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Pro Football Hall of Fame's gold jacket stands as strong symbol

Only a few days had passed since he'd been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, and Mike Munchak was still numb. He was in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, and at a meeting that brought the full class together for the first time, someone was going over the plans for their enshrinement weekend and how their busts would be cast. A film was being played.

But then the men in the group moved into another room, where the first pieces of their Hall of Fame memories began to be stitched together. Only the inductees, a few family members and some very skilled tailors were there, as the men entering the Hall were measured for the most hard-to-miss symbols of their stature.

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"Lynn Swann was right next to me getting measured," Munchak remembered this week. "Seeing how excited he was; I'd watched him play all those years, and we were going into the Hall of Fame together. It's just very humbling -- man, I'm going to have one of these yellow jackets. You see all the pictures of them."

It is gold, not yellow, the Hall of Fame is quick to remind. This is an important distinction because the color was chosen to signify that the 280 people who own one -- 164 of whom are still living, while quite a few of the deceased are buried in their jackets -- are the gold standard of their profession. This weekend in Canton, Ohio, seven more men will get their jackets and be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, leaving with the most recognizable symbol of their accomplishments.

John Apostolidis was there from the beginning with this year's group. He is the director of brand, licensing and communications for Haggar, the clothing company that supplies the Hall of Fame jackets, and he has a unique window into the meaning and emotions that get wrapped up in all that cloth. For the past two years, he has been in the room as inductees have been measured for their custom-made jackets, which they will receive at the enshrinees' dinner Friday night.

This year, the process began in a Manhattan hotel room as snow swirled outside on the day after Super Bowl XLVIII. There stood a rack hung with replica blazers -- in navy, as the gold is reserved only for the real thing -- waiting for the newest Hall of Famers to pick the right size. It is, Apostolidis says, a startlingly intimate moment, often recorded by a family member.

"Guys are very emotional," Apostolidis said. "What you get is a combination of the more contemporary players who have made a ton of money and guys who played 30 or 40 years ago who aren't super wealthy. You haven't heard from them in 20 years. It's a great honor for them to be recognized. They'll say, 'We made it. I can't believe it.'

"This year, there were two Hall of Famers talking, and one was saying to the other, 'It's funny, when we start our careers, the first thing is, you go to the combine to get measured before they draft you. Isn't it kind of funny how we're ending our career, we're being measured again?' "

The making of the jacket is not unlike the construction of other types of custom clothing, albeit with a lot more material. Larry Allen -- size 60, extra-long -- and Jonathan Ogden -- size 59, extra-extra-long -- are tied in terms of the jackets that have used the most fabric; the most common sizes, meanwhile, are 48 long and 50 long. After the measurements are taken, a blueprint is made for each inductee. The jacket has a custom lining and buttons with the Hall of Fame logo and a special label with the Hall of Famer's name and enshrinement number. But there are some special requests, too: Some have asked for the pockets to be reinforced, because they plan to wear the jacket on television, and need the pockets to be strong enough to carry a microphone. Others ask for two jackets, so they can have one in each of their homes, as Hall of Famers are supposed to wear their jackets when on official business.

Haggar has been making the jackets since 1978, and there have been just two versions; the current one was introduced two years ago with a slight color change to a gold that has more red in it than the earlier version. The deeper gold, Apostolidis said, shows up better on newer high-definition televisions. The jacket is also made of a slightly different wool -- woven very tightly at a mill in India, so that it is strong, but without a lot of weight. Nobody can duplicate it, though. The color is not registered with any color service and is hand-dipped for Haggar, where it is closely guarded. The company also does not allow anybody except for a Hall of Famer to have a photo taken while wearing the jacket.

When the new jacket was introduced, Haggar made a new one for every Hall of Famer -- but don't be surprised if not every jacket looks the same this weekend.

"Some of the older guys don't want to wear the new jacket," Apostolidis said. "They say, 'This is the jacket you gave me 30 years ago.' "

The inductees first see their jackets around the middle of May, when they're sent out to make sure they fit properly. Enclosed in the instructions is a reminder -- do not take a picture of yourself in the jacket. That moment is reserved for this weekend.

Often, though, a little weight will have been gained since their election -- "People want to buy you dinner when you make the Hall of Fame," Apostolidis said -- and the jacket has to be altered. It is then sent back to the Hall of Fame in Canton so it can be finished.

Last year, a new Hall of Famer's wife called Apostolidis directly. Typically, inductees stand straighter than they normally do when they are being measured; when this player's jacket arrived and he tried it on while standing as he usually does, the jacket was off-balance. Apostolidis asked the wife to take pictures of the areas that fit poorly. She produced a five-minute video that was so detailed, Haggar was able to recut the jacket. Because there was little time, Apostolidis had to carry it on the plane with him when he flew to Canton for enshrinement weekend. He met the Hall of Famer and his wife in their hotel room so he could try on the new jacket.

"She was just so happy -- she was almost crying," Apostolidis said. "She gave me this big hug and said, 'I just wanted him to look handsome.' "

That is hardly the last Haggar hears about the jackets. The company will often get calls if a jackets is torn or stained -- a frequent occurrence, especially in the first year, when the Hall of Famers get a lot of use out of the jacket as they are feted across the country.

"It's like women wearing the Miss America crown," Apostolidis said. "It goes through a lot of wear and tear the first year."

Munchak's will not be worn this weekend, because he will remain in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line. Munchak has returned for enshrinement ceremonies eight or nine times, however, including last year, when the Hall of Fame celebrated its 50th anniversary.

"Everyone loves wearing them," Munchak said. "It represents that brotherhood. You go there that weekend, all of the emotions come back to you when you went through it. When you get the jacket presented to you, you have the person inducting you holding the jacket for you. For an offensive linemen, we never go through those things. We never get that kind of attention. You can't believe it's for you.

"It's not about how it looks. It symbolizes what it's all about. I was (coaching for the Tennessee Titans) when I went in, and when I came back, all they talked about was the gold jacket. I told them if I need to, I'd bring it in, if that's what gets you to play together. It stands out. You have one of those, it stands out."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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