CLEVELAND — Ohio has no shortage of elite athletes, such as LeBron James, Jack Nicklaus and Archie Griffin.
A new exhibit opening Saturday at the Ohio History Center will put a spotlight on Ohioans and their roles in shaping the nation’s sports history. Ohio-Champion of Sports will remain open at least through September 2020.
The exhibit — which spans three floors of the museum — took 18 months of work to bring to fruition, said Burt Logan, CEO and executive director of the Ohio History Connection, which operates the museum.
The crux of it, he said, rests on a simple premise.
“It’s impossible to tell a national sports story without telling the story of sports in Ohio,” Logan said.
Using collected memorabilia and recorded interviews, the exhibit tells the stories of Ohioans — athletes, coaches, owners and, sometimes, fans — at both the amateur and professional level whose exploits changed the national sports landscape. The 26 highlighted sports run the gamut, from standard fare such as basketball, baseball and football to the more unconventional, including roller derby, skateboarding and e-gaming.
Both the size and scope represent an unprecedented undertaking for the Connection, Logan said.
“It’s a groundbreaking exhibit in terms of its size, the way we’re presenting the story, the way we did the research and the way we let the participants speak,” he said. “It really is a new excursion for us.”
Curators worked with major- and minor-league teams, colleges and high schools to collect video interviews and memorabilia. And rather than present the history chronologically, the exhibit is organized through six themes: character, adversity, innovation, identity, tradition and victory.
“We wanted to approach it in a way that we thought would connect to a broader audience,” said Connection spokeswoman Emmy Beach. “Really explore (history) based on those characteristics, those tenets of the human condition that everyone can really relate to, that ideally makes it more relevant or engaging.”
Visitors to the exhibit can see the Cleveland Cavaliers jersey worn by James as an NBA rookie. The uniform is on loan for six months from the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
They can hear first-person accounts from Columbus boxer Buster Douglas — who pulled off a historic upset on Feb. 11, 1990, when he became the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion by knocking out Mike Tyson; Katie Smith, a Logan native, a WNBA champion and the all-time leading scorer in women’s professional basketball; and Sarah Fisher, born in Columbus and raised in Commercial Point, the youngest woman to race in the Indianapolis 500.
Fisher also donated her racing fire suit to the display.
Guests may also enjoy learning about Ohioans’ involvement in lesser-known sports, including roller derby — a sport in which a player scores points by lapping opposing skaters.
Amy Spears is a founding member of Ohio Roller Derby, which will soon embark on its 14th season at the Ohio Expo Center in Columbus. She and her teammates contributed jerseys, helmets, skates and a flag emblazoned with initials for “The Ohio Roller Girls,” the team’s original name.
Spears said they’re privileged to be among such elite company in the exhibit.
“The most impactful thing to me is knowing who we’re among,” Spears said. “It’s great being able to represent our sport, especially since roller derby can be regarded as a niche sport.”
Other highlights include information about:
— Ohio State University wrestler Kyle Snyder, the youngest wrestler to ever win a world championship, an NCAA championship and an Olympic gold medal in the same year.
— The Toledo Troopers, an all-female professional football team regarded as the “winningest” team in pro football history — with seven consecutive National Women’s Football League championships from 1971 to 1977.
— Branch Rickey — a Stockdale, Ohio, native — who brought Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
— The music and history of the Ohio State University Marching Band.
— The founding of the National Football League on Sept. 17, 1920, in Canton, Ohio.
— Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. The exhibit includes a 1936 Olympics guide book written in German; images of Owens in high school and at Ohio State University; and an oral history shared by his daughters.
Curators also wanted to make the exhibit interactive by allowing guests to put their own personal stamp on it and try their hand at a number of activities.
Visitors can play basketball at a “wall of hoops,” record a victory dance to share with friends, run an obstacle course and record a “one-minute legends” story about their own personal sports achievements.
Logan said he expects the exhibit to have a wide appeal for both rabid and casual sports fans.
“We think it’s an exhibit that will have a lot of appeal and will help folks see history in a different light,” Logan said. “I think everyone in some way identifies with sports.”