August 03, 2017

CANTON, Ohio (AP) Tom Benson now has a stadium named after him, with a statute to go with it.

The first major step in a nearly $800 million project at the Pro Football Hall of Fame has been the renovation of an aging high school stadium located next to the hall itself. The New Orleans Saints owner donated $10 million to the renovation.

On Thursday, a 9-foot statue of Benson was unveiled at the 23,000-seat stadium that Hall of Fame President David Baker called ''the finest small venue stadium in the world.''

''This is a game changer,'' Baker added as Benson, his wife Gayle, former Saints kicker Morten Andersen - the NFL's career scoring leader who will be inducted into the hall Saturday night - and several others involved in what will be the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village awaited the unveiling. ''This is hope, a vision, and just the beginning for what is coming. This is 14 percent of what's coming.''

The revitalized stadium was hosting the Hall of Fame game between the Cowboys and Cardinals on Thursday night. It also will be the home to two local colleges, Malone and Walsh, future Division III football championships, and the Black College Hall of Fame all-star game. Baker is working on attracting more events, including the NFL draft.

Speaking at the podium while representing her husband, Gayle Benson called it ''truly a stadium for everyone to enjoy. The $10 million certainly is money well spent.''

Mark Williams of HKS, the revamped stadium's designer, described a certain mission his company had.

''We felt we were inside hallowed grounds,'' said Williams, whose group recently worked on the NFL stadiums in Arlington, Texas; Indianapolis; Minneapolis; and is involved with the Rams/Chargers facility being built in the Los Angeles area. ''We had to carry that into this facility.

''This building represents what other NFL buildings can't do: intimacy. This is unlike anything we have ever done. The 23,000 people can almost feel the players. That just doesn't happen (elsewhere).''

Just before the statue by Blair Buswell, who also does the busts in the hall, was revealed, Baker noted that neither Andersen nor the other six inductees this year would be getting a 9-foot statue.

Andersen didn't seem to mind. Turning to Benson, he said:

''I cannot tell you how appropriate it is for us to be here together.''

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