Parys Haralson of the New Orleans Saints in 2015. (AP Photo)

Mike Justice, the ex-football coach, was holding court Tuesday afternoon, telling some friends about Parys Haralson, one of his former players. This was one day after the news that Haralson, who starred for Justice at Madison Central and then at Tennessee and in the NFL, had died at age 37 at his home in San Jose, Calif.

“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.”

Rick Cleveland

Haralson, from Flora, was a 15-year-old starting defensive end on the 1999 Madison Central team that went 15-0 and won the state championship. Indeed, the state championship game ended with Haralson sacking the Provine quarterback. 

Doug Buckles, who went on to star for Ole Miss on the offensive line, was a senior on that perfect Madison Central team. Of Haralson, Buckles especially remembers this: “In football locker rooms, sophomores are supposed to be seen but 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.”

Chamar McDonald, a future professional baseball player, was a junior free safety on that Madison Central championship team. Says McDonald, “The plays rarely got to me. Parys always got them before they could get to me. He was like Superman.”

He looked like the Man of Steel, too. Haralson was naturally strong but also a weight room warrior. As a result, he was chiseled, muscles seemingly on top of muscles.

Haralson became one of the most highly recruited players Justice ever coached. “Could have gone anywhere,” Justice said. “Mickey Andrews (the long-time Florida State defensive coordinator for Bobby Bowden) came in to look some of our seniors when Parys was a junior. We were talking outside the locker room and about that time Parys walked by. Mickey stopped me in mid-sentence and said, ‘Who the hell is that? Why don’t I know about him?’ I told Mickey that Parys was just a junior. So we went on and talked about our seniors, but before he left, Mickey told me, ‘Tell that Harrelson kid he has an official offer from Florida State.’ He had never even talked to him or seen him play. Didn’t need to.”

Haralson became a high school All American for Justice and then signed with Tennessee, disappointing college coaches all across the nation and especially at Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

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.

“I played against him once, face to face in 2004,” Buckles said. “My job was to block him. Now, I was a lot bigger (6-6, 310) than Parys but his arms were so dang long and he was so dang strong. I had my arms fully extended and he still got his hands on me. And he was relentless. He told me before the game that we were homies, but he was coming at me on every play. I told him I would expect nothing less and that’s what I got.”

Haralson went on to play nine years in the NFL, seven with the San Francisco 49ers and two more with the Saints. He was a valued member of both squads. He finished his career with 275 tackles, including 28 sacks. And here are two facts that will tell you much about Haralson:

  • The first from Justice: “When Parys made the team in San Francisco and knew he was gonna get paid, the first thing he did was buy his mama a house, a nice house. His mama had raised him right and he knew it.”
  • When Haralson retired from the Saints in 2014 and was asked by a reporter about his future plans, he answered, “I am going to learn as much I can.”

So, he went to the University of Miami and earned his MBA. The 49ers thought so much of Haralson they hired him as Director of Player Engagement. At the time of his death, Haralson was working in sales for a Silicon Valley company.

“He was in a good place, happy as can be,” McDonald said. “Still worked out a couple times a day. Still in great shape. Still loved to come back and visit Flora. He loved Flora.”

Long-time friends, such as McDonald and Buckles, are struggling to deal with the sudden death of such a cherished friend and such a vibrant, larger-than-life personality. There has been no official word on the cause of Haralson’s death. McDonald and Buckles say they have been told their friend died of a heart attack in his sleep.

“It doesn’t seem real,” McDonald said. “Parys loved his friends and family more than he loved himself. I lost my father 20 years ago, and that was tough, but this with Parys has done a number on me and a lot of others. It’s almost like Superman has died.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.