Keeper of the flame: How Joe Horrigans meticulous research proved vital to the NFLs story

Keeper of the flame: How Joe Horrigans meticulous research proved vital to the NFLs story

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Story courtesy of The Athletic

When Joe Horrigan arrived at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, the museum’s budget was so tight its executive director had to submit a two-page memo to the board seeking permission to sell his manual typewriter to buy an electric model.

Hired as a 26-year-old curator/researcher, Horrigan inherited just three filing cabinets of pro football documents spanning more than eight decades of the game’s history. His bookshelves, set aside for NFL periodicals of the day, sat as empty as the New England Patriots’ trophy case.

The Hall of Fame — all 19,000 square feet of it — was a regional attraction. Young players did not yet aspire to be immortalized here. Forty-two years ago, the most recognized gold blazers in America were worn by Century 21 real estate agents, not members of the first 14 HOF classes.

Horrigan, the son of a legendary American Football League public relations director, took the job anyway. The pay wasn’t great, but the coffee was free. He joined an army of nine employees.

A natural-born storyteller, Horrigan believed in the mission and the future of the NFL.

“I knew there were so many things I could do,” said Horrigan, a Buffalo native. “The only thing that stopped previous people here was a lack of manpower and budget. We were in the process of our first expansion, and I thought we would grow as the game grew.”

A week ago, Horrigan took a visitor on a brief tour of the sprawling 118,000-square-foot facility that’s now universally acknowledged as the Louvre of pro football. The venue crackled with energy, interactive exhibits and a 4D theater where holographic images of legendary players and coaches deliver inspirational speeches. There’s enough cutting-edge technology to keep even millennials from reaching for their iPhones except to take pictures.

But it’s the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center that represents Horrigan’s greatest joy. He points with pride to 40 million pages of football documents and 6 million images archived within its walls. There are Don Shula’s handwritten game notes, Paul Brown’s play diagrams and a ticket from Super Bowl I with a face value of $6.

Horrigan grabbed a card from a table that had been taken to the podium at the 2000 NFL Draft.

“This one happens to say, ‘Round Six: The compensatory selection of the New England Patriots is quarterback Tom Brady,’ ” Horrigan said. “He was the 199th player picked that year.”

Horrigan, 67, who retires June 1 as the Hall’s executive director, will leave his post as the Tom Brady of pro football historians. His longevity and commitment to his craft are unrivaled in the field. While few fans recognize his name or face, nobody has done more to bring the story of pro football to life.

Through painstaking research, an eye for colorful detail and frequent interaction with the game’s immortals, Horrigan has helped foster football’s popularity. He’s achieved it in a variety of capacities, always in an unassuming fashion. Horrigan has filled reporters’ notebooks with juicy anecdotes. He’s patiently walked HOF finalists and inductees through the process of enshrinement. He’s shepherded the facility, opened in 1963, through multiple expansions and enabled it to become the first major sports hall of fame to earn accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums.

Nowadays, the HOF boasts more than 60 employees and a multimillion-dollar budget. But in a sport that trumpets a “next man up” mantra, those closely associated with the Hall aren’t sure who can fill Horrigan’s void.

“He has the facts, he has the data, he has the stories,” said Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton, who hosts a weekly HOF-related talk show with Horrigan on SiriusXM satellite radio. “I don’t know what the Hall of Fame is going to do to replace him. I don’t know how many people it will take to replace what he does for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

Peter King, a Hall of Fame selector and NBC Sports football analyst, calls Horrigan “the keeper of the flame.”

“Everyone is replaceable because no one lives forever, but I just don’t know of a person who comes close to having the significant knowledge of everything related to the history of pro football that Joe Horrigan has,” King said. “He’s the guy who more than any single person alive is basically in charge of making sure pro football’s history is told the right way.”

A week ago, Horrigan sat at his office desk reminiscing about a lifetime spent in the game.

His first job in pro football came at age 13, running draft choices several blocks from AFL headquarters in New York to a hotel, where his father, Jack, read them to reporters covering the rival league. Other teenage duties included serving as a Bills ball boy and compiling weekly press clippings from around the AFL.

“I knew who (Chicago Bears patriarch) George Halas was and I didn’t like him at the time because he didn’t like the AFL,” said Horrigan, one of 10 children in a tightknit family.

The walls in Horrigan’s office are bare. The desk drawers sit empty. Four decades of mementos, reference material and institutional knowledge packed away and shipped out.

Horrigan will continue to assist the Hall for special projects such as next year’s centennial NFL season. He also will oversee the creation of a permanent residence for the Black College Football Hall of Fame within the Canton shrine.

But his day-to-day work is done. Horrigan and his wife, Mary Ann, a nurse who manages wound-healing clinics across the country, have spent a significant portion of their marriage traveling apart while raising two sons. They once ran into each other at an out-of-town airport hustling to make connecting flights.

“I really felt it was time,” Horrigan said of his decision to retire. “The timing was good not only for me but for the organization. There really is not one reason I’m doing it and there will never be a perfect time because the Hall is always undergoing changes and growth.

“To quote Marv Levy, ‘When you’re thinking about retiring, you probably already have.’ ”

From his office desk, Horrigan has supplied critical historical nuggets and nuance for media members, NFL team public relations staffs and the league office. Tony Grossi, a Hall of Fame selector and ESPN Cleveland football analyst, likens him to “an oracle,” one who provides perspective and interprets bylaws for Hall voters as they mull the credentials of finalists.

In 2005, Horrigan received an unusual phone call from ESPN personality Chris Berman, who serves as the emcee for the annual enshrinement ceremony.

Berman wanted to know the last player to successfully convert a drop kick in an NFL game. Horrigan said he thought it was Ray “Scooter” McLean for the Bears in the 1941 championship game, but he wanted to check his facts before offering a definitive answer.

The ESPN broadcaster didn’t give Horrigan a reason for requesting the odd bit of information, but told him to watch the season finale between the Patriots and Miami Dolphins. Berman knew quarterback Doug Flutie was capable of executing the old-fashioned one-point kick, which entails dropping the ball to the ground and booting it off the hop between the uprights.

Berman said he relayed the intel to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who loves football history. He also passed along Horrigan’s pertinent information about McLean and the 1941 championship game.

Coach and player discussed the drop kick, and on Jan. 2, 2006, Belichick sent Flutie on the field in the dying moments of his final regular-season game to attempt it.

“After the game, reporters are asking Bill if he knew when the last time someone made a drop kick and going into typical Belichickian mode, he said, matter-of-factly, ‘Oh, that was in 1941,’ ” Berman said laughing.

“That was Joe providing the information without ever asking why I needed it. He’s one of the most selfless people I have ever met. He has an encyclopedic mind, and he’s willing to share that information for the good of the game.”

The one thing still working overtime in Horrigan’s office is a paper shredder.

“I’m getting rid of all the evidence before I go,” he said with a mischievous grin.

Don’t let him fool you. The old historian won’t stop chronicling the game just because the nameplate on the office door is changing. He will spend part of this summer promoting his new book, “NFL Century: The One-Hundred-Year Rise of America’s Greatest Sports League.”

For Horrigan, it’s not enough to gather accurate facts and figures on leather-helmeted, defunct teams like the Providence Steam Roller, Pottsville Maroons and Dayton Triangles. His father had been a sportswriter in Buffalo before transitioning to public relations. Horrigan learned early in life the value of hooking readers with clever observations and insight.

In writing the history of the Steam Roller, he wanted his audience to appreciate what it was like for the Providence football team to play inside a narrow stadium built for cycling, which was all the rage in the 1920s:

 “This wooden track, steeply banked around the turns and flatter on the straight-aways, enclosed just enough ground to fit a football field, with some slight problems. The track, equipped with seats and a bench for the players on each side, ran so close to the sidelines that players near the boundary line frequently caromed into the front row of seats.”

Horrigan’s role at the HOF required him to perform many duties, ones that were often more stressful around the time of enshrinement voting and ceremonies. Professional wedding planners don’t have as many tales of good intentions gone sideways.

Take for instance the time Horrigan was tasked with notifying tight end John Mackey of his 1992 enshrinement.

Nowadays, the final HOF selection process, held annually on the eve of the Super Bowl, is a made-for-television event. Finalists are flown to the site of the game and sequestered in rooms. The ones who don’t earn enough votes are informed by phone. The new inductees learn of their inclusion by a knock on the door from Hall president David Baker.

In the old days, the process was more chaotic because the finalists were spread out all over the country. After select media members voted on a new class, HOF staffers scrambled to reach the winners before the news leaked out.

Mackey had not told anyone at the Hall he was flying to Hawaii on the day of the announcement. This was years before wireless and text messaging became en vogue.

“I finally figured out what hotel he was staying at and left word with the front desk,” Horrigan recalled. “But as news got out, others were doing the same thing. When John checks in, the kid at the counter hands him all these pink slips and John says, ‘What’s this?’

“And the kid says, ‘You haven’t heard? You’ve been indicted.’ Poor John says, ‘What did I do?’ ”

In 2006, legendary coach and television analyst John Madden asked Horrigan to call him when the final HOF votes were tabulated. Madden won enshrinement, but chaos ensued as Horrigan tried to reach him during a television production meeting for the next day’s Super Bowl telecast.

“Members of the production team told him he was in, but John didn’t believe it because he was waiting on a call from me,” Horrigan said. “I finally get through to him and there’s all this noise and commotion and John says, ‘I can’t hear whoever this is and I’ve got to hang up now because I’m waiting for the Hall of Fame to call. He hangs up to me.

“So he comes down to where we are having the press conference and he immediately throws me under the bus. He says, ‘Horrigan said he was going to call me and he never did.’ ”

Madden is one of Horrigan’s biggest fans. A year ago, he donated his famous “Madden Cruiser” touring bus to the Hall of Fame.

On enshrinement day, Horrigan worked behind the scenes to assist ESPN’s telecasts and ensure the programs ran smoothly. He’s heard many acceptance speeches over the years. One of the most memorable came from diminutive receiver Tommy McDonald, who turned his 1998 appearance into a vaudeville routine.

“Move over, Ronald McDonald, there’s another McDonald in Canton,” the late receiver shouted.

McDonald took his priceless bust and twice playfully tossed it in the air, inducing gasps from the crowd and panic among the HOF staff.

“I about had a heart attack,” Horrigan said. “I am backstage and when he came back, Tommy said, ‘What did you think when I threw my bust in the air?’

“I said, ‘Tommy, the first time you threw it, I said a prayer hoping you would catch it. The second time, I said a prayer hoping it would land on your head.’ ”

The HOF selectors inside a conference room at the Atlanta Convention Center rose as one on Feb. 2 to applaud Horrigan’s lifetime achievement. The day marked the last time he would assist journalists in the voting process.

The media members, who had learned of Horrigan’s retirement weeks earlier, wrote personal letters of thanks, which were bound into a booklet.

A similar scene played out several weeks later at the NFL Annual Meeting in Phoenix as the league’s owners recognized the executive director’s work.

On Thursday, the Hall honored Horrigan with a retirement dinner complete with testimonials and a proclamation from the Canton mayor.

For a historian accustomed to discussing the legacies of other prominent football figures, the past few months have brought an awkward role reversal.

“Joe is such a selfless person and his road to retirement is getting a little long for him,” said Pete Fierle, the HOF’s chief of staff and vice president of communications.  “It’s almost getting to the point where it’s embarrassing.”

The years have flown for Horrigan, who came to Canton fresh from a four-year stint in the Air Force and still working to complete a degree he started at Canisius College in Buffalo.

He speaks about the thrill of meeting Marion Motley, who in his father’s eyes “walked on water,” and getting the chance to dine with Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, Don Hutson and Halas. He cherished every opportunity to be in the company of the game’s greats and squirreled away vignettes to share with readers and football followers.

“Anyone can look at stats and say, ‘Look at Don Hutson and how dominant of a receiver he was compared to others and how crazy Curly Lambeau was with the passing game,’ but then you need to know real stories,” King observed. “Joe could deliver those stories to help make your case about anything.”

Added Lofton: “The personal accounts and relationships he’s developed with players, coaches and general managers is something I marvel at every Wednesday when we tape our show. I tell him there is nobody on the planet that knows as much about the Hall of Fame or Hall of Famers.”

Not everything about the HOF’s evolution has been smooth. There have been controversies along the way, and ambitious plans for a Hall of Fame Villagehave hit a financial snag. A bid to co-host an NFL Draft fell through with Cleveland now going it alone in 2021. These issues, however, are outside of Horrigan’s sphere of influence.

Beyond the expanding number of exhibits and artifacts — less than 1 percent of the Hall’s memorabilia is displayed — Horrigan highlights the growing connection between the HOF and current athletes.

Players recognize its significance. They want to be fitted for a gold blazer and ring. They talk of having their accomplishments enshrined here. That wasn’t always the case in 1977.

“As we built our own credibility, the players began to adopt belief in the Hall of Fame,” Horrigan said. “They wanted to be represented here. They wanted to be thought of as potential Hall of Famers. Now, it’s hard to watch a game without hearing a broadcaster saying, ‘That kid is going to Canton someday.’”

Horrigan’s career started in the Hall. Where it ends up is for others to decide. For now, he will spend more time at the family’s summer retreat on Chautauqua Lake in New York.

His father’s industry helped lead to the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. His own enterprise has enriched our understanding of that union and so many other momentous events in pro football.

“He took a passion and a love and he did it to the best of his ability,” Fierle said. “He did it in a way that turned him into the world’s foremost historian on the history of professional football.”

The Hall of Fame must soon name a new executive director. The title “keeper of the flame” remains Horrigan’s for the foreseeable future.

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