Originally created 12/08/96

Georgia Prep Hall of Fame is still just a dream



VALDOSTA, Ga. (AP) - A few days before the 1994 Super Bowl, Gov. Zell Miller and other officials announced with much fanfare that this mecca of high school football would be home to a hall of fame honoring America's Friday night passion.

Almost three years later, not a speck of dirt has been turned on the barren, grassy site on the outskirts of Valdosta. While vehicles speed along adjacent Interstate 75 and scraps of paper blow in the breeze, the only evidence of the project is a sign that says "Future Home: National High School Football Hall of Fame."

There are serious concerns about whether the hall of fame will ever get off the ground.

"We need to put a reasonable time line on it and make a decision," said city manager Larry Hanson, who would like to see the $10 million, privately funded project become a reality. "By, say, the middle of next year, if no major sponsor has come forward, we would probably owe it to the community to re-evaluate the project."

The hall's supporters admit they jumped the gun a bit when they announced the idea two days before the 1994 Super Bowl in Atlanta. At the time, city officials said they hoped the hall would be completed in time for the Olympics to take advantage of the expected heavy flow of tourists on I-75.

"Frankly, we were probably a little bit unrealistic," said John Knapp, a partner in the Knapp-Fletcher Communication Group in Atlanta, which proposed the hall and has been trying to drum up corporate sponsorship. "We didn't know what we run up against in terms of the Olympics."

With so many companies committed to sponsor the $1.7 billion Atlanta Games, Knapp found no one ready to hand over another large chunk of money for the National High School Football Hall of Fame.

"As you can imagine, many of the companies that have strong interest in participating in sports-related sponsorships are the very companies that were heavily involved with the Olympics," Knapp said. "The timing was not favorable for getting some of those companies committed to another project, particularly one in Georgia."

With the Olympics over, Knapp and his partner, John Fletcher, hit the fund-raising trail again. Then Fletcher died suddenly of a heart attack Sept. 1.

Despite all the hurdles, Knapp is convinced the project will succeed. He has assembled a board of directors that includes former NFL coaches Tom Landry and Don Shula, lined up Turner Broadcasting and USA Today as media sponsors, and secured a line of credit from NationsBank.

The city, meanwhile, hopes to cash in on the expected flood of tourists. There are plans for a $5.5 million convention center and a major hotel next door to the hall.

"We have a number of discussions ongoing," Knapp said. "We're out there working very hard on it. I'm very encouraged at this point. I think we have all the pieces in place to have a successful project."

Certainly, this south Georgia city of 40,000 is an appropriate place to locate the first hall of fame dedicated exclusively to high school football.

The Valdosta High Wildcats are a nationally recognized program, winning more than 700 games and at least 21 state championships since they began playing in 1913. And Lowndes County High, located down the road from the hall of fame site, has become a power in its own right.

"We hosted some people from the Italian Olympic Committee this summer, and they wanted to go out and watch Valdosta High play football," Hanson said. "We know the potential drawing card. High school football is something this community is known for."

In Knapp's vision, the hall would be more like Disney World's Epcot Center than a stodgy building filled with trophies and mind-numbing exhibits. Interactive exhibits would give visitors the feeling of actually being at a game on Friday night, he said.

"In our view, high school football is a rite of passage," Knapp said. "It's part of growing up in America, whether you actually played the game or not. It's first dates, pep rallies, the marching band at halftime, going out for pizza after the game. It's part of the community spirit, particularly in small communities. We want to capture all of that."

Still, not one major corporate sponsor has come forward to write a check. And without backing, the 26,000-square-foot hall will remain just a dream.

"We're going to spend the first six months of next year really focusing on the fund-raising effort," Hanson said. "That will give us some time to see if there's really solid interest. If not, we'll say we gave it our best shot."