The full moon rose steadily like movie credits and then hovered on the other side of the Missouri River, backlighting downtown Omaha. It was Homecoming Night at Central High. The Eagles hosted Millard South at their new football stadium, built largely from donations from the city's first family, the Buffetts. Over the din of cheering parents, the strains of the pep band and the refs' whistles, a distinct voice, deep and firm, pierced the autumn air.
Seated on the bleachers, eight rows back, Terry Harrington wore loafers, low-slung jeans, a denim jacket, a neatly trimmed beard and a white Kangol cap covering his bald head. "Hey, it's Samuel L. Jackson," an old friend yelled. Harrington, 51, caught hugs, winks and slaps on the shoulder. Behind his back, he was the object of you-know-who-that-is? looks.
A few years ago, Harrington had coached some of Central's best players. They were in middle school and he was the defensive coordinator for their Heartland little league football team, a program run through the Omaha Boys and Girls Club. "Coach Terry," a volunteer, taught technique and exposed the kids to the dark arts of football, tricks like stripping the ball from running backs (grab the nose and twist) and bumping receivers. He preached the virtues of defense, importance of defending terrain, as opposed to acquiring it. He challenged the best players, installing a complex "5-2 Monster" scheme. He also comforted the less-talented players, explaining how they could be leaders from the sidelines.
"Up and down the line, the kids respect that man," says Sherri Brown, whose son played on the team. "He knew what buttons to push." That year, Harrington took three teams to Kansas City for a regional tournament. Two of them placed first; the other one played up an age division and came in second.
The boys are novice adults now -- "growing taller and, hopefully, growing up," says Harrington -- some of them rising high school stars. He would like to think that their success is at least partially a legacy of those sessions at the Boys Club. One player, Jack Davis, only a sophomore, was Central's starting tailback and cornerback. Jemal Shabazz, a broad-shouldered junior, started at linebacker and has designs of playing Division I. A third, Andre Kincaid, a junior, is already 260 pounds and plays center and nose guard. "That's it, twenty-five. Stand your ground!"
As Harrington watches the kids, he can't resist the urge to coach. He also can't resist playing time-traveler and rewinding the clock. In the mid-1970s, a mile or so up Dodge Road, Harrington was a junior at Omaha Technical High. The school closed in the 80s, but it had a rich athletic tradition, trophy cases filled with relics of graduates like Bob Gibson, 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, and longtime NBA players Ron Boone and Bob Boozer. Harrington fit into the jock tapestry, too. He played some baseball and some jayvee basketball, once matching up ("not very well") against Mike McGee, who'd eventually suit up for the Lakers. But Harrington's passion was football. A fierce linebacker, number 52, he offset average speed and modest size (175 pounds and 5-foot-11, even accounting for a mountainous Afro) with a taste for contact and unfailing instincts.
He lettered as a freshman and started as a sophomore. "I called him Captain Crunch," says Tech tailback Kenneth Colbert, who dispensed the nickname after Harrington leveled him in an intrasquad scrimmage. "Lemme tell you something, boy: Terry was a
Harrington lived in north Omaha with his mother and sisters. An older brother was off fighting in Vietnam. Money was tight, but no one felt poor. It was a time of optimism. Saturdays were for sports. Sundays meant church and movies. In high school, Harrington was a capable student and popular kid, nominated for homecoming court. Small colleges inquired about recruiting him for football. Others simply wanted him as a student, including, he says, Yale. "You know how sometimes sports allow you to get an education?" he says. "With me, the academics were going to let me keeping playing football."
In his senior year, he went through a lapse familiar to anyone who has -- or has been -- a teenager. Having already accumulated enough credits to graduate, he lost motivation for school. When he slacked off in football practice, Omaha Tech coach Carl Wright, a former Marine, benched Harrington hoping it would galvanize the kid to work harder. When it didn't, Wright moved Harrington to defensive end. Harrington quit the team.
Without sports, his friends changed, and so did his attitude. One night, Harrington was talked into driving the getaway car in a botched robbery, earning him probation since it was his first offense. He graduated in 1977, but with Yale out of the question, he enrolled in a local community college with hopes of transferring and playing football. "Peer pressure, bad choices, stupidity," he says, shaking his head. "Man, one bad stage at that age can change everything."
On July 22, 1977, Harrington and a group of friends went to a concert by the funk band Ohio Players at Peony Park, an Omaha arcade. Outside the gates, Harrington bumped into Carl Wright, there chaperoning his daughters. Outgoing as ever, Harrington chatted up his coach and asked a question that had been in the catacombs of his mind for months: Why did you bench me? The two men talked, first about football, then about life. They missed most of the concert. Harrington vowed to resume what had once been a promising football career. "Coach Wright said he was disappointed in me," says Harrington. "I could respect that because at the time, I was disappointed in me, too."
That same night, a few miles from the concert on the other side of the river in Council Bluffs, Iowa, John Schweer was working as a security guard at a car dealership. Schweer had recently retired as a police captain and was making some extra money. On this night, he heard a noise, left his post to investigate and was shot in the chest with a 12-gauge shotgun, left to die flanking the nearby railroad tracks. Crime was rare in Council Bluffs, a drowsy, middle class town on Iowa's western border. Murders were almost unheard of. Police had extra motivation to solve this one: the dead man was a former colleague.
Harrington says he never heard about the murder that summer. He enrolled in community college in early fall, but his studies were halted when he was arrested. An informant claimed Harrington had stolen a car in Fremont, Neb. He says he was more confused than anything else. "I just figured it was a mistake that would be corrected," he says.
But instead of being released, Harrington was charged with murder. Relying largely on the testimony of an alleged co-conspirator, the police theorized that Harrington and another Omaha friend, Curtis McGhee, had attempted to steal a car that night. When Schweer left his post to investigate, Harrington opened fire. Harrington told anyone who would listen that he hadn't attempted to steal a car that night, and he sure as hell hadn't murdered anyone. Again, he figured he'd get his day in court, there would be justice and he could get on with his life.
The prosecution's case against Harrington was riddled with holes. There was no physical evidence linking Harrington to the crime, nor was a weapon recovered. Police found bullet residue in a jacket Harrington had owned (Harrington had a hunting rifle), but it wasn't from a 12-gauge and it was too minute a specimen to be consistent with a blast fired at close range. Harrington had an alibi that he was at the concert and Carl Wright was willing to testify.
The most intriguing clue was a set of fresh paw prints near Schweer's body, yet Harrington didn't own a dog. Despite the absence of forensic evidence and the various unanswered questions, Pottawattamie Assistant County Attorney Joseph Hrvol would testify that there were no other suspects.
The prosecution's chief informant was Kevin Hughes, who lived near the Harringtons in Omaha. Harrington remembers his mom opening their door to the kid when there were fights in the Hughes home. Hughes was now 16 and already had a criminal record. When first questioned, he named three other men as the killer before fingering Harrington. He alleged that Schweer was killed with a pistol, then a 20-gauge shotgun and finally settled on a 12-gauge.
And while Hughes wasn't the most credible of witnesses, his testimony against Harrington was supported by various other mutual friends and acquaintances. One by one, they rebutted Harrington's alibi, claiming that Schweer's murder occurred after the concert, and asserted that Harrington had gone to the dealership intending to boost a car. A parade of witnesses claimed that they'd seen Harrington's car, an Oldsmobile, on the night of the murder; yet, Harrington's car had been hit over July Fourth weekend, and, for all the meticulous descriptions, no one mentioned the prominent dent in the car. "I just kept thinking, 'Why are y'all doing this to me?'" says Harrington.
Harrington's representation was not always vigorous. Coach Wright, now deceased, expressed shock that his testimony wasn't used prominently. ("They didn't ask me anything that would help Terry," he once complained to a reporter.) Cynics suggested that law enforcement in overwhelmingly white Council Bluffs were feeling pressure to solve the case -- especially with the election of the prosecutor, David Richter, coming up. They simply rounded up some black teenagers from across the river.
On Aug. 4, 1978, an all-white Iowa jury convicted Harrington of first-degree murder. He was given a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole, the maximum sentence in Iowa, a state that abolished the death penalty in 1965. In a separate trial, McGhee, the alleged accomplice, was also convicted of first-degree murder. Harrington stood before the court, defiant that the wrong man had been convicted: "I just want you to know that no matter what happens, I know I'm innocent, and as long as I feel that inside, then I'm going to keep on fighting because I know I can't see myself locked up for the rest of my life for something I didn't do. ... I feel I was judged by the color of my skin and not the content of my character."
It hadn't hit Harrington until the sentencing. He was going to jail. Not just any jail, but the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, a sliver of hell on the banks of the Mississippi in Eastern Iowa. Coming from out of state and without ties to a street gang, Harrington would be a complete outsider. Having just turned 19, he was the youngest inmate in the complex. And his conviction for killing a cop wasn't going to earn him favor among the guards. "A year before, I was a normal kid, just wanting to go to college, play football," he says, stopping to summon the moment. "Now I have to get my head right. Everyone said the same thing:
Harrington isn't sure whether it was conscious or simply survival instincts, but he hatched a plan. On the other side of the concertina wire, he was no longer Terry. He was T.J. "It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing," he says. Whereas Terry was an outgoing joker, T.J. was a badass, economical with his words. Terry had never been prone to violence, at least not off the football field; T.J. managed to procure a knife within his first day in the joint, figuring out that the workers tasked with cleaning the cells also trafficked in weapons. Terry was open and transparent; T.J. was opaque. "If I cried all night -- remember, I'm in prison for the rest of my life and they ain't never letting me out -- by morning no one knew it."
Harrington recalls the prison experience with a string of "de" words: demoralizing, degrading, dehumanizing. He has stories of gang fights and riots and inmates throwing feces on guards. He says that by the end of his first week, two inmates had been killed, one of them "cut up and put in a laundry bag." Still in possession of his faith, Harrington went to church services. He soon quit when he saw the chaplain, also a prison guard, clutching a rifle, threatening to blow an inmate's head off. "This guy's going to teach us about morals and forgiveness?" says Harrington. "No, thanks."
Early into his sentence, Harrington developed Crohn's disease -- caused by the stress, he figures -- a gastrointestinal disorder that made him feel as though his insides were burning. His survival instincts again kicked in and he finagled a job in the kitchen just to make sure he had access to mild food. His biggest fear, he says, was dying in prison. He stayed alive in part by filing a series of appeals against his conviction. One by one, they were dismissed by the courts, but the mere possibility of justice kept him going.
Sports helped sustain him, too. Wearing pads donated by the Iowa State football program, Harrington was the star of the prison football team. He played on the basketball team, averaging, by his own reckoning, 44 points a game. ("Couldn't no one stop me!") Before the Crohn's became unbearable, he ran on a 4x400 relay team. Sports were therapeutic, a way to alchemize anger into something more productive. Sports were a way to climb the social hierarchy in the prison yard. Sports were also lucrative. Wagering on free-throw shooting contests, games of around-the-world and other tests of athletic skill, Harrington claims he made thousands of dollars over the years.
Back in his cell, he tracked time with the sports calendar. He spent innumerable hours watching Big Ten basketball games. Even today, he can recall the lineage of the conference's best players, from his old Omaha nemesis Mike McGee (Michigan) to Magic Johnson (Michigan State) to Isiah Thomas (Indiana) to Glen Rice (Michigan) and Glenn Robinson (Purdue). He watched football, too, but it came with acute pain. "I see all those guys out there playing and I'm thinking, 'I'm as good as that!'" he says "Well, maybe I was, and maybe I wasn't, but I never even got the chance."
It was full-time work suppressing his anger. Harrington felt as though he'd been kidnapped. Here he was, in the prime years of his life, and he was locked up. He didn't see his friends. Shortly before his sentencing, Harrington's girlfriend got pregnant. The first time he saw his daughter it was through Plexiglas. Through the years, she would come to Fort Madison and he'd help her with homework in the visiting room. Birthday after birthday, Christmas after Christmas, he celebrated, best he could, behind bars. All for a crime he steadfastly maintained he did not commit.
Sometimes he couldn't suppress the rage. In Harrington's 16th year in jail, another inmate taunted him and made vague threats. Terry might have stayed away. With T.J., the guy had no chance. When Harrington was certain other inmates were watching he grabbed his knife and sunk it into the bully's back. When he was sent off to "lock-up," solitary confinement, he barely flinched.
Carrying her supplies in a milk crate, Anne Danaher endured a symphony of whistles, catcalls and unprintable taunts as she walked through the yard of Fort Madison. You could hardly conceive of a less likely figure to work at the joint. A slight, pleasant looking 35-year-old woman, Danaher spoke in such a gentle Midwestern lilt that listeners needed to lean in to hear her. But there Danaher was, the prison barber, dutifully standing before her chair, shearing inmates from "lock-up." They sat before her, cuffed and in shackles. Mirrors were forbidden -- contraband that could be used as weapons -- so she used a sheet of polished stainless steel to check her handiwork.
At five bucks a head, the money was nice. But mostly, working at Fort Madison fed something deep inside Danaher. She had grown up in Kansas City, the eighth of 16 siblings, and had always identified with the underdog. Even in high school debate class, she was the one arguing against the death penalty. In the early 90s, she was living in Iowa near a brother who owned an oil brokerage company. When the job at Fort Madison came open in 1993, she was happy to take it. "I just wanted to give them some dignity for a few minutes," she says. She took her work seriously. When she realized how many inmates were African-American, she ventured to an inner-city Kansas City barber shop to learn how to performs fades and lines.
During one of her first shifts she saw a family emerge from a car with Nebraska license plates. "You sure came a long way," she said.
"Eight hours," a woman responded. "Been doing it for years."
"Well," Danaher said, "I hope the person you're visiting gets out soon."
Not likely, the woman explained. "He's in for life without parole. And he was framed."
Danaher thought little of it. More than a few prisoners had proclaimed their innocence and offered conspiracy theories. But a few days later Danaher cut Harrington's hair. When he mentioned that he was from Nebraska, Danaher stopped cutting. "I think I met your mom." she said. "She said it was all suspicious." As Danaher went back to work, Harrington calmly and meticulously recounted the details of his case, the inconsistencies, his alibi, his failed appeals, and the role of race. "To this day I don't know what it was," says Danaher. "But I
In her off-hours Danaher familiarized herself with Harrington's case and began poking around. This was the mid-1990s, the infancy of the Web, so much of her work was done using phone, fax and regular mail. Combing the white pages, Danaher assembled a phone directory of everyone attached to the case. She went to the local library and read about the case on microfilm. Danaher had no legal training, but she quickly sensed that her instincts about Harrington and his case had been accurate. Early on, for instance, she learned that his first lawyer had not been licensed to practice in Iowa. Something wasn't right.
Soon, advocating for Harrington became a full-on obsession. She quit her prison job so she could devote all her time to the case, moving back to Kansas City, where one of her brothers was an attorney, so she could have access to a law library. She requested records, read thousands of pages of transcripts, filed post-conviction papers, badgered legislators for meetings, and wrote letter after letter to the editor of the Council Bluffs newspaper, the
Figuring she had nothing to lose, Danaher wrote to Barry Scheck, head of the Manhattan-based Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA testing results to exonerate falsely convicted inmates. When Danaher explained that there was no physical evidence used to convict Harrington, Scheck responded that there was, unfortunately, little he could do to help. In 1998, Gerry Spence, the flamboyant Wyoming lawyer, passed through Kansas City on a book tour. Danaher intercepted him at a radio station and told him about Harrington. She recalls Spence playfully telling her that if she got him out of jail, he'd "walk it across the finish line" and handle the civil lawsuit. "If I had known more I probably would have been more discouraged by the doors that kept shutting," she says. "But I was so naive, so idealistic. I just wanted to be sure something like this never happened to anyone else."
Danaher set out to dismantle the prosecutors' case brick by brick. The first was discrediting their witnesses. When she located Kevin Hughes in a Nebraska jail and asked about his testimony, she was surprised by his response. He recanted his entire testimony, claiming he'd lied on the stand and had been coached by the prosecution. He never saw Harrington that night. He'd lied to collect $5,000 in reward money and also because he was promised that the charges against him would be dropped after he agreed to testify against Harrington.
Danaher then went to other witnesses who'd backed Hughes. They, too, recanted their statements. After Danaher ventured to the inner city of Omaha to find Clyde Jacobs, he broke down in tears and said he'd been stealing cars with Hughes and he, too, implicated Harrington to avoid being prosecuted. Candace Pride, who was dating Hughes at the time, said in 2000, "I just said what Kevin told me to say." Based on that, Danaher asked Iowa governor Tom Vilsack for clemency. Vilsack, currently the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, told her that he wasn't going to get involved.
Harrington wasn't entirely sure what to make of this Erin Brockovich of the Heartland, this tenacious woman who showed more interest in his case than anyone else had. But if she were willing to devote Lord-knows-how-many hours to his case, he was happy to accept her as a teammate. Danaher supported herself delivering Hallmark cards, working as a night nurse for the elderly and even working at Kansas City Chiefs games. But if anyone asked what she did, well, she was working to get a man his justice.
Around the same time that witnesses began recanting, Danaher contacted Lawrence Farwell, an Iowa researcher developing a technology he called "brain fingerprinting." Farwell theorized that information stored in a subject's brain can be accessed by measuring brain wave responses to relevant words or pictures flashed on a computer screen. When Farwell tried his technology on Harrington, his brain did not react to critical details of the crime. In 2000,
Hoping that the show's producers would devote less time to the technology and more time to the specifics of Harrington's saga, Danaher contacted the Council Bluffs police department. Under the guise that she was "researching police deaths in the Midwest," she requested the entire police file from the Schweer murder. The clerk, she recalls, said, "It's a closed case and two guys are locked up, but if you pay for it, I'll send the files." Danaher didn't find a smoking gun; she uncovered a smoldering gun with fresh fingerprints.
No sooner had she sent a money order for $91, than a series of folders arrived. Danaher identified at least eight police reports that had never been released to Harrington and his attorneys. One of them contained a note that Schweer had written to the dealership owner, a few days before the murder, asking him to install floodlights after he'd chased off a man carrying a shotgun, accompanied by a dog -- suggested the killer had already been in the neighborhood. Another report mentioned a witness who had seen a
Though the prosecution had denied under oath there were other suspects aside from Harrington, this was, demonstrably, a lie. Another report revealed that early in the investigation, they had identified Charles Gates, who was 48 at the time, lived with a dog and was also a suspect in a 1963 murder that was never solved. A witness at a nearby service station told officers he'd seen a man walking a dog in the area; from a photograph he identified that man as Gates. Another report noted that Gates was administered a polygraph test and was "not truthful in his denial of owning a shotgun or having shot John Schweer."
Still another report indicates that the Council Bluffs police took the unusual step of interviewing a local astrologer and providing her with the birthday of Gates -- identified as "our suspect in this matter" -- and asked her to create an astrological chart. None of this had ever been revealed to Harrington. (Under oath, no police source could recall why Gates was dropped as a suspect.)
It was a classic "Brady violation," the suppression of evidence that is favorable to the defendant and relevant to the issue of guilt. Had Harrington and his lawyers known of Gates, they surely would have crafted their defense differently. They also likely would have noted that Gates' brother-in-law was, at the time, Council Bluff's fire captain, a plausible reason why Gates was never pursued more aggressively. "It was a classic cover-up," says Harrington. "And they almost got away with it. The only thing was they were counting on me disappearing and not putting up a fight for all those years."
It took years of enduring delays and negotiating bureaucratic morass, but in early 2003, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled 5-1 to overturn Harrington's conviction, stating that he was entitled to a new trial, given the prosecutorial misconduct, the suppressed evidence and recanted testimony. That April, Vilsack granted Harrington a reprieve. He walked out of prison, along with Curtis McGhee.
Harrington's hair was thinner, his belly thicker. He had grayed a bit and wore glasses. But at 43, he still looked like an athlete. He wore a jersey from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, a gift from Danaher. The racial overtones were lost on only the densest of observers. The uniform number, 25, represented the number of years he'd been incarcerated. He held a press conference, his gratitude and joy trumping anger and bitterness. Reporters asked what he was going to do now. "I'm going to Disneyland!" he blurted out before adding: "Right now, I am so relieved. I can breathe normal. I may go home and do a Rip Van Winkle. I hope I don't, you know, because there's so much I've missed out on already."
In the Hollywood version of the story, the triumphant music kicks in right about now and the credits start rolling. Real life seldom breaks so neatly. Though Harrington was now out of jail, there was still the possibility that he could be retried. In what appeared to be an effort to save face, the prosecutors offered Harrington and McGhee a deal: they'd drop the charges in exchange for time served. McGhee took it, happy simply for some measure of closure, and even agreed to testify against Harrington if asked. When Harrington was offered a similar deal, he laughed. He even turned down a pardon. "A pardon would have forgiven me," he says shaking his head. "Forgiven me? I didn't do anything!"
By the end of the year, a judge had dismissed the case. After Harrington's release, Pottawattamie County Attorney Matt Wilber held a press conference and explained that, reluctantly, he would not retry Harrington. Memories had faded. Witnesses after witness had recanted and disavowed their testimony. (Kevin Hughes died in 2009.) There wasn't enough admissible evidence to sustain another conviction. But then Wilber -- who was in elementary school when John Schweer was murdered -- added: "I have no doubt that Terry Harrington committed the murder of John Schweer in 1977 [and] the jury made the right decision." Harrington was enraged. He was still going to bear the stigma of a murderer. (Wilber did not respond to messages seeking comment.)
Released inmates often struggle to re-enter society and put their lives back together. Socially, Harrington made a remarkably smooth transition. He moved to Omaha and reconnected with friends and family, including his daughter, Nicole, by then a graduate student in Minneapolis. He re-enrolled in community college. He caught up on movies and music and technology. He joined a church and became more religious, the personalized license plate on his maroon truck reading: TRI GOD. He credits the alter ego. "It was almost like Terry never went to jail and never accepted jail -- T.J. did.," he says. "So Terry was always on the outside."
But there was a biting reality: a quarter century behind bars had deprived him of an education and work experience. The only jobs he could find were menial. He drove a garbage truck and worked seasonally for UPS and removed lead for the EPA. Whereas paroled prisoners, deemed to have repaid their debt to society, have a structure and network that oversee their reintegration, Harrington was left to his own devices. "It was, OK, you're free. You can get a driver's license, do whatever. You're not our problem any more."
Now that Harrington and Danaher were no longer bound by a fight for justice, suddenly there wasn't much else uniting them. She felt hurt, however, when Harrington returned to his old environment, declining an invitation to start a new life near her in Kansas City. He, in turn, felt hurt when, to his mind, she began taking too much credit for his freedom. Upon his 2003 release, Harrington told a Des Moines reporter, "I think God put [Annie] in my life to be the vessel through which I worked." Now he's more tempered, "She did great work for me, but so did a lot of good lawyers"
When you're wrongfully deprived of a quarter-century of freedom, it stands to reason that you're entitled to some compensation. Both Harrington and McGhee sued the local prosecutors and the Council Bluffs police force under a federal civil rights law. Harrington was cautious about choosing his lawyers. "I didn't want white lawyers getting me out and then bringing in black lawyers -- people said 'Get Johnnie Cochran!' -- to get the money." He settled on the law firm of ... Gerry Spence.
Harrington and Curtis McGhee sued Pottawattamie County and the case against the prosecutors went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The legal issue: Harrington was attempting to sue the prosecutors personally for their misconduct. The defense held that, even if the men were framed, there is prosecutorial immunity, shielding prosecutors from personal liability. On the one hand, it's intuitive: if you frame a man for a murder he did not commit, you ought to shoulder responsibility. On the other hand, if prosecutors could be held personally liable it would have a chilling effect on pursuing "borderline" cases and flood the courts with cases filed by convicted inmates against district attorneys. Besides, as the prosecution put it in a brief, there is "no freestanding constitutional right not to be framed." (Harrington lawyer's disagreed: "The Constitution is offended," they wrote in their brief, "when investigators fabricate evidence ... to frame innocent citizens.")
Harrington traveled to Washington last November, as his lawyers argued his case before the highest court in the land. Paul Clement, a star in the legal community and the Solicitor General under George W. Bush, took the case pro bono to argue on Harrington's behalf. Harrington sat in the gallery as his saga was relayed before the highest court in the land. In the days after the oral arguments, however, the sides reached a settlement. Pottawattamie County would pay Harrington and McGhee $12 million. (Harrington's share was $7.03 million, because he had a child and McGhee did not.)
For Harrington, it was bittersweet. Even after paying the attorneys, it was a lot of money. But he'd also filed the lawsuit in hopes of establishing precedent, making it harder for prosecutors to put other citizens in that position. The settlement rendered the case moot. There would be no Supreme Court decision. And while the size and circumstances of the settlement were massive, the agreement contained a clause expressly stating that there is "no admission of wrongdoing by the county." The settlement also called for Harrington to drop a defamation suit he'd filed against Wilber. Harrington pre-empts the question: "Did I do the right thing [in settling]?" He pauses for a beat. "I still don't know."
A few years ago, Terrence Mackey, Harrington's little league football teammate in the 70s, encouraged his old friend to help coach kids at the Boys and Girls club in North Omaha. Now an Omaha youth parole officer, Mackey figured it would be a good idea to involve Harrington in the community. "I also remember that he knew football." The club director, Dave Felici, was all for it, provided Harrington passed the background check, which he did. "There was one mother who was concerned, thinking, Terry had been in jail because he murdered someone," says Felici. "We explained the situation and by the end of the season she thought he was great."
Alongside with the teams' offensive coordinator, Abdul Muhammad, who once played wingback for Nebraska, Harrington ran methodical practices and wasn't shy about dispensing discipline. He was happy to stay late, offering tutorials on, say, the finer points of leverage. But most of his teaching had little to do with football itself. There were lessons and sermons about focus and accountability and hard work. Felici says that he was particularly impressed by Harrington's devotion to the least talented kids. "A team's a team," Harrington says flatly. "It's not a star and a bunch of other kids."
When Harrington coaches, he recalls his own experiences as a teenager. He thinks he had it right putting education ahead of football. "It's all about getting to college," he says. "Football without academics is like fool's gold." He points to Thunder Collins, a former Nebraska running back now serving a life sentence for a murder. Harrington has been known to suspend kids from practice who are underachieving in school, even when their parents have allowed them to play. He also remembers his disastrous senior year of high school, how one lapse changed the entire trajectory of his life. "I don't know how many times these kids have heard me say, 'You gotta stay focused. We can't afford to lose you and you can't afford to lose yourself.'"
By the end of his first season, Harrington had ingratiated himself, but rumors and half-truths about Coach Terry's backstory swirled. Harrington asked Felici if he could address his past. Sure, said Felici. On a trip back from a road game, Harrington screened his
Harrington's Crohn's disease flared up again this fall, consigning him to bed for days. He had to put his Omaha Community College studies on hold and had to sit out the football season. Telling as few people as possible, he helped subsidize the leagues and the best teams' return trip to Kansas City. He says he'll be back in the spring, demonstrating technique, working with the kids, sermonizing when necessary. And they'll listen.
At that Central Omaha homecoming game last fall, the home team took an early 10-0 lead. Then the defense collapsed, appearing to have signed a non-aggression pact, while the offense sputtered. The opponents ran off 42 straight points and won in a rout. As the dispirited Omaha Central players left the field, Harrington walked to the front row of the bleachers and summoned the players he'd coached at the Boys Club. They approached. He leaned in and complimented them for individual plays but scolded them for openly moping once their team started losing. "Keep your heads up, guys," he implored. "Don't ever stop fighting. You can't quit. You can't quit, because you never know what can happen."
They nodded back.