By Lou Prato
South Bend, Ind. — Curt Warner was always one to praise the blockers who helped him become Penn State’s all-time career rushing leader and he did it again last Saturday night when he was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame.
"I’m happy that a couple of my blockers, Bill Contz and Mark Battaglia, are here tonight," Warner told the crowd at the Enshrinement Festival Dinner in South Bend’s Century Center. "Those (blockers) set the tone for me. As I said earlier today, this is not a game about individuals but a team game. We were a team and we all pulled together and won the national championship (in 1982)."
Contz and Battaglia, two starters on the offensive line for that ’82 team, were sitting with Warner’s family among the crowd of several hundred as Warner became the 22nd Penn State player or coach enshrined into the Hall of Fame. Another of Warner’s teammates from his era, walk-on reserve running back Jeff Butya, was sitting alongside Battalgia, and the man who was Warner’s position coach, Fran Ganter, now a Penn State Associate Athletic Director, was at an adjoining table with another of Penn State’s great running backs, Charlie Pittman.
They were there to help honor Warner and 19 other All-American players and four outstanding coaches who made up the College Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2010. The dinner and a reception beforehand preceded a two-hour ceremony that was the final affair of this an annual two-day event. The activities included a celebrity golf tournament featuring the enshrinees along with a fan fest, autograph session, all-day concert and a fireworks display on the plaza outside the hall of fame facility across from the Century Center.
Earlier Saturday, the new enshrinees participated in a parade through downtown South Bend and another ceremony where each received a blue sports jacket with the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame crest on the front. They wore their prized jackets at the dinner, where they were interviewed during a three-hour satellite broadcast by ESPN’s Jesse Palmer and Mark May, himself a Hall of Fame member from the class of 2005. The climax of the evening was the presentation of Hall of Fame rings to each new member.
During his interview with Palmer and May, Warner was asked if he had seen any difference in his head coach Joe Paterno since playing for him from 1979-82. "He has mellowed out quite a bit," Warner said with a grin on his face. "I never thought he liked me. What I remember most is him hollering at me when I had done something he didn’t like."
Then Warner mimicked Paterno’s famous high-pitched squeal and continued," ‘Get off the field. Get off the field,”’ as Contz, Battaglia, Butya, and Pittman smiled and nodded. "He has really learned to adapt through different eras and different players," Warner concluded.
The enshrinement ceremony brings to an end what is more than a year of activities when the latest class of hall of fame members is first announced in the spring of the previous year. During the football season, each new member is honored at a football game or other event by his college and the school is presented with a plaque. In early December, the men are given their own plaque in an elaborate induction banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.
The New York dinner has been held at the plush hotel for more than 60 years but the enshrinement ceremony in South Bend that has become a summer fixture prior to the start of another college football season will soon come to an end. After the Class of 2011 is enshrined next year, the 55,000 square-feet facility, including a 19,000 square-feet artificial turf field at the main entrance, will close and the hall will be relocated to a new–and perhaps much larger–space nearly 700 miles away in Atlanta.
The South Bend site has been embroiled in a community controversy ever since the National Football Foundation, which oversees College Football Hall of Fame, moved the pantheon from its previous home near the Kings Island Amusement Park near Cincinnati. Both the foundation and the majority of local government and of business leaders figured the hall of fame would be a great tourist attraction so close to the campus of one of the most fabled programs in college football, Notre Dame. Despite protests by others in the community who bristled at all the taxpayer money being used in the process, the two story building opened in August of 1995. It’s been a money loser from the start, despite the hard work and enterprise of many people.
So, the foundation hooked up with the Chick-fil-A restaurant corporation to move the hall to Atlanta. Officials hope to locate the hall near the thriving Centennial Olympic Park which attracts a multitude of visitors with such mainstays as the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium and the Children’s Museum of Atlanta. The Georgia legislature authorized $10 million to buy the land and a corporate fund -raising effort now underway is expected to bring in from $50 -90 Million.
Originally, the South Bend building was due to close at the end of this year. But the closing has been delayed a year because the new building won’t be ready until the spring of 2013. The actual site of the new College Football Hall of Fame is expected to be announced at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic football game between LSU and North Carolina on September 4.
One person who has regrets the hall of fame is leaving is Pittman, Joe Paterno’s first All-American running back in 1969, who has lived in South Bend for eight years as senior vice president in charge of print media for a nationwide company based there, Shurz Communications.
"It will be missed by people who go to Notre Dame football games," Pittman said Saturday night. "It also will be sorely missed in terms of an attraction of tourists to the community. Yes, there are some people here who still see it as sort of a ‘white elephant.’ And with our city’s struggling economy it’s hard to justify keeping it. But I wonder if the College Football Hall of Fame can’t make it in South Bend with Notre Dame–a focal point of college football–can it make it anywhere."
Perhaps Warner put it best when asked about the upcoming move. "Wherever it is located, it’s the legacy that’s most important," Warner said. "That’s what the College Football Hall of Fame is all about–the game, the players and the coaches. And you really don’t realize what an honor it is (to be part of the hall) until you’re selected and go through all of this, from the announcement last spring to this weekend. I’m humbled."
Lou Prato is the retired director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum. His fourth book about Penn State football, Game Changers: The Greatest Games in Penn State Football History, was published in October.