Rookies' exploration of game's past should enhance futures

Ken Blaze for ESPN.com

CANTON, Ohio -- There is an undeniably nostalgic feel around these parts.

When entering Stark County, Ohio, there's a large bridge overhead that reads HOME OF THE PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME.

Canton is the gatekeeper of football's history. Close your eyes: You almost can hear Vince Lombardi's voice and Dick Butkus' brutal hits. Open your eyes: You see their legacies and so much more.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is where football's past meets football's present. In this shrine, the game's all-time greats are permanent residents of this Northeast Ohio town of about 79,000 people. Today's players hope to become enshrinees some day.

This offseason, the NFL is sending every incoming player for a special tour of the Hall of Fame. Former Dallas Cowboys receiver and 2007 Hall of Fame inductee Michael Irvin came up with the idea last summer to increase rookies' awareness and help them recognize the value of their opportunity.

"When I was inducted into the Hall, I told the commissioner that guys coming out of college don't appreciate the game," said Irvin, who went through the tour with Cowboys rookies on Friday. "They don't have an understanding of the game's history. They've been playing football to get away from their history.

"So I told Commissioner [Roger] Goodell that the first thing he should do is bring them here and give them a sense of history. It's impossible to go there and not come away with something."

The NFL gets most things right and, by following Irvin's suggestion, nailed this one.

Seeing wide-eyed rookies like Jake Long of the Miami Dolphins and Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons take the tour this week convinces you that this is a great thing for the league.

"I've never been to the Hall of Fame before and to come here and see all the different stuff, it definitely puts things in perspective," Ryan said after Atlanta's tour.

"It makes you realize that you got a great opportunity, and I think that's what they intended to do with this trip, and I think it worked out pretty well."

The image of the NFL has taken a hit recently with high-profile cases involving Michael Vick, Odell Thurman, Chris Henry and Dallas Cowboys cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones. Their well-documented stories likely had a hand, directly or indirectly, in getting this objective passed so quickly.

I think it would've helped some of them understand that if you make a mistake at 22, you could end up regretting it at 42. You got Google and everything out there now, so if you get in trouble, it never goes away. Your kid is going to end up Googling it, too.

-- Michael Irvin, reflecting on how a Hall of Fame tour might have helped players have a greater appreciation of history

Troubled players such as Vick, Henry, Thurman and Jones could have used this tour. Although every situation is different, they share a common thread in that there was a general lack of appreciation for their responsibilities inherent in the privilege to play in the NFL.

"I think it would've helped some of them understand that if you make a mistake at 22, you could end up regretting it at 42," Irvin said. "You got Google and everything out there now, so if you get in trouble, it never goes away. Your kid is going to end up Googling it, too."

There is no guarantee that these tours will help steer more players away from trouble, but there's no way they can hurt, either. At the very least, the tours are a positive step in the right direction.

The educational value was tremendous.

Rookies got to see the old leather helmets and the contracts that paid as little as $4,000 per season. They learned that Bill Willis and Marion Motley broke the NFL's color barrier in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson did it in major league baseball. And most were surprised to hear that Jim Thorpe was Native American.

At the end of the tour, every rookie received a lifetime pass to the Hall of Fame and special memories to take home.

Ryan was ecstatic to see game-worn artifacts of his favorite player: former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre. Falcons offensive lineman Sam Baker, who grew up with Jackie Slater's son, took a picture next to the enshrinement statue for Slater, a star for the Rams. Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne did the same with the bust of fellow Pennsylvania native Dan Marino, and Long took pictures next to the replica of former offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf.

"[Dierdorf is] a legend at Michigan and a legend in the league," said Long, a Michigan alum. "And being able to see him here is pretty cool."

Long also was enamored with the display of every NFL Super Bowl ring -- most notably the two given to the New England Patriots during their back-to-back championships in 2003 and 2004.

The 2004 ring is the biggest in league history, weighing one-quarter of a pound, and the 2003 ring is not far behind in size.

"Can you imagine having those two rings?" Long said to his teammates. "That's sweet."

For the length of the two-hour tour, it was easy to forget that some of these rookies are multimillion-dollar athletes. Seeing artifacts from players they idolized growing up produced a humbling level of respect mixed with childlike admiration.

The NFL has yet to decide whether Hall of Fame tours for incoming players will go beyond this year. But that decision should be a no-brainer.

Every rookie can benefit from looking at the game's past before going out and have an impact on its future.

James Walker covers the NFL for ESPN.com.