“Whatever is meant to happen in life always does.” -Joe Horn
While New Orleans Saints Hall of Famer Joe Horn explains many of the events of his life with that phrase, he doesn’t rely on it. To know Horn’s story is to understand the unimaginable amount of hard work he put into his body, his mind and his relationships. Horn fought his way through obstacles throughout his life, but he always comes back to fate as to how it’s all worked out for him.
Life of a Saint: Joe Horn
Joe Horn began playing football at the age of 10 and immediately developed a love for the game. The game came easy to Horn, partly due to his willingness to out-work the other kids, but also because he always was an “atlete”. Horn explained, “There are athletes and there are ‘athletes’. Athletes are guys that can do exactly what they were brought on this earth to do. Basketball players, whether NBA or All-American, basketball is what they were brought here to do. Baseball players, that’s what they were brought here to do. Marbles, bowling, whatever it is that they were able to do professionally throughout their career, the best in the world, they’re athletes. ‘Atletes’ are guys that could be professional bowlers, professional football players, professional baseball players, because they could do it all. I came out of my mother’s womb as an ‘atlete.’”
Athletics, specifically football, would help Horn as a youth like few things could. Horn shared, “The toughest thing I had to get through was coming up poor, coming up underprivileged. I had to hold my head up and make people around me think I was a millionaire. I wasn’t going to put my head down because my mom couldn’t afford to buy me the best, or even what my friends could buy. I was living in the projects. My athletic ability put me on a stage next to people that had a mother and a father that had a 9-5 job that could buy them the Nike shoes, that could buy them the suit on Sunday. My mother couldn’t afford that because we didn’t have a father around.” Any number of obstacles could have derailed the incredible NFL career of Joe Horn. He also stated, “I had to get through my brother getting hit in the head with a bat in a telephone booth when he got jumped by a bunch of guys. That happened when I was in junior college and I almost quit football altogether because I wanted to come back and find the guys that did that to my brother and kill them.” Horn admitted that there were times he almost became so unhinged that he considered leaving football.
But, as a youth and beyond, Horn fell back on positive influences to see him through. Notably, Muhammad Ali was one of those influences. “I studied Muhammed Ali when I was 15-years old. Everything I read about him was positive, and that’s what kept me going.” In a life riddled with adversity, Horn had found strength in the former heavyweight champ.
Bumps in the Road in College
Joe Horn would be the first to tell you that it wasn’t always about what he could do on the field. Excelling at multiple positions throughout high school and college, including punter (yes, Joe Horn was a punter), landed him an opportunity to play for the University of South Carolina. Looking back on those years, Horn regrettably didn’t handle himself in the classroom the way he would have liked. “Academically, I didn’t incline myself right. In high school, I didn’t apply myself on the S.A.T that I took one time. I didn’t have the grades to go and play for Sparky Woods.” So, Horn would eventually play two years at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi.
After those two years in Itawamba C.C., there was a two-year hiatus in Horn’s playing career.
Like Joe Horn continuously preaches, “Whatever is meant to happen in life always does”, fate stepped into his life in a peculiar way. Horn visited a local Blockbuster Video located and took out a Jerry Rice workout tape. “I was down on my dime. I left junior college football. I had a baby on the way. And I was a workout freak. I was trying to get my body prepared in case I got a chance to run for NFL scouts, Canadian football scouts, whoever. I made sure that my physical temple was 1000% in shape. So, I went by a Blockbuster and saw a Jerry Rice workout video for $2.99. It was meant for me to see that and meant for me to buy it. My ancestors were looking over me. I bought it. I studied it. I went out in my back yard or to the park and I did those drills.”
When asked if he had ever discussed that with Rice, Horn answered, “You know, Jerry Rice is All-World. He has a lot on his plate. I don’t think he has ever heard that story.”
Mastering those drills was key for Horn. He then threw together a highlight video featuring some of those drills and began to feverishly send it out to NFL and CFL franchises. This effort got him noticed by several CFL franchises and, ultimately, Horn signed a contract with the Memphis Mad Dogs. That year, he put up over 1,400 yards on 71 catches and caught the attention of the NFL.
Seemingly scripted at this point, fate would once again step into Horn’s life. This time, it was while playing in the CFL. He would cross paths with an immeasurably important person in Horn’s life in Buddy Geis. Horn said, “Buddy coached Sterling Sharpe, Robert Brooks and guys like that. He was there in Memphis. He saw the tape I made. Once I met Buddy Geis, my world changed.”
Horn Achieves the Unimaginable
“It was surreal for me. No one thought I would be drafted. Everyone thought I was stupid for working out in Mississippi in 100-degree weather”, Horn stated. Being this close to the NFL, he was not going to be denied. Horn spent time taking a bus or plane out to meet with teams to try and get his door in the NFL. One of those trips was to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Horn would have an opportunity to impress another instrumental person in his voyage. “My agent at the time knew what I could do. He reached out to Jimmy Ray. I was in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Jimmy Ray was in Fayetteville also. Jimmy Ray came and worked me out because he was home vacationing. He worked me out and went back to Marty Schottenheimer and said ‘You guys need to bring Joe Horn to Kansas City. This is a receiver that no one knows about.”
Well, Schottenheimer was listening and ended up drafting Horn in the fifth round of the 1996 NFL draft. Horn would spend four years in Kansas City, each year becoming a bigger and bigger part of the offense. It was also in Kansas City that Joe Horn was given the nickname, ‘Hollywood” by former teammate and friend, the late Derrick Thomas.
Despite his desire to bring a title to Kansas City, Horn opted to leave his first NFL home. Horn would leave Kansas City with some mixed emotions to go along with his new contract. That change in scenery would ultimately take Joe Horn from serviceable to stardom.
Hollywood in the Bayou
Horn arrived in New Orleans to a team desperate for wide receiver production. The Saints were several years removed from the production of a number one receiver like Eric Martin or Quinn Early. The Saints looked to Horn to fill that role and he didn’t disappoint. When asked why the immediate and consistent spike in his production happened when he arrived in New Orleans, Horn had two immediate responses. He offered, ”My family. My children were very young. I had something to come home to. I had something to be great for, number one. But secondly, it was the fans. They are the greatest fans in the world that I’ve ever experienced. They ride or die.”
Horn then expanded on his “ride or die” description, stating, “I’m talking about literally; some New Orleans Saints fans will kill you. They will kill you. If the Saints lose a game and you say too much, run your mouth too much, there are some New Orleans Saints fans that will literally go to prison for life and end your life if you say too much. That’s the truth.”
Horn’s Impact on the Saints Through Hurricane Katrina
Horn would average over 1250 yards per season over the course of his first five years in New Orleans. That trend fell off in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and displaced the New Orleans Saints. But Horn makes no excuses, citing that the people of New Orleans and the surrounding area were the ones who were suffering. Horn shared, “It was hell in New Orleans. It wasn’t really hell for the guys that were making millions. Let’s be real.” He continued, “Hurricane Katrina was hard for all the people who were broke and lost everything. I was more hurt and upset because what I had to see the fans go through every day.”
But, as they say, out of adversity comes strength, and Joe Horn may have made his most significant contribution to the Saints franchise in the wake of Katrina. As discussions heated up about the possible relocation of the New Orleans Saints to San Antonio, it was Joe Horn that took the helm of the situation and steered the Saints back home to New Orleans.
Horn explained, “I told Mr. Tagliabue, ‘Mr. Tagliabue, with all due respect, I cannot play in San Antonio. I will not play in Texas knowing the fans in New Orleans that loved us won’t have a team anymore and we won’t be there to rebuild that city. The best thing that you can do is to bring us back to New Orleans, help us rebuild New Orleans and the NFL will look like darlings.’ The next morning, on ESPN, we were awarded back to New Orleans. That was my Super Bowl.” Horn’s ability to open the eyes of the NFL to what truly mattered, in conjunction with his willingness to end his career over his stance, proved to be invaluable. Horn isn’t looking for credit though, citing the arrival of Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis, Drew Brees and Reggie Bush as big reasons why the resurrection of New Orleans took place.
The Cell Phone
Naturally, when speaking with Joe Horn, the very memorable cell phone touchdown celebration is bound to come up. Horn said he came up with the idea when his kids couldn’t come to the Sunday night game since it was such a late start and told them he would call them form the game. When asked if the celebration was about topping some of the other receivers around the league, Horn replied, “I was. I was trying to have the best touchdown celebration because of what Chad Johnson and T.O. (Terrell Owens) were doing. I think me, Chad and T.O. were the top three that were really doing it every week. I was just dancing. I really didn’t do a lot of props. I usually just boogied. But when they started bring out the props I said, ’Let me shut this sh-t down! If they really want to see who can have the best celebration, I’ll shut this sh-t down.’ And that’s what I did.”
Horn then addressed some old rumors about having a cell phone in each end zone. “I told Michael Lewis to put my phone up under the goalpost. I didn’t care which one he put it up under because I knew I was in the game plan that much that night. Now, a lot of people think I had phones in both end zones. I didn’t. I just knew that when Michael Lewis told me which one it was in, I knew I would have a chance against the Giants and I knew my number would be called. And A.B. (Aaron Brooks), if he saw man-to-man coverage, he would be crazy not to come to ‘Hollywood’. Fate is fate. If it wasn’t meant for me to pull that cell phone out that night, I would have dropped that pass.”
Horn then went on to state how proud he was that Michael Thomas imitated that celebration last season. Horn felt that Michael Thomas helped bring him back into relevance in New Orleans.
Horn Finishes His Career in Atlanta
After seven seasons in New Orleans, Horn left to head to the Atlanta Falcons. Despite signing a 4-year, $15 million deal, the former Saint would only spend one year in Atlanta before retiring. The sudden drop off in production and departure from the game had little to do with Horn’s physical game. He offered, “. I left the game running a 4.42 40-yard dash. I left the game strong, still being able to run routes.” Rather, one of the biggest reasons Horn hung up his helmet was then Falcons offensive coordinator, Mike Mularkey.
Horn emotionally explained, “The reason I left the game is because Mike Mularkey, our offensive coordinator. I don’t know if other people in the league told him bad stuff about me. I don’t know what it was that he didn’t like about Joe Horn. Mike Mularkey had the power because I was an old veteran, I was with a new franchise and my word wasn’t going to overpower Mike Mularkey’s word to Mike Smith. I talked to Mike Smith about it. He would pick at me. He would put me into practices late. Whatever he was trying to do, it was to make me see that he didn’t like me. What I did was say, ‘Hey. I have a guaranteed contract. I really don’t have to play for this dude because he’s pissing me off.’ Mike Mularkey made me hate football my last year in Atlanta.” Regarding Mike Mularkey, Horn also added, “should have never been a damn offensive coordinator”.
Horn then shared how upset the situation made him, considering how much respect and admiration he had for Falcons owner, Arthur Blank. Horn said, “(I had) to tell Mr. Blank in the hallway, with tears in my eyes, ‘There’s something going on with the offensive coordinator that you don’t want to get involved with. I know I’m an old player. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to be on your team, be in your building and be in your presence. I will always remember it and I will always love you for it.’ I told Mr. Blank that and he hugged me, shook my hand and the next day I asked for a trade.”
Life After the NFL
In 2010, Joe Horn was the sole inductee into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. Horn shared his thought on the moment, stating, “It was an honor. Of course, anytime New Orleans calls and has me involved in anything is an honor. But a big honor, the phone call I’m really waiting on, is for them to tell me they’re retiring 87. Deuce McAllister should look for that same call.”
Aside from the accolades that have found him post-NFL, Horn has also had success in the business world. “I’m trying to do a lot of stuff. I have my own sausage and barbecue sauce company that’s doing pretty well in the casinos in Louisiana”, Horn mentioned. Horn has also recently added the title of ‘inventor’ to his list. “I have an invention that I came up with. I invented something that’s going to come out in the next year or two that’s gonna shock the world. It’s not there right now. I’d rather talk about it when it’s in fruition.”
While Horn may wear a lot of hats, none have meant more to him than the title ‘Dad’ to Juaje, Jaycob, Jaycee, Joe Jr., Jhia, Juda and Jace Horn. Horn gushed, “I’m really focusing on my children. I want to see them make it. That’s my new job. My new job is to see my children successful. Once Jaycee is drafted, if he’s drafted, once Joe Jr. is on a roster in the NFL, once Jhia has a record company sign her and see her talent, once Juaje and Jaycob are at Ole Miss doing great things, then I’m good. Their success is my success.”
And while Horn has high expectations for all his children, he always keeps in the back of his mind that whatever is meant to happen in life always does.