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Mr. Hall of Fame, Joe Horrigan, says goodbye

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Historian Joe Horrigan picks favorite memorabilia from Hall of Fame (1:28)

Pro Football Hall of Fame historian Joe Horrigan takes us through some of his favorite items in the Hall before his retirement. (1:28)

CANTON, Ohio -- On June 1, 1977, Joe Horrigan was fresh off a four-year stint in the Air Force, a young husband and new father who had just had his mother co-sign for a loan so he could move to Ohio to start a new job.

A job he wasn't quite sure about -- "I told someone in my family I was going to be a curator, and they said, 'Why? You don't know anything about lawns'" -- that would pay him $10,500 in that first year. A job he would have for the next 42 years as he became professional football's unofficial official historian.

This June 1 is Horrigan's last day as the Pro Football Hall of Fame's executive director, and while he will still work on a project or two for the Hall in the months and years ahead, someone else will occupy his office on the second floor of the Hall's main building. The Hall's growing campus now houses 40,000 football "artifacts," as Horrigan calls them, 6 million photographs and roughly 40 million documents in its collection.

"I wasn't the caretaker," Horrigan said, "but I would have happily taken care of the lawn if they wanted me to."

NBC's Peter King, a longtime member of the Hall of Fame board of selectors, said of Horrigan: "I always consider Gil Brandt, who has been involved with the NFL in one form or other for 63 years, to know everything about everything in the NFL. He told me a few weeks ago: 'Joe's who you call if you want to know anything about football history. Whenever I want to know something about our history, I just think, I'll ask Joe.' I guess a lot of us in the business have at least one thing in common with Gil."

Growth of the Hall

On that June day just over four decades ago, Horrigan became the ninth full-time employee of a football museum that comprised all of three buildings, with most of its historical documents stuffed into three three-drawer file cabinets. The Pro Football Hall of Fame was still deciding what it wanted to be -- and what it could be.

"They were actually nailing some of the things to the wall -- I wish I were kidding -- but I remember being nervous, because I didn't know the people or what exactly what it was going to be; they didn't know either," Horrigan said. "They needed somebody to organize this thing and build the collection. I was management from day one. A new fish in very small pond. We had no money."

Since those early days, of which Horrigan said, "We had buildings, but not much in the collection to put in the buildings,'' he has crisscrossed the country, spent countless hours on the phone, sent hundreds of emails and letters, and sat down with families hesitant to part with objects they consider heirlooms -- all in an effort to secure artifacts from the sport's past as well as footballs, helmets, jerseys and other items from record setters.

The Hall also has grown. The staff now includes 57 full-time employees, 100 part-timers and nearly 150 volunteers. And from its humble beginning of three buildings, the campus now encompasses 100 acres.

The process has been an adventure of sorts.

After Peyton Manning set the career record for touchdown passes in Denver, Horrigan secured the record-setting football and already was in the parking lot, preparing to return to the airport, when he received a call. Manning wanted a photo with the ball, so could he please come back inside the stadium.

"I've carried more footballs on airplanes than maybe any man alive, and they do fit under the seat in front of you," Horrigan said.

One of the final acquisitions Horrigan helped make for the Hall included what he calls his favorite items in the museum's collection. The family of Edward "Dutch" Sternaman, a former player, coach and co-owner of the Chicago Bears, donated its comprehensive collection of original documents, including accounting ledgers, handwritten notes, correspondence, photos, game programs, play-by-play charts, coaching diagrams and other items that chronicle the first decade of the NFL and the Bears.

The collection also had original notes, letters and legal documents for the signing of Red Grange and the barnstorming tour that featured Grange and helped make pro football a national interest. But acquiring the documents took a little more than simply asking for them.

"When I first met with the family, in person, I got as far as the living room. His daughter wouldn't let me go to the basement; she brought things to me,'' Horrigan said. "Just so protective of her father, that no one was going take advantage of his history."

Football is family

Horrigan certainly knew of the NFL before he arrived at the Hall; he was aware of the league and its most prominent figures when he started his new job. His father, Jack, was a former sportswriter as well as a longtime media relations executive with the Buffalo Bills and the AFL.

And Joe Horrigan had spent a significant part of his childhood around the Bills, especially in the franchise's AFL years. His first "job" in football was 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 Fifth Avenue headquarters in New York City to the Waldorf Astoria hotel, where a small contingent of media was waiting for the information.

"My dad didn't drive, so he was happy when my brother and I could drive so we could get him to work," Horrigan said. "We'd go to the games, sit in the stands, while he would work. I was pretty sure that job wasn't going to be something I wanted to do, but I loved to write and I loved the game, so I guess I found my place.

"I had a five-year plan [at the Hall]: I was going to finish my school here, get my [college degree]. And I did -- I went at night ... the five-year plan was a verbal plan, something I said out loud sometimes," he said with a laugh. "I was expecting someone to come along and say, 'OK, now we want you to do this instead.' But that never happened."

It has instead been a 42-year plan -- and one that will continue in some ways as Horrigan works not only on the Black College Football Hall of Fame's new permanent home on the facility's campus, but also on the celebration of the NFL's 100th season and his book "NFL Century: The One-Hundred-Year Rise of America's Greatest Sports League," which is due out in August.

What's next

Horrigan has made no specific plans for the months and years ahead, but he will travel with his wife, Mary Ann. "We don't really plan that either," Horrigan is quick to add, while offering another story from a lifetime full of them.

"This is an example,'' Horrigan said. "For years, we wanted to go to Montreal, never been to Montreal, so we decide to go; few days before we're going to go, we get this thing about Alaska, so we go to Alaska instead. Next year, we're going to Montreal -- again -- but we ended up in Nova Scotia and we're both accusing the other of wanting to go to Nova Scotia. So, Year 3, let's finally go to Montreal; that's when we ended up in Honduras. Year 4, we're really going to Montreal, and we get there and decided it was really Quebec City we wanted to go to. I think that's how retirement will look, and I embrace it."

The Hall's doors will open on June 2, football fans from all over the map will file through and the museum's volunteers will be ready to snap a few group shots on a phone or two when asked or answer a long list of questions. But for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Horrigan will not be in the building.

"When you talk about the Pro Football Hall of Fame, you talk about debates -- Who's the greatest player? The greatest quarterback? The great coach?" said longtime board of selectors member Rick Gosselin. "But at one position there is no debate. There has been and will only be one gatekeeper to Canton -- that's Joe Horrigan. He is to the game's history what Jim Brown is to the game itself. There is no greater authority."