- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

As a budding young artist, Blair Buswell visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame, marveled at the busts of its members and came away thinking, “What a lucky guy that is, to be able to sculpt the Hall of Fame heads.”

Now, he’s that lucky guy.

Buswell for more than two decades has sculpted about 70 bronze busts displayed in the Hall’s Enshrinement Gallery, including three among the class of 2008: former Washington Redskins Darrell Green and Art Monk and former New England Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett.

A teammate of quarterbacks Steve Young and Jim McMahon at Brigham Young University, Buswell’s skills as a running back were admittedly lacking. But he had considerable talents elsewhere. In 1982, Bill Walsh, then the coach of the San Francisco 49ers and a future Hall of Famer, came to BYU to speak at an awards banquet and noticed some of Buswell’s works, notably sculptures of McMahon and basketball star Danny Ainge.

Walsh was so impressed he asked Buswell if he would create sculptures of himself and 49ers owner Ed DeBartolo. Buswell flew to Youngstown, Ohio, to meet DeBartolo and mentioned how he would love to sculpt the Hall of Fame busts. A phone call later, Buswell was on his way to nearby Canton, and it wasn’t long until he completed his first bust for the Hall, that of coach Sid Gillman.

Buswell, 51, did one bust a year for two years before sharing the workload with Frank Worthington, who was then the head sculptor. Now Buswell has the job. With each bust, he said, he tries to achieve more than a simple image.

“I’m trying to go beyond getting a likeness or getting things in the right place,” he said from his studio in Pleasant Grove, Utah, between Salt Lake City and Provo. “I’m trying to get it to feel like the athlete, back when he played. I want it to feel like there’s life there, that there’s someone behind there, other than the eyes and ears in the right place.”

Even before he digs his hands into a hunk of clay, Buswell spends countless hours on each bust. Each year he goes to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii to meet and literally measure the newly elected players. He travels to their homes to get better acquainted and gets to know their families. Everyone’s input is welcome.

“I have to get the feeling of them,” he said. He takes pictures and shoots video from all angles and studies old photos from his subject’s playing days.

“We have to decide on their expression,” he said. “You have to age them back to when they played. The main thing is, when I leave, they have to feel comfortable with where I’m going, that when it’s unveiled, they’re not gonna gasp and go, ‘Who’s that?’”

Only recently did Buswell ask the Hall to reimburse his travel expenses.

“It had always been on my nickel,” he said. “This is important to me. If I’m gonna do it, I want to do it right.”

Monk, serious and reserved, wanted an expression of “concentration,” said Buswell. The affable, animated Green, on the other hand, insisted that his bust show him smiling. Which posed a problem. Buswell said, “because bronze teeth always look strange.” But Green prevailed.

“I tried to talk him out of that,” Buswell said. “It was a tough one for me to do. It was the biggest smile I’d ever done.”

Among others, Buswell has sculpted the busts of coaches Don Shula, Tom Landry, John Madden, the Redskins’ Joe Gibbs and Walsh. Shula, he said, “kept wanting to know if I captured his chin.” Gibbs was “just a great guy.” He did Young, his ex-teammate, and a former college opponent, Eric Dickerson. Buswell said Marcus Allen was nervous because he thought his face would be encased in plaster and he would have to breathe through straws stuck in his nose.

Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis “was not a fun guy to work with,” Buswell said. “He scowled at me, and then he wanted a bust with a big grin on it.” He met a pregnant Nicole Simpson during a visit with her husband, O.J. After her murder 10 years later, he got a phone call from police detectives. “You guys are really doing your homework,” he told them.

Buswell molds his models from water-based clay and uses a process known as “lost wax” (similar to the making of jewelry and dental crowns) before the molten bronze forms the final product. He has sculpted dozens of other sports likenesses, including those of Bear Bryant, Jack Nicklaus, Oscar Robertson and Mickey Mantle. He did actor Charlton Heston for an art museum in Kansas City and the National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax.

And, he is midway through a 14-year project - a wagon train that will stretch for a full city block in Omaha, Neb.

“The Hall of Fame is a lot of fun and it got me noticed, but it’s not all I do,” he said.

This time of year, however, it’s probably what he does best.

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