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Petaluma shop owner helped change memorabilia business

Rob Hemphill just opened National Sports Memorabilia in the Petaluma Village Outlets, but his business has been thriving in the Bay Area for 29 years. He’s worked with superstars like John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Pete Rose and Muhammad Ali to supply fans with autographs and memorabilia. He still works with Joe Montana Jerry Rice, Derek Carr and Fred Biletnikoff among others.

Everything started when Hemphill went to a baseball card show in 1988; his mother had just found his old card collection in the attic.

While at the show, Hemphill saw an opportunity. The baseball market was flooded with cards and autographed baseballs, but football, with its growing popularity, barely had a market at all.

“I saw there really wasn’t a right type of football to sign out there,” Hemphill recalled.

So in 1990, he created the white panel football — footballs made with a section as white as paper to enhance autographs — with Wilson sports. He also landed his first big-name business partner, Jerry Rice.

Hemphill continues to work with some of the biggest names in sports. He’s already brought Raider greats Willie Brown and Cliff Branch to the outlet mall for live autograph signings, and he plans to bring more stars to town.

Hemphill first contacted Rice, the former San Francisco 49er who was a huge star in 1990, through old-fashioned networking. His business associate was a close friend of Rice. Another fresh idea from Hemphill helped, too.

“Instead of having to go to the public show, because a lot of people all over the country can’t travel to go see Jerry Rice, people can send in their items to me at the warehouse,” Hemphill said. “We’ll tag them up and get them autographed by Jerry, or people can order the merchandise from us and we’ll get it autographed.”

Hemphill called it a private signing and the term stuck industry wide.

For the first private signings, Rice would sign about 3,500 autographs, many of them on the new white panel football from Wilson. Called the “Robby” football, it was named, of course, after Hemphill.

The Robby, along with another first by Hemphill, working with Wilson to mass produce replica Super Bowl footballs, solidified Hemphill’s business. Known nationally as National Sports Distributors, the company started to ship memorabilia across the country.

He’s also created the white panel NBA basketball and the mini NBA basketball with Spalding, and an autograph-friendly boxing glove with Everlast.

Hemphill repairs flat autographed footballs, too. He said it took him 200 tries to learn the proper technique. Wilson, the sporting goods giant, sends its customers Hemphill’s way.

“I’ve enjoyed making products that might be needed for the marketplace or refining things, and I enjoy the creativity,” Hemphill said. “You find a problem and you fix it, you know?”

When he worked with Muhammad Ali, the sensational boxing and pop-culture icon who was arguably the most significant sports figure of the 20th century, Hemphill’s creativity was on point.

His idea was for Ali to sign a ring-side bell; the kind that rings between rounds in boxing. He called the bell’s manufacturer, who happened to also make cowbells.

“He literally said, ‘I’ll go out to the barn and see what I have,’ ” said Hemphill, who made numerous phone calls to find the bell maker. In a few days, Hemphill received word the barn had enough parts for 250 bells. Hemphill took them all.

For Ali to sign the bells, Hemphill positioned a bean bag chair right in front of Ali, at signing height. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. The bell nestled in, and the Champ could angle it for a perfect signature.

But Ali was still Ali. And the bell he signed won his approval.

“Once that bell would ring, he would just jump up,” Hemphill said. “Here he’s really slow with his Parkinson’s, but he’d jump up and put his hands up, like he’s all ready to go. Having fun, but that was part of his personality.”

According to Hemphill, of all the sports stars he has worked with, Ali was the biggest. He also worked multiple public shows with Ali.

“The public comes to see all the athletes. All the athletes come to see Muhammad Ali,” Hemphill said. “They would swarm to try to get to Muhammad Ali. We literally sometimes had to set up barriers to keep the athletes away.”

Athletes from different eras came together on another Hemphill project, but this time it was a Hall of Fame spectrum of San Francisco 49ers.

Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Dave Wilcox were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. Hemphill’s idea was to get all Hall of Fame 49er players in one room for autographs.

John Henry Johnson, Bob St. Clair, Hugh McElhenny, Jimmy Johnson, Ronnie Lott, Joe Perry, Joe Montana, YA Tittle, Leo Nomellini and Dave Wilcox signed 500 49er helmets. Hemphill gave each player jerseys as a gift, and they signed those, too.

“For them, it was like a reunion, it was fun,” Hemphill said.

Hemphill’s latest project involves more 49er legends.

In partnership with Montana, Hemphill obtained every available No. 16 seat-back from demolished Candlestick Park, the former home of the 49ers, and he’s selling them with custom autographs from Montana, Dwight Clark, Rice and Steve Young.

“We started with 2,500 seat-backs, and we’ve gone through about half of them,” Hemphill said.

He keeps signed and unsigned seat-backs at National Sports Memorabilia, along with a display of autographed footballs, jerseys, helmets, plaques, photos and other memorabilia. There’s also merchandise without a signature, for when football greats like Cliff Branch and Willie Brown visit the shop to sign autographs.

“At this time, it would be a lot of the retired 49ers and retired Raiders, because that’s what my history has been in,” Hemphill said. ”But we’ll probably be bringing in some baseball players as well.”

Hemphill has a lot going on, but he has some help. His wife, Joan Barakett, along with their two sons, Tyler and Justin, work in the family business. Hemphill and Barakett were engaged when Hemphill’s baseball cards resurfaced. When Tyler and Justin were young, Hemphill wouldn’t give them any information about the athletes they met, other than their name.

“I wanted them to draw their own conclusions,” he said.

Hemphill’s personable approach has led to solid, long-standing relationships with huge stars. He still works with Rice, his first partner, and Montana even asked Hemphill to keep some of the superstar’s stuff. Hemphill has some of Montana’s prized possessions, including two Indycar Championship trophies.

“It’s always just been a handshake,” Hemphill said. “I always have said, if you want to keep working with me, that’s great, I want to keep working with you, that’s great. So you just keep working together, and you know that you can trust each other.”

Montana’s parents used to visit Hemphill’s business, just to hang out. They would sometimes stay for an hour or more.

“It all comes down to relationships,” said Hemphill. “And that’s the way it’s always been.”