The seemingly boundless generosity of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson ascended to another level Monday, when Benson pledged two gifts totaling $11 million to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It's the largest gift by any individual in the 51-year history of the Hall, and will be used for a dual purpose.
Hall of Fame president David Baker approached Benson about a $10 million proposal for the Hall of Fame Village Master Plan, which was approved Oct. 30, and the Saints owner responded positively within days. And Benson added that he would donate an additional $1 million to the Hall of Fame's Legends Landing Program.
"This is a donation that I feel very strongly about," Benson said. "I have taken great pride in the recovery and renaissance of my home city, New Orleans, not only prior to but, more importantly, post Katrina.
"We have done great things in our city and today we can proudly present New Orleans as a city that is a role model to other communities. We are proud of that. So when approached to make a donation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, I did not think long at all about why we should help.
"Canton is the birthplace of football. Football has very direct and strong connections to New Orleans. The game of football has served as a positive beacon in our city. It has given our citizens hope in tough, trying times. So football is very important, and the place that honors the birth of the game and honors the greats that have played the game – like our very own Rickey Jackson and Willie Roaf – is not only important to me, but important to our city."
The $10 million gift, designated for the Hall of Fame Village Master Plan, is earmarked for the immediate renovation of what has been known as Fawcett Stadium. The venue, which hosts the Hall of Fame's annual enshrinement ceremony and the NFL/Hall of Fame Game that kicks off each NFL season, will be renamed "Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium." Renovation is scheduled to begin following next summer's enshrinement ceremony and game at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
The master plan for Hall of Fame Village includes a sports and entertainment complex, a high-end hotel and conference center, a center of athletic performance and safety, a youth football center and playing fields, an institute for integrity and officiating, a coaches university, an academy of corporate excellence along with thematic restaurants, retail and attractions for NFL fans, like a family football experience.
The $1 million gift is earmarked for the Hall of Fame's Legends Landing Program, a mixed-use residence that includes room for Hall of Famers and former NFL players.
"The recently announced plans for the Hall of Fame Village are very impressive," Benson said. "We, as football fans, will be excited and proud to have a central spot to celebrate our game and, as owners and teams, proud to have a place we call our home to honor our heroes past and present.
"While recognition for a gift like this is nice, it is not the point. The point is understanding what is behind the plans of the Hall of Fame Village for me, and once I learned them, I wanted to play a role. As in any business I have been involved in, whether it is the football business or the banking business or automobile business, it is important to me that I put more into it than I take out, and I feel this small part that I am playing here is my way of saying, 'Thank You,' to the great game of football."
As could be expected, Benson wasn't the only person expressing gratitude Monday.
"Tom Benson's leadership has been instrumental in the NFL's success and growth for nearly 30 years as owner of the Saints, including more than 20 years as chairman of the league's Finance Committee," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. "His generous gift to the Hall of Fame will forever link Tom's legacy to the game he loves and to the legends who helped build it."
Said Baker: "Tom Benson's legacy to this game is indelible. His deep passion and unwavering promotion of the game's values are perfectly aligned with the Hall of Fame and its mission. His generous gift will help honor the heroes and legends of the game, preserve its history forever, promote its positive values to generations of young fans and families that will shape our future, and to celebrate excellence."
The Hall of Fame gift is but the latest philanthropic endeavor by the Saints' owner.
Additionally, he and his wife, Gayle, have funded the building of a football stadium located on the University of Incarnate Word campus, known as Gayle and Tom Benson Field; he donated the Benson Memorial Library at Central Catholic; he and Mrs. Benson established the Brother Nicholas, S.C. Building Endowment to support Brother Martin High in New Orleans; and they supported the construction of an on-campus stadium at Tulane, where the Green Wave play on Benson Field.
Also, Benson worked closely with the Ochsner Foundation Hospital with the establishment of the Tom and Gayle Benson Cancer Center, a $20 million treatment complex, and he and Mrs. Benson committed $5 million to the Team Gleason House for Innovative Living at the New Orleans St. Margaret's facility, in support of former Saints safety Steve Gleason and this Team Gleason organization, which helps provide people with ALS and other debilitating conditions an environment where they can live productive lives with freedom and independence.
"When I bought the Saints in 1985, I would have never dreamed how much the game of football would have impacted my life personally, but more importantly, it has impacted the city of New Orleans, our fans, and generations of people and has served as a beacon of hope during tough times," Benson said.
"I cherish the role our team plays in our community. It is an honor for me to have my name associated with the Pro Football Hall of Fame and it is an honor to play a small role in the advancement of this project."