Joe Horrigan, Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, shows USA TODAY Sports some very unique vehicles and explains their ties to the sport of football.
CANTON, Ohio — Joe Horrigan got his first job in pro football when he was 13. And, except for three years in the Air Force and four in college, he’s been in the biz ever since.
“Football has been my life,” he says.
Horrigan’s choice of words — has been rather than is — conveys a certain sense of wistfulness. That’s because come June the executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame plans to retire from the place where he’s worked nearly all of his adult life.
“This sounds crazy, but I’ve had dinner with Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, George Halas and Don Hutson,” Horrigan tells USA TODAY Sports. “People hear that and they say, ‘How the hell old are you?’”
The answer is 67. In the epoch since he started at the Hall of Fame, at 25, his black mustache has morphed to a grey beard now well on its way to white. And he has emerged, by inclination and acclamation, as the National Football League’s de facto historian in residence.
His new book, The NFL Century, is due out this year in time for the league’s 100th season. But here’s a dirty little secret: This NFL historian is really a plant from the American Football League, the rival federation whose pitched battle with the NFL in the 1960s gave rise to the Super Bowl era.
Horrigan’s father, Jack, was the AFL’s public relations director in 1963 when he called upon the eldest of his nine children — Jeremiah, 14 and Joseph, 13 — to run draft choices a couple of blocks from the AFL’s New York headquarters on Fifth Avenue to the Waldorf Astoria, where his father would read the picks to a meager media assemblage of maybe half a dozen writers and radio guys.
“This wasn’t child labor,” Horrigan says. “This was my father giving his sons who were old enough a window into this crazy world of pro football.”
That world was especially crazy in an era when the NFL and AFL warred over dueling draft choices. The Buffalo Bills selected Cornell’s Pete Gogolak in the 12th round of that draft — held in late 1963, though actually the 1964 draft — and Gogolak would make history as pro football’s first soccer-style kicker, as it was then called. “Now,” Horrigan says, “it’s only-style kicker.”
The leagues competed for collegiate talent but mostly adhered to a gentlemen’s agreement not to raid each other’s veteran players — until 1966, when the New York Giants signed Gogolak from the Bills. The AFL retaliated by going after NFL stars and soon the leagues negotiated peace in the form of a phased-in merger.
That led to a common draft and an NFL-AFL world championship game that would come to be called the Super Bowl. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers won the first two. The AFL’s New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs won the next two. Then, with the merger fully in place, the AFL ceased to exist.
“People ask me how I’ll handle 50-some Super Bowls in my book,” Horrigan says. “Well, I’m not. I’m doing four — the first four, like four quarters of a game. In the first quarter, the NFL won. In the second quarter, the NFL won again. In the third quarter, the AFL came back. And in the fourth quarter the AFL tied it — and now it’s in perpetual overtime.”
Horrigan wishes he’d thought to keep the typewritten sheets with those draft choices. “But at 13,” he says, “I had as much interest in what was in those envelopes as the bellman” at the Waldorf.
A dozen years later Horrigan would begin work at the Hall, where gathering artifacts is a way of life. He’s spent decades chasing the miscellany of NFL history, such as the shoe that Bills kicker Steve Christie (a spiritual successor to Gogolak) wore when he booted a 32-yard field goal in overtime to win a 1993 playoff game that remains the greatest comeback in NFL annals (from 32 points down to the Houston Oilers).
Horrigan was in Denver in 2014 to collect the ball Peyton Manning threw to break the record for career TD passes. Horrigan was in the parking lot when he got a call: Could he bring the ball back for just a minute? Manning wanted a picture of himself and his wife with it.
Manning has been especially generous with donations to the Hall. “Peyton has a keen sense of history,” Horrigan says, “and his family’s place in it.”
Horrigan’s most recent major acquisition is the original Madden Cruiser, a Greyhound bus that was tricked out in 1987 for then-broadcaster John Madden to accommodate his famous fear of flying. Yes, the Hall collects vehicles, in addition to the standard fare of footballs and leather helmets.
There’s the 2008 chopper motorcycle custom-made for former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly by daredevil legend Evel Knievel and his son Robbie. And there’s a snazzy 1920 Hupmobile that looks as if Jay Gatsby might take it for a spin; the NFL was born at an owners’ meeting in an automobile showroom in Canton on August 20, 1920, and the story goes there weren’t enough chairs so some attendees sat on the running boards of a Hupmobile, just like the one in the Hall of Fame.
Horrigan started at the Hall in 1977, when it had just nine employees and little in the way of a research library. Today it has 61 employees and more than 40 million pages of documents, including two typewritten pages that Horrigan calls the NFL’s birth certificate — original minutes from the league’s founding meeting at that Canton car dealership.
The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center houses those 40 million pages plus 4 million images. Wilson, late owner of the Bills, was a major figure in Horrigan’s life long before Wilson made a landmark donation to the research center.
Horrigan’s father was the Bills’ beat writer for the Buffalo Evening News in the franchise’s early years before he moved his family to suburban New York to work for the AFL. Three years later, when Horrigan’s father was diagnosed with leukemia, Wilson brought him back to Buffalo as public relations director of the Bills.
“My father said, ‘I’ve got a death sentence,’ ” Horrigan says. “And Ralph said, ‘I’ll make sure you’re taken care of. And I’ll see that your kids go to college.’ ”
There’s an oversized photo hanging in Horrigan’s office with Wilson flanked by Bob Lustig, then the Bills’ general manager, and Horrigan’s father. All three are smiling widely. Horrigan thinks his father would also smile at the thought of his son writing a history of the NFL. His father, after all, was coauthor of The Other League, a hardcover history of the hardscrabble AFL.
For years Horrigan talked to Don Shula about donating his personal papers to the Hall of Fame. Shula’s 347 wins are the most for any coach in NFL history and he memorably coached the Miami Dolphins to 1972’s perfect season.
“If winning and perfection and longevity are the criteria,” Horrigan says, “he’s the best coach in NFL history.”
As it happens, Shula was coach of the powerhouse Baltimore Colts when they lost Super Bowl III. That day the Jets’ Matt Snell ran for 121 yards and a touchdown in an upset for the ages. Horrigan hasn’t confessed to Shula about playing a bit part in the AFL draft when the Jets selected Snell in the first round.
Shula, at last, agreed to donate his papers a few years ago. And a team from the Hall hauled it all away — well, almost all.
“The coaching books from his perfect season he’s going to hang onto for a while,” Horrigan says. “He has them in a safety deposit box. And I said, ‘Coach, we can be patient. We’ve waited a long time for this and we can wait a little more.’ ”
That day Shula’s wife, Mary Anne, brought out boxes and boxes filled with game plans and preparation sheets and diagrams, all in Shula’s own hand. Horrigan remembers Shula peeking at some of the pages and breaking into a small smile.
“And then the tears started forming at the corners of his eyes,” Horrigan says. “I mean, this is a guy looking at his life’s work.”
Horrigan figures future archivists won’t find treasures such as this because everything is on computers nowadays. He holds up an ordinary-looking notebook with a Dolphins logo on the cover.
“These little spiral notebooks look like he bought them in the team gift shop, like they were made for grade-school kids to keep their science notes in,” Horrigan says. “I’m glad he went to Catholic schools — thank you, Sister Mary Somebody — because he has beautiful handwriting.”
Horrigan was a ball boy for the Bills in 1969 when he got sent to the airport to pick up James Harris, a rookie quarterback from Grambling State University. Today they are close friends.
“This is one of those stories,” Horrigan says, “where if it was a made-for-TV movie, it would be corny.”
One of the chapters in Horrigan’s book will be about Harris, who was the first black quarterback in modern pro football history to start on opening day.
A year earlier, for the Denver Broncos, Marlin Briscoe was the first black quarterback of the modern era to start a game, though his opportunity came because others got hurt or benched. Harris, meanwhile, beat out big-name veterans Jack Kemp and Tom Flores in training camp. Still, for all of that, Harris had a ready reminder of how fleeting his job under center could be: Briscoe, who’d been let go by the Broncos, was now one of his receivers.
The Bills opened the season against Joe Namath and the Jets, fresh off their Super Bowl victory. The big story was the debut of a rookie running back by the name of O.J. Simpson. Harris got hurt that day and didn’t start again that season. He started only twice the next season and then the Bills released him. He was out of football for a year when the Los Angeles Rams called. And there his prodigious talents blossomed as he became the first black quarterback to make the Pro Bowl and first to win an NFL playoff game.
Harris would go on to front-office roles for several NFL teams and that’s how Horrigan and Harris crossed paths again. Then, almost a decade ago, Horrigan got a call from Harris, who said he and Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, were thinking of starting a hall of fame for players and coaches from historically black colleges, many who never had a chance to play or coach in the NFL.
The Black College Football Hall of Fame was founded in 2009. Harris and Williams are among its inductees. This new Hall held its induction ceremonies in Atlanta but had no permanent home. So Horrigan came up with an idea: Why not house it on the grounds of the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
That’s scheduled to happen in 2020, with an annual game between historically black colleges debuting in Canton as early as next season. Horrigan considers all this a capstone to his career.
This summer it will be 50 years since Shack and Joe, as they call each other, met for the first time — a rookie QB who would soon make history and a ball boy who’d someday record that history.
“We joke about it all the time,” Horrigan says. “Shack likes to tell people, ‘When I came out of Grambling, the Buffalo Bills thought so much of me that they drafted me in the eighth round — and sent the ball boy to the airport to pick me up.’”