The stadium attached to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, will be renamed in honor of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson after he pledged $11 million to benefit the group whose mission is to preserve the history of the nation’s most-watched sport.
The monetary donation is said to be the largest an individual has presented to the Hall of Fame, which opened in 1963, about four years before New Orleans was awarded its NFL franchise. It comes after Benson in April committed $5 million to the philanthropic organization founded by ex-Saint Steve Gleason, an advocate for people living their lives with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neuromuscular disease that put the player in a wheelchair.
Benson, 87, actually agreed to bestow two gifts to the hall: a $10 million one earmarked for a project calling to renovate what has been known as Fawcett Stadium, site of the hall’s annual enshrinement ceremony and the exhibition game that kicks off each NFL preseason; and a $1 million one intended for a mixed-use residence for seniors that will be dubbed “Legends Landing,” with living spaces for any league contributors who may be in need.
“Football has a very direct and strong connection to New Orleans,” read a statement from Benson, whose team won Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7, 2010, and gave its city its only major sports championship just five years after experiencing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. “The game of football has served as a positive beacon in our city — it has given our citizens hope in tough, trying times.”
Added David Baker, president of the Hall of Fame, where former Saints greats Rickey Jackson and Willie Roaf are enshrined: “Mr. Benson ... exceeded anything I could’ve asked for. To me, that says more about the man than anything I could ever say.”
Baker shared how it was that the businessman who also owns the NBA’s Pelicans arrived at his decision to pledge so much money to the Hall of Fame. The two got to know each other when Baker was commissioner of the Arena Football League and Benson — who bought the Saints in 1985 — became the first NFL owner to purchase an AFL franchise: the New Orleans VooDoo.
Benson’s VooDoo debuted in 2004 and played in 2005 before suspending operations in 2006 in the wake of Katrina. The VooDoo returned for 2007 and 2008 but then folded; Benson is not associated with the AFL team in New Orleans under different ownership that has been playing under the same name, colors and logo since 2011.
Nonetheless, during his team’s run in the AFL, Benson and Baker grew close, the ex-commissioner said. Baker recalled how that resulted in the AFL bringing its championship game to New Orleans in 2007 and 2008, events that at least generated some business for a city seeking to recover from the storm in 2005.
“We just developed a good relationship with New Orleans, and that strengthened the relationship with Mr. Benson,” Baker said.
Then, in January, Baker became president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of Baker’s duties early in the 2014 NFL season was to attend ceremonies in which those who had been inducted into the Hall of Fame in the summer were given rings. And one such ceremony honoring ex-Falcons defensive end Claude Humphrey took Baker to Atlanta, which played the Saints on Sept. 7.
Coincidentally, Baker’s son, Sam, is a left tackle for the Falcons, who was sidelined most of last season and was ruled out for all of this year with injuries in both of his knees. Yet Baker managed to carve out time to visit the hotel where the team owned by his friend from his AFL days was staying.
Benson wasn’t in Atlanta because he was recovering from knee surgery, but Baker met with the Saints’ vice president of communications, Greg Bensel.
Baker spoke with Bensel about upcoming plans for the Hall of Fame. Bensel suggested Baker share that information with Benson, who once served as chairman of the NFL’s powerful Finance Committee and would probably be interested in assisting the hall.
Baker soon arranged a trip to New Orleans to meet with Bensel, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis, team President Dennis Lauscha — and Benson.
Baker detailed a $10 million proposal that would be part of what’s titled “The Hall of Fame Village Master Plan,” which aside from stadium improvements encompasses undertakings such as a high-end hotel and conference center; athletic performance, safety and entertainment facilities; a youth football center and playing fields; an integrity and officiating institute; a coaches university; a corporate excellence academy; restaurants; and retail outlets.
When the Hall of Fame president wrapped up, Benson’s reaction was to promise, “We’ll be in touch with you — it won’t take me long to decide on this,” Baker said.
Baker heard from Benson within days. Not only did Benson wish to provide $10 million to the Hall of Fame Village Master Plan — he wanted to throw in an extra $1 million for the Legends Landing home.
In a letter dated Monday, Benson challenged his fellow NFL owners to match his $1 million donation.
“Should a current Hall of Famer or (league alum) fall on a tough time, they would literally have a place to ‘land’ and find a home,” Benson wrote of the project. In an apparent reference to the recent awareness of how dangerous the concussion risks in pro football are, Benson also wrote, “Supporting the ... great men that have played this game is more important now than ever.”
Baker said of Benson, “He wasn’t just generous — he was beyond generous.”
The renovations to the stadium in Canton that Benson’s donation will help fund are scheduled to start after the Hall of Fame’s enshrinement ceremony and preseason kickoff game in the summer of 2015. The building will assume the name Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium after the refurbishments are finished, Bensel said, and the venue will be suited to hold other sports and entertainment events.
First completed in 1938 and originally named after renowned local athlete John A. Fawcett, the stadium will continue to be home to two high school football teams (McKinley and Timken) and to two NCAA Division II teams (Walsh and Malone), the Hall of Fame said.
“Football ... has been a major part of my life for the better part of 30 years,” Benson said. “My donation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was an easy decision.”