Working in his Utah studio at the base of the mountains midway between Salt Lake and Provo, Blair Buswell memorializes the NFL's greatest players for posterity in the Professional Football Hall of Fame. For history. Forever.
"I want it not to just look like him," Buswell said, "but it has to feel like him."
Diligence, married with vision and talent, has resulted in some startling likenesses in Canton. Buswell has created 53 busts, including the three members of this weekend's Class of 2005 -- Dan Marino, the late Benny Friedman and Steve Young, Buswell's former college teammate at BYU.
Working with natural water-based Death Valley clay, a deep red, rich with dirt and sand, Buswell has an enviable integrity in his pursuit of detail. He spends hundreds of hours -- and a considerable sum of his own money -- to get it right.
Buswell travels to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii each year, at his own expense, to measure -- literally and figuratively -- his potential subjects. After making arrangements to visit their homes or schedule visits to his studio for posing sessions, Buswell gets to work. He arranges two rows of 8-by-10-inch black and white photos of the subject from all angles, sent to him by the Hall, on a large board. Then he begins building layers of clay on a 1-inch galvanized pipe that is about 12 inches tall and fashioned in the shape of a "T."
Once Buswell has made all the final tweaks to everyone's satisfaction, the complicated "lost wax" casting process of turning clay into bronze begins. Cultures have been using this method dating back to the eighth century and Buswell follows the time-honored tradition. Essentially, it is the same process dentists use to make a crown that replicates a tooth. After numerous, sometimes tedious steps, Buswell applies a raw bronze patina to the 25-pound bronze bust to give it a more human hue.
With three subjects from the Class of 2005 -- Steve Young, Dan Marino and Benny Friedman -- sculptor Blair Buswell has now created 53 of the 229 bronze busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The creation of each bust is its own, unique story. Here are nine of them, from the perspective of the artist, as told to ESPN.com senior writer Greg Garber.
In the bronze sculpture game, jaws are cake compared to teeth. And when your subject has two of the most prominent front teeth in NFL history, well, you can imagine the pressure I was feeling when I, uh, tackled John Elway.
He only won back-to-back Super Bowls to crown his 16-year career, threw for more than 51,000 yards and 300 touchdowns and was named to nine Pro Bowls. And then there were those darn teeth.
It's a little nerve-racking, trying to get his likeness, because everyone will be real critical of it. This guy is so visible, people will know right off if you got him or not. And teeth ... teeth are really tough.
Some guys, like Ronnie Lott, you can only see them scowling. John was the opposite. You have to have him smiling. There's no other way.
In the end, how could I be blamed for making those choppers a little larger than life? I had taken measurements in Hawaii and was making some adjustments at Elway's Cherry Hills, Colorado home, when I noticed the quarterback staring intently — right at the mouth.
"Are those teeth right?" Elway asked, almost apologetically. "Man, they look more like Chiclets."
Sure enough, Elway was right. A second measurement revealed that they were too big. About five hours later, everyone was finally was happy with those teeth.
A few months later, I was watching an interview with Elway on television. They showed video of him standing next to his bust and the announcer was saying that the busts never look like the people they're supposed to represent.
"But this guy," the announcer added, "really nailed Elway."
At home in Utah, I jumped out of my chair, exulted and punched the air.
The man who won more games than any coach in NFL history (347) once described himself as "subtle as a punch in the face."
Don Shula's formidable lantern jaw was merely the natural extension of this concept. When I began to put the final touches on his bronze destined for Canton, right there on the coach's spacious Florida porch, Shula's second wife, Mary Ann, handed me some pictures to look at. She wanted me to make sure my eyes had the kind of look in them that she knew so well. And then she walked over and took the bust's chin, that famous jaw, in her hand.
"Got to get this thing right, too," she said, laughing.
Which only made me more self-conscious about accurately capturing it.
"Everyone has a chin. This one just happens to have a famous coach behind it.
Fortunately, Shula was a splendid host; there was none of the intimidating sideline presence that defined his career. He had just gotten back from a month-long cruise to Egypt and chatted with the artist about his days as a player. People forget that he was a pretty fair cornerback, playing for the Colts, Redskins and Browns and intercepting 21 passes in seven seasons.
But because Shula made a greater mark as a coach — he won two Super Bowls, one of them capping the 1972 Dolphins' perfect 17-0 season — the Hall of Fame wanted him portrayed in his coaching prime, the 1980s.
Afterward, I was treated to a free meal at Shula's Steakhouse — yes, I had steak — and spent the night wondering if I had gotten that jaw right.
Fortunately, the critics say the answer is yes.
Everybody was happy with it. It's in mid-jut.
From the time he broke into college ball at USC, to the shocking way he left the national stage, O.J. Simpson was always larger than life.
The creation of his bust is physical evidence — pardon the expression — of that very fact.
Twenty years ago, I was still carrying a standard-size, nine-inch head into my final posing sessions. To that point, I had never run into a serious logistical problem. And then I walked into Simpson's Brentwood house — long before it became associated with that infamous crime — and realized immediately that I had a lot of work to do.
My caliper measurements confirmed my fears: O.J.'s head, in comparison to the rest of his body, was enormous. So instead of working on the nuances of expression, I found myself hurriedly adding clay to the head, and then more clay. Nearly the entire posing session was consumed by adding several inches all the way around.
O.J., who finished his career with 11,236 yards rushing — 2,003 of them coming in the 1973 season alone — was a genial host. A stream of people flowed through the home, including former teammates Reggie McKenzie and Bob Chandler, as well as his wife Nicole, her sister Denise, his children from his previous marriage and his parents.
Yes, the cast of characters that everyone came to know 10 years later.
Nicole Brown Simpson, who had married Simpson earlier that year, was pregnant with her first child at the time of the posing session. A decade later, in 1994, she was murdered, and Simpson was charged with the crime.
I remember my time with Simpson fondly — he was an absolute kick to be around — and I watched the trial with mixed emotions.
I was never happy with the likeness of Simpson, and before the Hall of Fame's Class of 1985 was introduced I petitioned the directors to send me to Hawaii to make accurate measurements. They declined, but I decided to go at my own expense — something I do to this day. The whole process can take anywhere from a week to several months depending on the subject and our collaborative process, but with the honorees who are still alive, it always starts in Hawaii.
O.J. — that's one I'd like another chance to do.
To be honest, this bust is not precisely anatomically correct.
Like Eric Dickerson's bust, it has a little more hair on the top than was there in real life, even back in the prime of Terry Bradshaw's career. I usually allow the subjects to influence how they will be seen by history — within reason — and what are a few extra follicles among friends?
Bradshaw was a complete hoot, just like the amped-up, hyper-competitive guy you see on television — actually, even more so. The quarterback would not sit still. He'd pose for a little bit, then walk around for while and come back and do it again.
"I've got to get out of here," he said after a few minutes.
Bradshaw — the MVP in Super Bowls XIII, XIV — and I went outside and had a great time tossing the football around. When I played at BYU, I always had pretty decent hands. The only problem? After about 10 minutes, they started to swell up — not exactly ideal for a guy who makes his living with his hands.
Still, it turned out pretty well. The only balder busts in Canton are those of coach Paul Brown and linebacker Ray Nitschke, and their heads have been rubbed so much by passing fans that the protective patina is gone and the scalp has grown discolored.
If the fans do their job, a few years from now the Bradshaw bust is likely to more accurately reflect the bald reality.
First of all, I didn't volunteer to sculpt Al Davis. The Hall of Fame folks asked me, as a favor, to handle the irascible Oakland Raiders owner.
This is the man, after all, who had repeatedly sued the NFL and generally made himself a serious pain in the rear end. The Hall of Fame guys knew that I, with my light manner, was the man for a difficult job. But even they couldn't have imagined how difficult it would be.
I had gotten a similar call in 1985 when longtime commissioner Pete Rozelle was voted in. He and his wife had ordered numerous revisions to a previously commissioned painting and the Canton brain trust was queasy. Rozelle turned out to be a pleasure to work with and, at the Pro Bowl at least, so was Davis.
I had heard all kinds of things. But when I met him he was congenial, easy to be with. I left there thinking, "I think I can do him."
Davis is an interesting fellow. Going back to his days in the AFL, he's the only man to serve in the professional game as a scout, personnel assistant, head coach, general manager, commissioner and team owner. On his watch, the Raiders have made five Super Bowl appearances, with three victories. But, back in 1992, it had been almost a decade since the last one, which capped the 1983 season, when I arrived at team headquarters in El Segundo, Calif.
I had spent an enjoyable afternoon the day before with Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey and his family in San Diego and with that momentum I was ready to go to work. I started setting up at 10 a.m. and the secretary told me Mr. Davis would be in soon, as scheduled.
Three hours later, Davis walked in and shook my hand. "I'm here to do your bust," I said, managing my best smile. "Not today," Davis said. "I've got too much going on, too many meetings."
"I'm only here for the day," I said, smile fading. "We'll just sit you down between meetings. We'll get this thing done."
"Look," said Davis, scowling, "I don't want you here."
Nine hours later, after about 30 scattered minutes with the Raiders owner — he was "shooting darts" at me the whole time — I left the Raiders facility under emotional duress.
If the finished bust didn't look like him, it reflected on me. I stuck around and got as much as I could. There's always got to be someone who hasn't been a great experience. Maybe he was just having a bad day. He didn't want anything to do with me.
The choice of Bill Walsh as a Hall of Fame coach, after he guided the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl victories in 10 seasons, was a foregone conclusion. What most people don't know is that his bust — our bust, really — was, in so many ways, the final piece of a poignant circle of symmetry.
Walsh, fortuitously, was the guest speaker at the BYU Cougar Club's sports banquet in 1982. On display were some of my early sculptures; Walsh particularly enjoyed the likeness of BYU basketball star Danny Ainge. I was in the audience that night and the coach asked me to create a sculpture of himself and 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo to honor their breakthrough victory earlier that year in Super Bowl XVI. I was only 22 years old, but I couldn't say no.
I was terrified. I had never rented a car, never checked by myself into a hotel before, but Walsh flew me from Utah to DeBartolo's business headquarters in Youngstown, Ohio. Earlier, I had shared my fears with a cousin. Don't worry, she told me, they'll be as much in awe of what you do as you are of them. And that's precisely what happened.
People said DeBartolo would never pose for me, but the energetic owner walked in at the appointed time with a can of Coke and stayed for more than an hour. The half life-size sculpture turned out well.
It was good for my confidence. I was in awe of their talent and ability, but it made me realize I did have something to bring to the party. That experience opened up so many doors for me.
The biggest one was about 50 miles from DeBartolo's office to the southwest in Canton. Walsh and DeBartolo enthusiastically recommended me to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a year later, 1983, I produced my first bronze, coach Sid Gillman. A decade later, I found myself measuring the face of Walsh, my original subject and patron.
I attended Walsh's induction ceremony — my first and last appearance until this year when I will be reunited with Steve Young — and thanked Walsh and DeBartolo for the opportunity. Walsh congratulated me for my effort. He wears the timeless face of a wise leader. That's what he was to the 49ers and to me, personally.
In the end, because of my schedule, it came down to a choice between Mean Joe Greene or Larry Csonka, two longtime combatants. I ultimately chose to do Csonka — because of the artistic opportunities afforded by his famously (and hideously) broken nose.
Oddly enough, the fierce Miami Dolphins fullback who rushed for more than 8,000 yards and won a Super Bowl MVP award, declined — on the grounds of vanity.
"If it's going to be there a long time," Csonka told me firmly, "I want the nose to be straight."
Perhaps he was thinking of his legacy. Maybe it was because he was born in Stow, Ohio, just north of Canton on Route 77, and he had a special sensitivity regarding the Hall of Fame. Whatever the reason, Csonka wouldn't pose until he had undergone plastic surgery to correct the bend in his prodigious beak.
"How about a little crick in the nose?" I asked him in the final posing session.
Csonka shook his head.
Indeed, in the finished version the bust has an admittedly prominent — but stone straight — proboscis.
When Miami reporters called me to ask him what happened, I laughed.
I told them: "There's no way I'm arguing with Larry Csonka."
This was my first shot at a Hall of Fame bronze and, frankly, I had no idea what I was doing. None.
Twenty-two years ago, I hadn't developed the sophisticated system that marks my work today — no videotaping sessions, no series of photographs, no measuring the subjects with calipers at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
Working from a few photos, I did the best I could shaping the image of the legendary coach who had stalked the sideline for the Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers and Houston Oilers. Gillman, whose record was 123-104-7 during 18 seasons, was the first coach to win division titles in both the NFL and the AFL.
He was not exactly thrilled when I pulled the cover off the first clay draft.
"Get that thing off me!" Gillman demanded, pointing to the narrow necktie, circa 1960.
In fact, Gillman said, he didn't own a single conventional necktie. He disappeared for a moment and came back with a bow tie. He was wearing a golf shirt — not exactly approved sideline fashion — but he tied it around the collar, and I took some pictures and began refashioning the clay.
After that initial outburst, Gillman was an engaging guy. We talked football for a few hours. His technical knowledge of the game was, even to an old college running back such as myself, extensive.
In the final version, Gillman has the look of an engaged coach, with a furrowed brow and pursed lips, sporting sort of a half-smile. The bow tie is properly jaunty — the only thing missing is the golf shirt.
Coach Landry was famously stoic, taciturn and self-contained, the anti-Bradshaw, if you will.
There is a revealing black-and-white photograph of the great Dallas Cowboys coach in which he's sitting next to the finished Hall of Fame bronze bust, upon its completion. Which one is made of clay? Seriously, you have to look twice to make sure you've got it right.
He was cordial in his posing session, but he never came out of his buttoned-down character. To me, it felt like he was posing for a painting. I tried to loosen up the architect of 20 consecutive winning seasons, but after a series of yes and no answers, I stopped trying to make conversation. There was a wall there that wasn't coming down.
You're probably wondering about the hat. Why isn't that trademark fedora perched on Landry's head? Truth be told, it was an executive decision. The Hall of Fame wouldn't hear of it; if Paul Brown isn't wearing a hat, they said, no one wears a hat. I had been down this road before. When I was working on a sculpture of Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, the familiar hounds tooth hat was in absentia.
It's a good deal, though. Hats and their shadows can obscure the underlying reality. Without the fedora, Landry's forehead stretches smoothly, all the way to the back of his head. He's wearing a wry grin, or maybe it's a grimace after one of those three Super Bowl losses in a span of nine years. I have to agree with the critics; this was one of my better likenesses.
When people ask me which of my busts came closest to the subject, lately I've mentioned Barry Sanders, Class of 2004. Invariably, though, I'll cite Landry. Modesty aside, I think I really nailed the old coach.
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