For a moment last Tuesday night, Oregon senior quarterback Joey
Harrington celebrated as he might have 10 years ago while
playing in the annual Turkey Bowl at All Saints Elementary in
suburban Portland. Two minutes from the end of a resounding
38-16 win over Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, Harrington jogged
toward the sideline during a timeout, beamed at the reserve who
was signaling in plays and skipped gleefully back to his team's
huddle. It was the sort of display, when made by a 6'4" man of
22 years and 220 pounds, that could melt only a mother's heart.
"Joey made a lot of great plays today," said Valerie Harrington
after her son passed for 350 yards and four touchdowns and gave
Oregon grounds to claim the national title if Miami lost in the
Rose Bowl, "but what made me most proud is when he did that
little skip. He's been under a lot of pressure this year, and it
was so good to see him having fun. For a minute I saw a glimpse
of my Joey of old."
The pressure on Harrington this season had been enough to wind
even the most fun-loving college kid a little tight. As the most
important player on the Pac-10's favored team--and the Ducks'
first Heisman Trophy candidate in more than 15 years--Harrington
faced expectations loftier than the 100-foot-high billboard
bearing his likeness that Oregon boosters had paid to have
posted in New York City last summer. When, at season's end, the
Pac-10 champion Ducks (10-1) were fourth in the BCS standings
and denied a chance to face undefeated Miami for the title,
despite being ranked No. 2 in both Top 25 polls, Harrington
refused to snap. While Oregon coach Mike Bellotti likened the
BCS to "a cancer," Harrington said simply, "We had a great
season, and we have a legitimate claim to be playing in Pasadena."
He then set out for the Arizona desert to knock off another team
that made the same claim. Mixing bullet passes with arcing
bombs, he connected with seven receivers, and the Ducks scored
from all over the field. "Not only was it the biggest win, but it
was on the biggest stage, and we did it in one of the most
emphatic manners," Harrington said. "We made a statement today,
38 unanswered points, and shot down the hottest team in the
He was surprised at the poor play of Colorado, whose three-headed
rushing monster of Chris Brown, Cortlen Johnson and Bobby Purify
was limited to 49 yards by Oregon's relatively small defenders.
However, even when contemplating the Buffaloes at their best,
Harrington said, he had "always believed that we were going to
January 7, 2002
That had become a favorite postgame refrain for these Ducks. One
month ago Harrington and his teammates started wearing bracelets
with the word BELIEVE spelled out between green and yellow
beads. But more than three years earlier Harrington had become
convinced that Oregon, then a middling Pac-10 team, was worthy
of a big-time bowl. "Every year we tell the players to write out
their goals," says offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford. "A few
years ago Joey informed me that he planned to lead Oregon to a
national championship. That was before anyone at Oregon was
thinking about getting to that level. Before the kid was even
It's easy to forget that Harrington, with his 24-3 career record
and well-publicized pedigree (Joey's father, John, was a Ducks
backup quarterback from 1967 through '69), was a scrub. His debut
throw, a halfback option pass that fell incomplete in the third
quarter of a 1998 game against USC, was his first and last play
as a freshman. Although he entered the next season as a reserve,
Harrington unseated senior A.J. Feeley midway through the season
when he drove Oregon 79 yards in the final 49 seconds for a
come-from-behind victory over Arizona State.
After a junior campaign in which he led the Pac-10 with 257.6
total yards per game, Harrington's improvement in 2001 was
subtle. Over the summer and well into the fall, Tedford helped
him fine-tune his release, drilling him on an over-the-top
throwing motion that sharpened his short passes. While his
average passing yardage per game dropped to 219.5 this season
from 247.3 in 2000, his completion rate rose to 58% from 53%.
More important than that was a lesson Harrington learned on his
own. "I'm convinced that nothing is as improbable as it seems,"
he says, "not even coming back after a midseason loss to try to
get into the national championship picture."
Harrington directed the Ducks to four fourth-quarter
come-from-behind victories this year, bringing his career total
to 10. After kicking off the 2001 season with six straight wins,
Oregon was shocked 49-42 by Stanford at home. "That was a
turning point for us," says Ducks senior fullback Josh Line.
"The team was devastated, knowing that we had lost a dream that
day, in front of our home crowd. No one left the stands
afterward--it was bizarre. Then, in the locker room, Coach
Bellotti said something important: 'Don't let Stanford beat you
twice.' The next day before practice, Joey and [senior
cornerback Rashad] Bauman and [senior tailback Maurice] Morris
challenged us to think not about what we had lost but about what
we would gain with a strong finish. We ended up having the best
week of practice this year."
Secretly, though, Harrington struggled to reset his game face
after the Stanford loss, in which he allowed a fourth-quarter
lead to slip through his fingers for only the second time in his
career. "I knew I had to bounce back the next day," he says.
"That's what being a leader is all about. If the other players
see you in a nonpositive mind-set, that affects them. I have to
present an air of confidence at all times."
By Nov. 10, when he made up six points against UCLA with just
over 10 minutes to play, Harrington had the act down pat.
Teammates recall his poise when he beckoned all the Ducks--not
only the offense but also the defense and special teams--to join
him in the sideline huddle that preceded the 70-yard scoring
drive that put Oregon ahead for good. "He told us, 'This is our
future, right here,'" says Line. "That little speech not only
inspired the offense but also helped the defense make a great
stand to prevent UCLA from coming back."
Oregon's seniors would learn two weeks later, through a televised
announcement by the BCS, that the game against UCLA was to be
their last game in the Rose Bowl this season. "We were in a team
meeting, and the first thing someone said was, 'Ain't that a
bitch?'" remembers Bauman, a product of downtown Phoenix who
would combine with fellow cornerback Steve Smith for four
interceptions in the Fiesta Bowl. "There were a lot of damns and
oh, wells. Then we went out to practice."
Harrington, who had spent days regaling his teammates and family
members with far-fetched conference championship outcomes that
would place Oregon in the Rose Bowl, challenged his teammates to
focus on the task at hand: beating Colorado. "This isn't meant
to be a fun trip," said Harrington as he rode toward his
Scottsdale resort hotel in a team SUV two days before the Fiesta
Bowl. While he had spent a good portion of the previous five
days poolside, he was usually engrossed in the Buffaloes'
defensive highlights that he had downloaded onto his laptop
computer. "I can have fun next week with friends and family
after we win, and only after we win," said Harrington, who had
brought his golf clubs on the trip as a sign of confidence.
"I'll probably play with my dad on some courses around here. A
little target golf."
Last Tuesday, Harrington embarked on an entertaining game of
target football. Protected in the pocket by a young and
undersized offensive line that had jelled to become one of the
best units in the country, he was true on 28 of 42 throws. His
four touchdown passes included a 79-yarder to sophomore stealth
receiver Samie Parker early in the second quarter that put the
Ducks ahead for the first time, 14-7. It was the second score of
a 38-point Oregon run, and Colorado never recovered.
The Ducks then made good on Bellotti's Dec. 31 prediction that
their offense would "pull some things out of [its] hat." What
emerged in the second half was a pair of jackrabbits, Morris and
his best friend and backup, sophomore Onterrio Smith. The
tackle-breaking tag team, which ran for 1,967 yards this season,
switched off more than a dozen times during the game while
combining for 149 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
The Oregon running game, which was instrumental in the team's
final four victories, may have weakened Harrington's chances for
winning the Heisman Trophy. Harrington's yardage dipped slightly
in those four games, and in a rainy season finale at Oregon
State he finished with 104 passing yards, his lowest total since
throwing for 66 in his third game as a sophomore. Despite
finishing a distant fourth in the Heisman voting and being
referred to as Joey Harrington of Oregon State during the award
ceremony, he told Tedford that the early-December Heisman visit
to New York City was one of the best weekends of his life.
"All he could talk about was what a great experience it was and
how great the other guys were," says Tedford. "As long as I've
been coaching him, Joey was never interested in personal rewards."
Cocooned by about two dozen friends and relatives in the parking
lot after his Heismanesque performance in Tempe, Harrington
laughed when asked to compare the stiff-arm statuette with his
Fiesta Bowl MVP trophy, which was being passed around by some of
his younger cousins. "Are you kidding me?" he asked. "Heisman
doesn't give me what's on the field. Heisman doesn't bring all
these people together, doesn't bring a team together." He
gestured toward an adoring aunt on his left, a pack of defensive
linemen who were slapping hands and bear-hugging on his right.
"This is what I've always wanted," he said, "where I pictured
myself--playing college football in a national championship
game--because of the fans, because of the purity of the game,
because of the relationship with the players and coaches."
In thinking ahead to this year's NFL draft, in which he's
projected to go as high as second among quarterbacks (behind
Fresno State's David Carr), Harrington is less worried about
where he'll be picked than about the company he'll keep. "I'm a
little nervous to see what player interaction will be like, when
all my life I've played with my best friends," says Harrington,
whose favorite college ritual was the pat on the back that he
always received from linebackers coach Don Pellum after a drive.
"From what I hear from players, I'll be starting a job, like any
In the meantime Harrington will try to enjoy being a college
kid. He'll go to Oregon basketball games wearing his trademark
fuzzy red wig, and he'll continue to resist a nominal upgrade to
a more grown-up Joe. And instead of accepting an invitation to
watch what he called "the other" national championship game in
the Rose Bowl broadcast booth, he watched the game with members
of the gang that played in those Turkey Bowls way back when.
Feeling helpless as Miami blew to a 34-0 first-half lead last
Thursday night, Harrington said, "I just would have liked a shot
"For all the drama," he said of his final season, "I wouldn't
call this a perfect ending, but it's been a nice ending."
Although he doesn't know how often he'll be able to visit
friends and family in Oregon after pro camp begins, he makes a
promise that he has kept before. "Don't worry," he said. "I'll
"We made a statement today, 38 unanswered points, and shot down
the hottest team in the country," Harrington said.
Bellotti had said the offense would "pull some things out of
[its] hat." What emerged were a couple of jackrabbits.