $299 per item.
The price and limitations didn’t bother the 250 people in line. Most wore a jersey marked with Rice’s number 80, or Emmitt Smith’s 22. Hands filled with an assortment of posters, photos, trading cards, books, miniature helmets, and even a dolly stacked with a handful of full-sized helmets, they snaked through a line toward a table in front, to be confronted by their heroes.
“It’s our father-daughter thing,” said Jenadee Nanini, a 21-year-old, who looked up and smiled at her dad, John. The Cowboys fans made the trek to Canton all the way from Montana.
“Emmitt Smith is one of my first childhood memories,” Jenadee explained.
He said “hey babe,” to her when she only 4.
On this day, Kelly Penning, an otherwise mature 41-year-old from Quad Cities, Iowa, turned into jelly when she met Rice. Her husband, Jared, was by her side to verify it, too.
“He shook my hand, and my knees started shaking so bad,” she said.
Joyce Gordon and her husband, Chuck, from Austin, Texas, spent $4,000 apiece on a package trip to this year’s enshrinement activities. Money well spent, they agreed. They wanted to be here for the induction of the third “Triplet” — Cowboy fans lingo for Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Smith, now all Hall of Famers.
“We got to tell y’all, we love the people in Canton,” she said.
One by one, the seven 2010 enshrinees put Sharpie to Clark and Kreger’s canvas ticket replicas. First Rice, then down the line: Smith, Grimm, Randle, LeBeau, Little and Jackson. By the time they were done, Clark and Kreger had a treasured keepsake.
Clark will hang it in his home; Kreger’s will go in his pizza shop.
Saturday, the two friends took in the PGA tournament in Akron. Sunday afternoon, it was the autographs. Sunday night they planned to crack a few beers and grill some steaks.
“It doesn’t get better than that,” Clark said.