By Stephen Burnett
Football season may be officially over, but Kentuckians with ties to professional football are working hard toward their goal of building a pro football Hall of Fame for NFL players with a connection to the Bluegrass State, as well as a stadium, in Nicholasville.
“I’m pretty determined to turn over every stone to try to make this thing happens,” said Frank Minnifield, former Cleveland Browns player and now executive director of the Hall of Fame. “We’re finally starting to get a little traction. … Now I really feel like we’ve got a real strong organizational structure that’s going to allow us to move forward now.”
On Feb. 1 in Louisville, the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its new inductees for 2013. That came just days after several players already inducted into the Hall of Fame were able to join a Jessamine County Chamber of Commerce dinner at the R.J. Corman aircraft hangar on Nicholasville Road. Those included Randy Burke of the Baltimore Colts, Joe Federspiel of the New Orleans Saints, Dennis Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals, Derrick Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals and Marc Logan of the Miami Dolphins.
At the dinner Larry Prinssen, host of the Hall of Fame’s table and as of this month the board’s new marketing director, described how after 10 years it seems the organization is approaching its goal of building not only a Hall of Fame facility, but also a state-of-the-art stadium.
“There’s the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and this will basically replicate that,” Prinssen said. “But it will only be for people who have a connection with Kentucky, they played football for one of the state colleges, they were born here — they have to have a connection to the state of Kentucky while their career was either being built up or while they were playing.”
One player with specific Kentucky heritage is Minnifield. Born in Lexington, student at Henry Clay High School, and then player for the University of Louisville and then the Cleveland Browns, Minnifield is now the Hall of Fame’s executive director. He joined the cause when, as a member of the NFL Players Association’s Kentucky chapter (a group not officially affiliated with the NFL), he met Sam Corman, former mayor of Nicholasville. Corman was determined to bring the Hall of Fame, with its unique local emphasis, to Nicholasville, and Minnifield bought in.
Yet soon after Corman passed away, and in his leadership absence, the group lost some footing.
Last summer the Hall of Fame’s facilities board members, joined by chamber members, broke ground for the proposed facility near Maple Street in Nicholasville on land appropriated by the Jessamine County Fiscal Court. If the project moves forward, someday a 5,000-seat stadium may stand there, useful for local school and tournament games, and adjoining the hall of fame.
Prinssen said planners estimate the cost of both stadium and hall of fame would be $6 million.
“It’s time to start asking for the public to help us, to start asking the corporations in the areas to help,” Minnifield said. “We all understand the benefits that this facility can bring to the city of Nicholasville. … This is something the city can benefit from, the kids can benefit from.”
So far the property has only been excavated, he added. “We’re now in the process of trying to raise enough money so that we don’t have to do natural turf; we can do the sports turf.”
“After the field, then you’re looking to put up some bleachers and then the building, the actual Hall of Fame,” Prinssen said. “That’s the part that I’m really interested in … because it really needs to be something that really inspires people, so it’s more than a picture of a person.”
The completed Hall of Fame building would include personal mementoes such as original player jerseys, and running videos of the player’s best performances on the fields. “The idea is to, No. 1, inspire kids who want to play football,” Prinssen said. “You bring tourists through and high school kids, and say, ‘Look at this guy, he did this and this and this.’”
Students at Jessamine County high schools would also benefit from the stadium. That’s why the Jessamine County Board of Education is interested in the project: its sports program directors would love to move their games to a new stadium complete with artificial turf.
If the group can raise enough for artificial turf — that alone would cost about $.5 million — but it would later save inevitable costs of repairing natural-grass fields after games, Prinssen said. If they go that route, artificial turf must be laid before the rest of the structure.
“The process for putting one of these is not easy. You have to have the right drainage because the water’s got to go someplace; you can’t let it sit on top. There’s a lot of equipment moving in and out.”
Board members are still discussing whether to make the field wide enough for field hockey and rugby games, Prinssen said. Yet a stadium of any size must be built on solid support.
“This is groundbreaking,” Minnifield continued. “This is something that a lot of communities probably is going to gravitate to because, you know, all your great football players are not going to end up in [the Pro Football Hall of Fame in] Canton, Ohio.”
In fact, of all Kentucky’s hundreds of college and professional football players, only five have reached that Hall of Fame’s rankings. Such players must have enormous name recognition beyond their game performances, he said.
“This gives us the opportunity to celebrate all our great players, you know, like Babe Parilli,” Minnifeld said, referring to the former UK starting quarterback who was a first-round NFL draft choice and played for 18 years but hasn’t made any other pro hall of fame.
Others include this year’s five newest inductees, who join 51 Kentucky-related players inducted since 2003. On Friday the organization announced those newcomers: Lander “Coy” Bacon, Chad Bratzke, Irv Good, Roman Oben and Otis Wilson, a former linebacker for the Chicago Bears who also gave a statement at the Louisville event.
“We’ve had countless numbers of great players,” Minnifield continued. “And the only way that this next generation will know that these guys are great players is to have a place like the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame. … Football is a huge part of our culture and our life. From college to the NFL, it plays an unbelievable role. It’s such a big part of our life that our universities is able to perform their mission because of their football program.”