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Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame

Joe Horrigan helped make football shrine great

This is part of a series highlighting this year’s class of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The 13-member class will be inducted Nov. 7. Tickets are available at GBSHOF.com.

Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker tells a story about a call he received early this year, shortly after it was announced that Joe Horrigan was retiring after 42 years of service to the football shrine in Canton, Ohio.

The message was from Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who with alarm in his voice wanted to know: Why are you firing him? We can’t let him go!

Baker assured Madden that Horrigan’s departure was entirely voluntary.

But the reaction from the former Oakland Raiders coach and famed broadcaster showed how valued Horrigan is to a legion of football greats.

Horrigan, a 67-year-old Buffalo native, has dedicated his adult life celebrating pro football at the sport’s renowned museum. Now Horrigan himself is getting the hall of fame treatment, as one of the 13 members of the 2019 Class for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

Horrigan was hired as curator for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. His titles have changed over the years, and he closed his tenure as executive director. For almost all his tenure, he has been in charge of overseeing the museum itself and with coordinating the annual selection process.

The pro football hall was a modest museum when Horrigan joined it, in the midst of an expansion that saw it grow from 34,000 square feet to 55,000 square feet. Today it is 118,000 square feet and growing. It had nine full-time employees when Horrigan was hired. Now it has 57. And it attracts more than 225,000 visitors annually.

“The growth of the hall has paralleled the growth of the sport,” Horrigan said. “When you think about the NFL in 1970 when the two leagues merged, the NFL and the AFL, we’re talking about family-owned and -operated small businesses. It just didn’t seem like it would ever grow to this billion-dollar industry. It’s so far from what it was even in 1977.”

“When I got there, it had only been open since 1963,” Horrigan said. “It was a young organization. There wasn’t a really strong collection. It was more of an attraction than a museum. When I got there it was on an upward growth.”

Today the Canton museum is a modern, interactive attraction.

“Our hall of fame isn’t just buried in the sepia-toned treasures of the past,” Horrigan said. “It includes that. But it captures the dynamism of the sport. Bright lights, sound, colors, NFL Films exploding on screens. It’s a great museum. We’re the only major hall of fame that’s accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. Only 3 percent of all the museums in the country have that accreditation. We’re very proud of that.”

Horrigan, a Frontier High School graduate who served in the Air Force, followed his father’s footsteps in pursuing a career in sports administration.

Jack Horrigan was a sportswriter at The Buffalo Evening News, then served as publicity director for the AHL’s Buffalo Bisons, public relations director for the American Football League and vice president of public relations for the Buffalo Bills from 1966 to '73.

Joe Horrigan earned his first paycheck as a 13-year-old, when he and his older brother, Jeremiah, ran cards with the names of the picks in the AFL draft from the league's headquarters in New York City to a nearby hotel to inform the media of the selections.

The Pro Football Writers of America annually hands out an award to a person who is exceptional in helping writers do their job, and it’s named after Jack Horrigan, who died of leukemia in '73. Joe Horrigan won the award in June.

Asked what his father would say about his induction, Horrigan replied with a smile, “The first thing he would have said is your mother is proud.”

Horrigan’s favorite exhibit in the pro football hall is the holographic theater.

“It’s called Game for Life Theater,” he said. “Joe Namath is your holographic host. But it’s not about Xs and Os. It’s about what pro football teaches us in life lessons. Jim Kelly is a part of it, talking about his battle with cancer. Curtis Martin talks about coming up from the toughest part of the city (in Pittsburgh). Warren Moon talks about overcoming racial obstacles. Alan Page talks about the value of education and becoming a Supreme Court justice. It’s done in an entertaining fashion.”

Among Horrigan’s most memorable hall of fame ceremonies is the speech given by exuberant Tommy McDonald in 1998. McDonald grabbed the bronze bust of himself and threw it in the air – twice.

When McDonald walked off stage, he asked Horrigan what he thought.

Replied Horrigan: “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.”

NBC Sports columnist Peter King, a  hall of fame voter, calls Horrigan “the internet of football” for his encyclopedic knowledge of pro football.

Horrigan has a new book out titled, “NFL Century: The Rise of America’s Greatest Sports League.”

Horrigan does not have a private collection of football memorabilia. With all his memories, he says he doesn't need one.

“I joke when I say I’ve had lunch with George Halas, Bronco Nagurski, Red Grange and Don Hutson,” he said. “And people look at me and say you can’t be that old. I say no, they were very old, I was very young. But those are the memories I cherish, along with all the notes I’ve received from people like that.”

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