Sometime early next May, long after the 1979 college football season is history and the All-Americas have been selected and the Heisman Trophy has been awarded, Perry Harrington finally will get what he deserves—recognition as one of the finest running backs in the nation.
This belated tribute should occur no later than Round 1 of the NFL draft. In Harrington's case, that rite of spring will serve to point up a wrong of autumn. For he seems certain to be selected ahead of a legion of more publicized players, including many who, by then, will have accepted the honors for which Harrington never was considered.
Odd, this lack of recognition. After all, last year, as a junior, Harrington led his 10-1 team by racking up 1,105 yards and 12 touchdowns, seven of which were scored on runs of 30 yards or longer. He also rushed for 125 yards or more in four games. He carried the ball only 133 times, which means his average gain was 8.3 yards—or almost a full yard better than that of Billy Sims, the Heisman winner.
The problem is that Harrington did all this good work for Jackson State, a predominantly black school in Jackson, Miss, whose football program gets national attention only in the spring, when the pros pick their annual contingent of players off the Tiger roster. The rest of the time, Jackson and the Southwestern Athletic Conference in which it plays are rarely heard of—for one thing, their games appear on TV less often than Irish hurling—and consequently are largely ignored by those who cast ballots for postseason honors. Consider this. Jackson State has had at least 10 alumni make the NFL Pro Bowl but is still waiting to get a first-team All-America selectee. Among the overlooked have been Coy Bacon, Robert Brazile, Verlon Biggs, Lem Barney, Rich Caster, Jerome Barkum, Harold Jackson, Speedy Duncan, Leon Gray and Walter Payton.
September 23, 1979
Harrington is unconcerned about his performing in such athletic obscurity. As the ninth child—and one of only two boys—in a family of 11, Harrington is ill-prepared to be the center of attention, even if he wanted to be. Describing himself as "a homebody type of person," Harrington expresses no regrets about having stayed in Jackson.
"You can look at it two ways," he says. "If I had gone to a place like Oklahoma or USC, I might have been better known or I might have been on the bench. I think I had a chance to develop better here than I might have had at a bigger school. It's still nice being close to home and around friends. They know what I'm doing and they appreciate it."
So do NFL scouts. To that choosy electorate, Harrington is a blue-chip candidate. "He's a cinch to be taken very high in the next draft," says Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' vice-president for player development. "He's as good a back as there is anywhere in the country," says Joe Woolley, an Oiler scout. "Sims and White are the two best-known backs around, but Harrington might be better than either of them."
The pros hanker after Harrington for several reasons, starting with his combination of size (5'11", 208) and speed (4.44 for the 40). Harrington is strong and solid enough to break tackles or power over a defender, but given a choice, he wisely prefers to outmaneuver or outrun the pursuit.
"When I've got the ball," he says, "the thing I think about most is 'get away'—get away from the defender and try not to get hit too hard. Sometimes I think, 'What am I doing out there where everybody's trying to hit me?' I figure I've accomplished something when I say to myself, 'That dude right there, you better get away from him,' and do it. Sometimes I look at myself on the films and say, 'Man, I did that? Hard to believe!' "
Harrington, who was the Mississippi state high school low-hurdles champion in 1975 and '76—his best was a 19.0 in the 180-yard event—also has superb balance and heavily muscled thighs, which combined with his speed make him hard to bring down even when he is sent inside the tackles. The pro scouts are also impressed with another of Harrington's stats, the 3.0 grade point average he has as a business finance major. He hopes to become an accountant, and his first client may be himself, because he is entertaining thoughts of acting as his own agent come spring. Harrington also gets high marks when he blocks for other Tiger ballcarriers.
"I enjoy doing a good job of blocking as much as I do running, say, 70 yards for a touchdown," he says.
Through the Tigers' first two games this season Harrington had to get a lot of his enjoyment from blocking because a severely bruised big toe has not only diminished his acceleration but also made running downright painful. Nonetheless, he rushed for 91 yards on 15 carries in a season-opening 14-7 victory over Alabama State. A week later he gained 73 yards running out of the Tigers' wishbone and scored twice in the second half as Jackson State rebounded from a 21-10 third-quarter deficit to beat Tennessee State 27-21. Last Saturday, Harrington, his toe still ailing, gained only 38 yards on six carries as Jackson State beat Prairie View A&M 24-6.
Wishbone backs often need tutoring in pass receiving when they move on to the pros, but Harrington's hands are sure enough right now, both for NFL scouts and Jackson State Coach W.C. Gorden.
"He convinced me last year that he can catch the football," Gorden says. "One example really stands out. Against Florida A&M [in last year's Division I-AA playoffs, a 15-10 defeat for the Tigers] our quarterback pitched to Perry on the option. They were stunting so that their linebacker met Perry at the same instant the ball arrived. It was about 10° that day, with a wind-chill factor of about zero, but Perry not only caught the pitch, he almost broke the tackle."
Gorden is equally sure that Harrington has the potential to be as good as or even better than Payton, the Bears' superlative running back whom Gorden coached in 1971. "He's larger than Walter," Gorden says. "He has bigger legs, and he has the ability to run up the middle as well as go to the outside."
Harrington prefers to liken his style to that of Franco Harris, whom he admires for his heady technique of saving his explosive burst until the very moment the hole opens. But there is something Harrington would like to match, even more than Harris' running technique—the off-field accomplishments of the Oilers' Earl Campbell. Like Campbell, Harrington grew up dirt poor and he hopes to spend part of his NFL signing bonus on a new house for his mother.
"I think my mother did a good job of raising us," says Harrington, who did not have a close relationship with his father. "I never had much of what I wanted but I never suffered for anything, so if I do get some money—and if it's $100 it will be more than I'm used to—I think I'd get Mama a better place to live."
Come May, when acknowledgment of Harrington's talent becomes widespread—and negotiable—he should be able to give his mother an award, too, even if he doesn't get any himself.