A collection of photos of former Saints and 49ers linebacker Parys Harralson who died Sept. 13, 2021, at the age of 37.
By Rick Cleveland, special to NewOrleansSaints.com
Madison, Miss. – Parys Haralson played linebacker for the New Orleans Saints for only two seasons (2013-14), but the easy-going Mississippi native left an indelible, almost larger than life impression on his teammates, who mourn his death and cherish their memories of him.
"One of the best human beings I've ever been around," said three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead, who joined the Saints in 2013 as a rookie at the same time Haralson was obtained in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers. "Parys came to us in my first training camp, and he's one of the ones who put a stamp on me and told me I belonged in this league, and that was after only one week of me practicing against him."
Six-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan called Haralson "the ultimate pro on and off the field" and "a great role model," who provided a great deal of "positive energy."
Haralson died at age 37 on Sept. 13, at his home in San Jose, Calif. No official cause of death has been announced. His friends say he died of a heart attack in his sleep. Since then, Haralson has been universally praised by former coaches and teammates from all levels of football – from middle school to the NFL.
"Parys made us a tougher, more physical defense and his leadership was off the charts," said Rob Ryan, the Saints defensive coordinator from 2013 to 2015. "If you remember the Saints had been the worst defense in the league in 2012 and then we finished fourth in 2013. The turnaround began when we got Parys. He made us all better, the players and the coaches. Everybody gravitated toward Parys. He got a sack his first week with us and he became the guy who set the edge in the running game defense. He was a real force. Getting him was pivotal to that defense."
Haralson and Saints safety Roman Harper were called "the Skoal brothers" and became close friends and leaders on that defense.
"We shared a habit of Copenhagen wintergreen (smokeless tobacco)," Harper said. "We always broke it out in the defensive meetings and Rob Ryan started calling us the Skoal brothers. We even had a defensive package we used called the Skoal brothers package that was pretty effective."
"Should have used that package more," Ryan said, chuckling. "Seriously, both those guys were great players and leaders in that locker room."
Jordan says he still uses lessons he learned as a young teammate of Haralson's. "Parys led by example," Jordan said. "He showed us how to take care of your business day to day and in your preparation each week, how to set up a great routine and how to take care of your body through the rigors of a long NFL season."
Haralson's impact in football began long, long before he joined the Saints. From the small town of Flora in mid-Mississippi, Haralson first drew the attention of Mississippi high school coaching legend Mike Justice when he was in the seventh grade. Justice coached at Madison Central, one of Mississippi's largest high schools. Flora Middle School was one of Madison Central's feeders. The coach at Flora called Justice to tell him he had a future star coming through the system.
"I went out to see this kid who was just in the seventh grade," Justice said. "The coach introduced me to him when Parys was standing in the doorway, blocking almost the entire doorway. I mean, he was huge and he was put together. I figured he probably was 15 years old and had failed a couple times, so I said, 'Son, how old are you?' Parys answered he was 12. That got my attention."
Three years later, as a 10th-grader, Haralson started and a starred at defensive end on a 15-0, state championship Madison Central team. Doug Buckles, a future Ole Miss star, was a senior offensive tackle and one of five future NFL players on that team. Says Buckles, "In locker rooms sophomores are supposed to be seen and not heard, but it wasn't that way with Parys. He was just 15, but when he spoke the whole team listened. He was that kind of guy."
That season, then-Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews traveled to Madison to recruit several of the older Madison Central players. Then, on his way to the practice field Haralson walked past Andrews and Justice, who were discussing the older players. Andrews interrupted, pointing at Haralson. "Who the hell is that?" Andrews said. "Look at that guy! How come you haven't mentioned him?"
"Parys is just a sophomore," Justice answered.
"Yeah, well you tell that sophomore he has an official offer to Florida State," Andrews told Justice, without ever seeing Haralson do so much as a jumping jack, much less make a tackle.
"That's how impressive a physical specimen Parys was. You could strike a match on him even then," Justice said.
Haralson became a high school All American for Justice and then signed with Tennessee, disappointing college coaches all across the nation. That was despite the fact that Haralson was what football coaches sometimes call a "tweener." He was just a tad over six-feet tall and weighed 245 pounds — small for a defensive end and large for an outside linebacker. When Ole Miss coaches asked Buckles what position he thought Haralson would play in college, Buckles said he answered: "Just pick one. Wherever you want him to play, put him there. He'll make plays."
Tennessee put him at defensive end and he made the All-SEC freshman team as a top reserve and then started three years for the Vols, serving as captain as a senior. Often as not, he spent most games in the other team's backfield. Said Phillip Fulmer, Haralson's coach at Tennessee, speaking at Haralson's memorial service in Madison: "Parys was a great, great football player but he was so much more. He did the right thing all the time. I never had one more dynamic than Parys Haralson."
Haralson, a fifth round draft choice of the 49ers in 2006, made an immediate impact and by his third season (2008) he led the Niners and the NFC West in sacks.
Former Saints standout Fred McAfee, who lives in Madison in the off-season, followed Haralson's high school career and then played against him as a Saint when Haralson joined the 49ers in 2006.
"I knew him when he was a kid," McAfee, now Saints vice president of player relations, said of Haralson. "My kids went to that school and even then Parys was a positive influence on anybody he was around. He was just a good dude who never had a bad day, and was always smiling. I couldn't believe it when here I was playing against him all those years later. I can tell you he became a pro's pro. You won't find anybody who knew him that doesn't admire him."
Justice, the high school coach speaking at the memorial service , said Haralson was "always the toughest cat in the world, yet leaves behind him a legacy of goodness and kindness. You don't see that combination often."
"Here's the deal on Parys: Let's just take football out of it," Justice said. "Never mind what a great football player Parys was, what a wonderful teammate he was, how physically gifted he was, and all that. Let's just talk about the person he was, the smile he always had. Let's talk about him as a human being. He was always so positive, so smart, so sincere, so polite — Beta Club guy, honor student. Teachers loved him. Coaches loved him. Teammates loved him. With Parys, you knew he was always gonna be in the right place. He was always gonna do the right thing."
Roman Harper, the other half of the Skoal brothers, would certainly agree.
"Genuine, that's the word for Parys," Harper said. "He was never an act. He was genuine. He was the real deal. Gone so young. I still can't believe it."