As Chandler Harnish stood in the lobby of his Indianapolis hotel one day during the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, someone bumped him in the shoulder. Harnish's first thought was
The man hurrying past him was John Elway: two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback; Pro Football Hall of Fame member; and executive VP of football operations for the Denver Broncos.
"I was just blown away," Harnish, 23, recalled. "I couldn't come up with any words. There were so many big names there, but when I saw John Elway, I was like, 'Wow!' It was like he had an aura around him, like this invisible force field. He carries himself so well, like he's Mr. Cool. I want to be like that some day."
You might not have heard about Chandler Harnish, who set multiple school records for Northern Illinois of the Mid-American Conference. Heck, he may not even be on Jon Gruden's radar. But Harnish is no less determined to become an NFL quarterback than Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III.
Unlike Luck and RG3, who are expected to be the first two picks overall in next week's draft, Harnish is projected as a late-round selection or, possibly, an undrafted free agent. So he has to go out of his way to get attention. That's why, at the suggestion of his agent, Cliff Brady, Harnish requested to be a designated thrower at the Combine. Instead of throwing, say, only a dozen or so passes on the day the quarterbacks worked out inside Lucas Oil Stadium, Harnish wound up throwing between 400 and 500 times -- not just to receivers, tight ends and running backs but also to defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs.
"Every position except offensive linemen and kickers," said Harnish, whose right arm survived the experience without undue stress. "It was feeling OK. It got tired to a point throwing to the defensive backs, because they made us throw a lot of long passes to them. But it wasn't as bad as a lot of people made it out to be."
Most players spend four days at the Combine. Harnish arrived on a Wednesday and stayed through the following Tuesday. Miami's Jacoby Harris and Southern Mississippi's Austin Davis also were "throwers" at the Combine, but Harnish is the first quarterback who received an invitation to the Combine and then volunteered to be a thrower in Jeff Foster's seven years as president of National Football Scouting Inc., the organization that runs the Combine.
"Plenty of guys contact [us] every year to be a thrower, but usually they are guys who haven't received an invite," Foster said. "The difference with Chandler is that he already had received his invitation, knew he was coming, and proactively called us."
Talking about Harnish's Combine experience, an AFC scouting coordinator said, "What that showed me is that he has confidence in his arm, confidence in his ability. He was willing to stay there the entire week and make the throws, and I thought he did a solid job."
A designated thrower can expand his body of work at the Combine and give himself a chance to get noticed. Former North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates, a thrower during the 2011 Combine, was drafted in the fifth round by the Texans a year ago and wound up starting seven games last season, including two in the playoffs, after starter Matt Schaub got hurt.
"I'm kind of a bubble guy the way it is," said Harnish, who's 6-foot-1 and weighs 219. "Some people have me rated anywhere between the fifth and seventh rounds. I'm a guy [NFL evaluators] question; they want to see more of."
A dual-threat quarterback who passed for 3,216 yards and 28 touchdowns, and was the top rushing quarterback in the nation with 1,379 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior in 2011, Harnish displayed both his arm and his athleticism in Indy. Among quarterbacks, he had the second-fastest time (6.78 seconds) in the three-cone drill and the fourth-fastest time (4.15) in the 20-yard shuttle. And he drew the attention he had wanted.
About 10 NFL teams sent representatives to Northern Illinois' pro day in DeKalb on March 9. Four teams -- the Falcons, Bucs, 49ers and Seahawks -- worked Harnish out privately in DeKalb. And the Seahawks invited him to Seattle recently for a pre-draft visit.
"When you're at a mid-major school, sometimes you just don't get the notoriety," Harnish said. "But one thing we've been told all along is that it [only] takes one team to love you."
There's a lot to love about Harnish, a native of Bluffton, Ind., whose first passion while growing up in the Hoosier state was, not surprisingly, basketball. A four-year starter at Northern Illinois, Harnish set 30 passing, rushing and total offense records, throwing for 8,944 yards and 68 touchdowns, with 26 interceptions, and running for 2,983 yards and 24 TDs during his career. He was the first quarterback to lead the Huskies to four consecutive bowl games. As a senior, Harnish was voted league MVP by the MAC coaches.
Asked if there is one thing he feels NFL teams can't overlook in evaluating him, Harnish pointed to last season. Northern Illinois was 2-3 after five games "and we can go one of two ways -- either downhill or we could turn it around," Harnish said. From that point, the Huskies went on a nine-game winning streak, won the MAC championship and culminated their season with a 38-20 victory over Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
"I think my leadership ability and my ability to turn the season around and get everyone back on the same page and end on a very, very strong note is something I would hope teams would remember about me," Harnish said.
Midway through his college career, Harnish hit a speed bump when he suffered a knee injury between his sophomore and junior seasons. Although he managed to avoid surgery, Harnish lost his starter's role for the 2010 season opener. But he regained it after only one game and produced 3,366 offensive yards (2,530 passing, 836 running), breaking a school record that had stood since 1963. He raised the standard last season with 4,595 yards (3,216 passing and 1,379 rushing).
"With a player like that, you want to see how they finish their career," the scouting coordinator said. "You want to see a guy who's probably playing his most productive football at the end of his last season, and that's what he was doing. His last four or five games, he was really showing a lot of consistency and a lot of production."
Harnish knows NFL teams still have questions about him.
"I think a lot of teams still have doubt that I played against tough enough competition," said Harnish, even though he completed 27 of 33 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed 11 times for 89 yards and three TDs in a September loss to Kansas last season. "Some scouts think I'm not incredibly accurate enough to draft me high. Other than that, I think teams have shown quite a bit of interest. I'm pretty excited on what the possibilities could be."
In preparation for the Combine, Harnish trained with former NFL quarterback Turk Schonert. Since his pro day, Harnish has worked with Jeff Christensen, a former NFL QB who played briefly with the Bengals and Browns. He has been living in an apartment in DeKalb, working out at Northern Illinois' facility and sitting in on the team's quarterback meetings during spring practice. "It keeps my mind fresh on the game," Harnish said.
After graduating a year ago in May with a degree in business management, Harnish has been working toward his MBA. He is about halfway there, having completed 18 credit hours.
Asked if he has any hidden talents, Harnish laughed. "I'm pretty boring. I have no artistic ability. I'm a terrible musician. In elementary school, we were taught how to play the flute and the guitar. I was literally terrible in both. That was the end of my musician days. Hopefully, I won't have to resort to music, or art."
Football is the only thing on Harnish's mind these days. Whether he gets drafted or is signed as a free agent, he's eager to show the NFL that a quarterback from a mid-major school in northern Illinois can make his mark as a pro.
"He will probably get better as the years go along," the scouting coordinator said. "He's a smart kid, an athletic kid. He has a lot of physical traits to carry himself to the next level. He's one of those guys you may hear [about] in a couple of years who plays a backup role and then becomes a starter at some point."
Who knows? Maybe the next time John Elway bumps into Harnish, the NFL icon will stop and congratulate him on his career.