Up from the Hill

Major Harris rose from Pittsburgh's Hill District to football heights
December 19, 1988

When Major Harris was 16, he threw a football more than 70 yards for the winning touchdown on the last play of the game as his high school team, Brashear of Pittsburgh, beat Indiana (Pa.) High 22-21. That same year Foge Fazio, then the coach at Pitt, told Harris he would be the next Dan Marino. When Harris was 18, he went off to West Virginia University. Now Harris is 20, and the quarterback of a Mountaineer team that ended its regular season with an 11-0 record, the best in the 98-year history of West Virginia football. On Jan. 2 he will take the Mountaineers into the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame. The winner will likely be crowned national champion.

"No one has done more for his team than Major has done for ours," says West Virginia coach Don Nehlen. "Before a big game Major will be...well, there's no telling. He's a joker. He keeps our guys loose." In the locker room, Harris cracks jokes, dances and has a nickname for everyone. "It's more than a game to some people." says Nehlen. "As long as it stays just a game to Major, he'll be all right."

"Once we're in the huddle. Major won't say much," says senior guard John Stroia. "He leads by example."

For 90-odd years, West Virginia football was led by men named Stydahar, Huff, Marconi, Howley and Braxton. It was bull-necked, spit-and-cuss football, but it lacked that special something that might propel a lesser football power in a wretchedly poor state toward a national championship. Harris has changed that.

Harris's importance to West Virginia can't be grasped by mere statistics. He doesn't have enough pass attempts—he's just under the required 15 per game—to be nationally ranked, though if he were ranked, his rating of 167.4 would have beaten out Washington State's Timm Rosenbach for No. 1 in the country. No, Harris doesn't bring stats to the party. Harris is the party.

Consider two plays from this Mountaineer season. The first was against Penn State on Oct. 29. On first-and-10 from the Penn State 26, with no score in the first quarter, Harris found himself caught in a busted play. The rest of the West Virginia team went left; Harris went right, where only he and five Penn State defenders remained. Harris cut back hard against the grain and scored standing up, touching off an eventual 51-30 Mountaineer rout.

Harris came back to the sideline and told Nehlen, "My fault, Coach." Nehlen shook his head and told Harris that he thought he could live with it.

The second play came midway through the second quarter against Rutgers on Nov. 12 at Giants Stadium, with West Virginia behind 10-7. Standing in the pocket just short of midfield, Harris set himself to throw as a Rutgers defender was about to smash him from the right—his blind side. At the last possible instant, Harris sensed the pass rusher's presence and reacted, looking like a man falling off a tightrope while hurling a dart. The ball whistled 50 yards down the middle, not more than 12 feet off the ground, and knocked wideout Reggie Rembert in for a touchdown. West Virginia went on to win the game 35-25.

"The feel, I can't explain," Harris says. "I hear a voice in my head. Sometimes it says, 'Move, Major.' I know to listen to the voice."

West Virginia closed out its schedule with a methodical 31-9 victory over Syracuse on Nov. 19 at Mountaineer Field. Harris gained 210 total yards in a light rain. "I could've done more," he said afterward, in a hoarse baritone. "If people believe in you, then you shouldn't let them down."

Harris did not let them down. He helped the Mountaineers convert 14 of 20 third downs against a well-executed zone defense. "It took Donnie [McPherson, last year's All-America quarterback for the Orangemen] five years to learn not to force the ball," said Syracuse coach Dick MacPherson. "Major is special."

After the game, Harris slowly made his way out of the stadium, signing autographs for anyone who asked and simultaneously holding a conversation with a potential Mountaineer recruit from Texas. The high school player wore several expensive-looking chains around his neck. Harris wears no jewelry at all. "I see you brought your gold with you," Harris said, smiling. "Next year, bring your moves. O.K.?"

In the stadium parking lot Harris, with his mother and father, Sandra and Joseph, his high school coach, Ron Wabby, and his girlfriend, Kiss Bey, accepted congratulations from a group of tailgaters. Someone offered Bey $200 for her No. 9 jersey. She declined.

"You know, he is special," said Wabby as Harris mingled with the crowd. "There will never be another one like Maj. And his potential hasn't been scratched yet. Maj deserves everything he gets. He's a great player, but even more, he's a great kid."

Pittsburgh's Hill District can be a sinful place. Harris grew up there, but he was always above it. Joblessness, dope, liquor and crime play a mean game of tag up on the Hill. "You can get into some things and not get out," says Lamont Harris, one of Major's two older brothers. "I have to credit my parents for taking us through." Lamont, 25, played basketball at St. Francis College of Pennsylvania in Loretto, and was Harris's sports tutor. "As soon as Major could walk, he was out there on the playground, playing baseball, basketball and quarterback." The older men who sat and watched the games on the Hill held Major in highest esteem. "I thought I was pretty good." says Lamont, "but they'd point at Major and say, 'You know, he's the one.' "

Major says he has never had a cigarette in his mouth and has never touched hard liquor. He tasted beer when he was 16, didn't like it and hasn't drunk any since. "When I come home now, it makes me sad," says Harris reflectively. He is sitting by a second-floor window in the housing project where his family lives. "So I get strength from God. I read my Bible. When I have nowhere else to turn, I turn to God."

Three boys appear below the window. One of them is tossing a football up into the air. "Young men, what do you want to do?" asks Harris.

"We want to burn Major." says one boy, trying to look tough. Harris smiles. "I'll be right out," he says. Minutes later, Harris is on the playground throwing passes in the rain.

Before Harris was in his teens, he was a fastball-curveball pitcher who could also play any other baseball position. When he was 16, the Oakland A's inquired about the speed of his fastball. But he had been struck in the temple by a line drive when he was 12, and had lost his enthusiasm for the sport. In basketball he starred at guard for a Brashear team that, in his junior year, barely lost the Pennsylvania AAAA state championship game to a Carlisle team led by Jeff Lebo, now at North Carolina, and Billy Owens, now at Syracuse. In his senior year, Harris averaged 23.6 points, nine rebounds and three steals per game.

As a quarterback, he threw for 26 touchdowns in his last two high school seasons as Brashear went undefeated in league play. In both his junior and senior years he was named Player of the Year in Pittsburgh's City League by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Fazio, who had once coveted Harris's arm, left Pitt after the 1985 football season to coach the defense at Notre Dame. In January 1986, the new Pitt coach, Mike Gottfried, sent an assistant, Tommie Liggins, over to Brashear. where he met Wabby and Harris in the cafeteria. Wabby says that Liggins did not seem interested in Harris as a quarterback, and Harris did not want to play defensive back, a position that some scouts felt he was well suited for. "Major at defensive back?" says Wabby. "Major couldn't hit a teddy bear without apologizing." Liggins, who had arrived at Pitt only days before his visit with Harris, says that the player had already made up his mind to go to West Virginia.

Nehlen had indeed made it clear from the start that he wanted Harris only as a quarterback. "I knew Major was going to be a great quarterback at this level," says Nehlen. "I just didn't know when." So, while Harris's home up on the Hill is a stone's throw from Pitt Stadium, he chose West Virginia.

"I'm proud I'm a good athlete," says Harris. "It took hard work. But of the things I can do, I can throw best. That was always easy." He flexes his right hand. His arms are not particularly long nor well-muscled. His fingers are of average length. But his palm is huge: almost 5 inches by 5 inches. "Sometimes the football feels like a baseball in my hand," he says, "and I know I can put that football anywhere."

In August 1986, just before he left for West Virginia. Harris played in the Big 33 Football Classic, which pits Pennsylvania's schoolboy stars against the best from Maryland. During practice Harris told teammate Michael Owens, Billy's brother, now a running back at Syracuse, that he could throw a football into the end zone from the 50-yard line while on one knee. Owens scoffed until Harris did it.

During the game, Harris, the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart for Pennsylvania, threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Owens and a 51-yard touchdown pass that was called back. Pennsylvania won 21-7.

That fall, Nehlen brought in another fine quarterback. Browning Nagle from Largo, Fla. Nehlen had two juniors, Mike Timko and Ben Reed, sharing the quarterback position, so Harris and Nagle were redshirted. But after the 1987 Gold-Blue spring game, there was little doubt as to who would be the Mountaineers' quarterback in September. By the end of the school year, Nagle had transferred to Louisville, saying, "I'd really like to wish Major luck. I hope he still has a flame under his rear end to do well, even though I'm not there."

Harris decided to spend his summer in Morgantown, working for the West Virginia highway department. On the night of June 27, while home for the weekend, he decided to walk to a fraternity party in the Oakland district, near the Pitt campus, to meet his cousin Vern Kirk, a tight end for the Panthers. When Harris arrived, the police were outside, announcing on a loudspeaker that the party was over. Harris couldn't find Kirk. Then he heard the sound of breaking glass. Someone had hit a police car with a bottle.

"A voice inside me said, 'Maj, you don't need this.' So I started walking away," says Harris. A police car followed him. "I had no need to run. I hadn't done anything wrong."

Harris turned a corner and so did the car. It screeched to a halt alongside him. Officer Thomas Palmieri emerged. "He said, "You! Hold it there, nigger! Put your hands up, turn around and face that wall!" " says Harris. "I turned around with my back to him. He started beating me with his flashlight. He was trying to kill me. I know he was by the force. Then he said, I should kill you, nigger.' I covered my head with my arms, so he brought the flashlight in front and started choking me with it. I started to black out. I came back to myself in the car. I was handcuffed. Blood was everywhere."

Palmieri and a backup unit took Harris to a nearby hospital. He required four stitches on the front of his head, two in back. At the hospital, Harris says, he was uncuffed and told to sign his name. "I signed my name, and everything changed," he says. 'They looked at it, then at each other. The other officers left right away. The one who had beaten me started talking to me then. He said, 'Major, why didn't you tell me? I saw you play in high school. You were so great.' Then he told me he wanted to let me go, but if he did, I might sue. He told me that sometimes people make mistakes. I was in a haze. This is the same guy who tried to kill me."

Harris was taken from the hospital, and kept overnight at the downtown Pittsburgh jail. The next morning he was arraigned on charges of throwing a missile and resisting arrest. At a preliminary hearing 10 days later, Palmieri said he saw three youths, one of whom he later identified as Harris, "making throwing motions" before the police car was hit. He said he couldn't see the youths' faces, only their clothes. Paul Gettleman, Harris's lawyer, asked Palmieri if he had yelled racial epithets at Harris. Palmieri said he had not. Palmieri said he chased Harris in his patrol car and ordered him to stop, but that Harris kept running. The officer said he pinned Harris on the hood of a car, and that Harris struggled and then swung at him. Palmieri told the court that he hit Harris once with his flashlight, then used it as a bar to hold his suspect. Harris was ordered to stand trial after the 1987 football season, was released on bond and returned to West Virginia.

One night during preseason camp, several Mountaineers put on a Gong Show skit that featured a player who was supposed to be Harris throwing an object and then being beaten by the police. Harris smiled but didn't enjoy it. Later that month, at a hearing in Allegheny County's Common Pleas Court, Judge Robert E. Dauer dropped the charges. "There was no probable cause to hold Harris on the charges," says Dauer. At the urging of his family, Harris had filed a complaint of police brutality with the Public Safety Department's Office of Professional Responsibility. But the case was closed when Gettleman refused to provide names of witnesses to investigating officers. "I wanted to be present when the witnesses were interviewed," Gettleman said. "I was afraid they [the police] would intimidate them." Harris still has six months left to decide whether he will sue the city and police department on charges including false arrest, malicious prosecution and violation of his civil rights.

"What I want is for him to stand up and tell the judge the truth," says Harris of Palmieri.

"I had never been affected by racism before," says Harris. "That put me back on a straighter path. I was going into things blindly."

Harris took over West Virginia's offense that fall, and the Mountaineers started shakily, with a 23-3 victory over Ohio University and three losses, to Ohio State, Maryland and Pitt. In the Pitt game, a 6-3 heartbreaker, he fumbled on the WVU 27 with 5:34 to go in the game, to set up Pitt's winning field goal. The Mountaineer offense finally exploded in a 49-0 win over East Carolina in which Harris completed 6 of 12 passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for another touchdown. The Mountaineers would go 4-2 over the rest of the regular season, the losses coming by a total of five points to Penn State and Syracuse, and would lose 35-33 to Oklahoma State in the Sun Bowl, when the Cowboys stopped a two-point conversion attempt with 1:13 left in the game.

The Major Harris era in Morgantown had begun. The West Virginia football program was moving in a new direction. But then so was Harris. That semester he began to consider becoming a lawyer. "It was something I had to do," says Harris. "I've got about a 2.4 or 2.5 grade point, so it won't be easy. But now there is a special goal I want to accomplish. I want to know law."

Something else happened after that '87 season. On New Year's Eve, Sandra Harris was laid off from her job at the Edgar Thomson Works, a USX Corp. steel mill, after more than 13 years. A year later, Sandra Harris is on public assistance. Lamont, who has a bachelor's degree from St. Francis, is also unemployed. Joseph Harris Sr., who no longer lives with the family, isn't working either. A sister, Tywanda, 27, lives nearby with her five children. Joseph Jr., 26, Harris's other older brother, is a security guard and the family's sole wage earner.

And 70 miles from the Hill, in the bracing mountain air of Morgantown, Harris is preparing for the biggest game of his young career. "We have to open it up to have a chance to beat Notre Dame," he says. "We have to throw. They aren't going to let us option them to death. We can't win if I'm held back."

Forced into the center of a media and publicity storm, Harris is nevertheless relaxed, joking easily with his teammates and the press. But there is also about Harris a certain seriousness, a new, more thoughtful demeanor. He was disappointed but said nothing, when Nehlen suggested last year that it would be better for both the team and Harris if Harris dropped the police-brutality complaint. (Nehlen said he doesn't remember making such a suggestion.) When one of his black teammates told him recently that swastikas adorned the rooms of a couple of his white teammates, Harris didn't laugh it off, as he once might have. And when a white Mountaineer defender came off the field in a game this season and said, "That nigger hit me in the throat!...Sorry—big black guy, big black guy," well, Harris understood.

"I've got a lot to learn," Harris says, reaching absentmindedly to touch the scars on his head. "It's not going to be easy. But a voice speaks to me in the classroom now. It says, 'You can do it. Major.' Mr. Ford [Garrett Ford, the team's academic counselor] says he can help me get into the West Virginia law school. We have a good one here. It's up on the hill." That's a far different hill from the one on which Harris grew up. "See, up above the football field. I came here to learn."

PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGEven though he left for West Virginia, Harris remains a hero to youngsters on the Hill. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERHarris's inspired scramble off a broken play ignited a 51-30 victory over Penn State. PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGThe times have been hard of late for (from left) Joseph Jr., Joseph Sr. and Lamont. PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGSince his encounter with the police, Harris has given thought to a possible law career. PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGThose bombs of Harris's are launched from an arm that still could use some building up.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)