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'Founders & Stewards': Wilf Family Funds New Pro Football Hall of Fame Exhibit

Owner/Chairman Zygi Wilf
Owner/Chairman Zygi Wilf

CANTON, Ohio — Stewards understand significant events that preceded them. More importantly, they preserve and try to improve conditions for those who follow.

Since becoming the owners of the Vikings in 2005, brothers Zygi and Mark Wilf and their cousin, Lenny, have earnestly spoken about their stewardship approach and made financial and other commitments to support their caretaking efforts.

That has continued with a $1 million donation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to fund the new "NFL Owners: The Founders and Stewards of America's Game" exhibit.

Zygi Wilf traveled to Canton, Ohio, last week to celebrate the enshrinement of former Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson as a member of the 2020 class and the grand opening of the exhibit.

"Since our family became the stewards of the Minnesota Vikings in 2005, we have been honored to support the Pro Football Hall of Fame," Wilf said. "The work of The Hall is critical to pay tribute to the heroes of pro football and to preserve the game's rich history. Honoring and supporting our Legends and those who have come before us is extremely important for my family and all of us in the NFL.

"The story of football, however, can't be told without recognizing the individuals who laid the foundation of the National Football League and those who carry it forward today," Wilf continued. "Our family is humbled to be part of that. We are proud to join all of you to officially unveil the Pro Football Hall of Fame 'Founders' exhibit."

He joined Pro Football Hall of Fame President and CEO David Baker for a tour through the space that has transformed the original portal to the Pro Football Hall of Fame into an homage to the sport's past, a link to the NFL's present and a gateway to its future.

The space is located at the former front doors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which opened in 1963 in Canton, Ohio, more than four decades after the meeting that immediately established the American Professional Football Association on Sept. 17, 1920. The upstart league was renamed the NFL in 1922 and is now preparing for its 102nd season.

Just beyond two sets of double doors is where enshrinees — the likes of Fran Tarkenton, Alan Page and Bud Grant — formally delivered acceptance speeches. On hot enshrinement days, distinguished guests would pass through those portals to cool, stepping over the original logo for the Pro Football Hall of Fame that was inlaid in the floor and remains exposed.

"It's very appropriate to be here and be at the former entrance where they held the ceremonies right outside these doors and to have the original welcome plaque," Wilf said. "To see all of the faces of the former teams' owners brings back a nostalgia that I always carry with me as part of my passion for the game."

The recognition of Hutchinson and the Centennial Class, as well as the ribbon-cutting, were delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eventual occurrence of those events is a reminder of perseverance that helped the NFL grow and gain traction as America's most-watched professional sports league.

"This is a good day. You can see we have a lot of people coming back to the Pro Football Hall of Fame," Baker said in a soothing tone that offsets his towering frame. "Thanks to the generosity of Zygi, Lenny, Mark and the Wilf family who have such great respect for the history of the league, we have the 'Founders' exhibit, which is all about the owners and what they did."

The Wilf Family recently made a $1 million donation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to fund the new "NFL Owners: The Founders and Stewards of America's Game" exhibit.

Nods to the past include photos of some of the earliest owners and transformative leaders. A space lists the 14 original teams from 1920, which included the Chicago Cardinals franchise that is now in Arizona and the Decatur Staleys led by founder, coach and player George Halas. That squad changed its name to the Chicago Staleys a year later and adopted the Bears nickname in 1922.

An interactive display screen covers each team's history of ownership.

The "Foolish Club" which founded the rival American Football League to begin play in 1960 and challenge the NFL is also recognized. The AFL invited a Minnesota franchise, but organizers withdrew after Halas helped convince the NFL to place an expansion franchise before the 1961 season.

The service and sacrifice of more than 1,200 who delayed, interrupted or canceled their NFL careers to serve in the military during World War II is also noted.

Born in 1950 in Germany to Holocaust survivors, Wilf immigrated to the United States. His family first settled in Birmingham, Alabama, before relocating to the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area.

Wilf explained during the tour that his father's business partner introduced Joseph Wilf to American football and that the construction company, Garden Homes, built houses for some of the New York Giants players. Joseph Wilf envisioned an opportunity for his family to better adapt to Americanization through football when the Giants played at Yankee Stadium.

"He made us very passionate about the game and the sport and about our teams," Wilf said. "We carry that over as an important factor of being an owner, to have the passion, and he certainly gave it to us by introducing us to this great game."


Wilf also explained that his father had an opportunity in 1961 to buy the New York Titans, a Foolish Club franchise that soon became the Jets, but said, "What do I know about the football business?"

In celebration of the NFL's 100th season, the Pro Football Hall of Fame shipped a 1920 Hupmobile, which is usually displayed in Canton in honor of the automobile showroom in which league founders met, to the 2019 Annual League Meeting for a photo with an ownership representative from each team.

The photo, executed despite logistical challenges, is used as a wall graphic for part of the exhibit to recognize the current stewards who helped the NFL navigate the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 without missing a single game.

"We are deeply grateful to the Wilf family, not only for the quality organization that they run with the Minnesota Vikings but also for the values that they espouse in their company, in their philanthropy, in everything they do," Baker said. "These are the kind of people who should be owners in the National Football League, and we need more like them, along with the other great owners we have."