FULTON – Joe Horn walked into the football fieldhouse at ICC Tuesday afternoon an All-Pro wide receiver.
A rich one as a matter of fact. The NFL's New Orleans Saints recently signed him to a six-year, $42 million contract.
But when Horn walked through the same doors 12 years ago, he wasn't sure he'd make the community college team's roster.
“I was cut from the football team my second season,” said Horn, who returned to campus as part of a planned NFL Films documentary on his career. “I came back to play baseball for the Indians. But my love was always football.”
Tommy Morton, the former offensive coordinator and receivers coach for Indians, picks up the story from here.
“Between Joe's freshman and sophomore year, they reduced the number of out-of-state scholarships you could have from 16 to 10,” said Morton, noting that Horn was from North Carolina. “We had some offensive and defensive line needs we needed to fill.
“It was August before we really knew if Joe was going to be on the squad.”
Morton said had Horn been cut, it would have been because of the numbers, and not because of the player's ability.
In the end, Horn was retained.
“One of the reasons we didn't want to turn Joe loose was because we didn't want to have to play against him,” Morton said, then laughed. “He would have landed somewhere in a hurry.”
Horn realizes how close he came to not making the final cut.
“The evaluation process is slim in professional sports and in college sports,” he said. “Sometimes you miss out on a guy who could have been your No. 1 player.
“I was a third or fourth receiver when I was here. I wasn't a starter. I stuck it out in there and kept battling, kept fighting.”
Morton admitted that while Horn had all the tools – speed, quickness and route-running ability – to be a big-time receiver, he didn't display many of the NFL-like qualities that have led to his 490 career catches for 7,168 yards and 52 touchdowns.
“It wasn't that evident when he was here,” the coach said. “Joe's maturity was lacking a little bit. He was a pleasure to deal with on the football field. He worked hard. He picked up things really quick. But, the academics, the dorm, that wasn't exactly a pleasure.
“I didn't see that kind of commitment from Joe when he was here, and I don't mean that ugly. It's phenomenal what he's done, the track he had to take to get there.”
After his ICC tenure, Horn and his wife, Lacreshia, moved in with his in-laws, J.C. and Betty Beene of Chesterville. He spent a year working in a furniture factory, spraying fabric coating on furniture.
He also worked for a Tupelo pizza restaurant … washing dishes.
All during that time, he remained in shape. He even tried out for a major league baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds.
He got his break when the CFL moved a team to Memphis, the Mad Dogs. During that 1995 season, Horn caught 71 passes for 1,414 yards and five touchdowns.
Four seasons with the NFL's Kansas Chiefs followed. He then signed as a free agent with the Saints in 2000, establishing himself as the team's go-to receiver with 94 catches for 1,340 yards and eight scores his first season. Last year, at age 32, he caught 94 balls for 1,399 yards and 11 TDs.
Thursday, standing near his old locker at ICC, Horn credited his former coaches, teammates and school with his success in pro ball.
“ICC was definitely a stepping stone for me and played a part in me making it the NFL,” he said, then smiled.
Horn said that despite his new contract, he'll head to training camp feeling like he's on “the bottom of the totem pole” like he was that summer 12 years ago at ICC.
“The hunger's still there,” he said. “It will be until I'm dead and gone.”
Gene Phelps (firstname.lastname@example.org) is sports editor for the Daily Journal