When we were kids, we all had that one athlete who we admired more than anyone. That guy who stood taller than all the others. The one, who we told our parents that when we grew up, we wanted to be like. For my father it was Alan Trammel, for my friend Patrick, it was Barry Sanders and for me, it was Joey Harrington. I was 10 when Joey was drafted by the Detroit Lions and I could not have been more ecstatic. I still have his jersey hanging up in my closet to this day.
For those of you who may be too young to remember the details of Joey’s career in Detroit, it did not end well. He never put up Pro Bowl numbers like he was predicted to and he was eventually run out of town by the fans, the organization and maybe even his own teammates.
I will always remember Joey’s career with a warm smile despite his stats. Maybe it is because every Sunday I’d rush to the TV with my dad to watch him play. Or maybe it was because he was different than most NFL players. He was pleasant, quiet, normal. I admired that about him. So imagine what it was like for me when Joey was gracious enough to grant me this interview. I was speechless.
When Joey called me, we decided we would go through a time line of his career and he would comment on the different events. We started with his younger days.
Joey’s Grandfather played football for the University of Portland and his father played for the University of Oregon. Being raised in a football family, I asked if Joey always wanted to play football, more specifically quarterback. "It was never forced on me," Harrington said. "I kind of grew into quarterback. I was good at it from a young age. And you know, when you’re a kid you want to do things that you do well."
Coming out of high school, he only had three college offers: Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford.
"I knew I was never going to go to Oregon State because they were still running the wishbone offense which wasn’t really my forte," Harrington remembers. "And I had a hard time turning down a Stanford education. When I was set on a decision I gave those schools [Stanford and Oregon] a date and I was still pretty conflicted the night before."
Ultimately, it would come down to location. Joey wanted to play somewhere where his parents, grandparents and other family members could come to see him play. With that in mind, Joey opted for the Oregon Ducks.
If you don’t recall the 2002 Fiesta Bowl between Colorado and Oregon, it was more or less the Joey Harrington show. Joey led his Ducks to a 38-16 win while passing for 350 yards and four touchdowns. Joey recalls this as one of his fondest college memories: "After the Fiesta Bowl, I had such a feeling of accomplishment. I still felt we would win the National Championship."
Another warm memory from his days as a Duck was the 2000 Oregon-Arizona State game which ended with the Ducks winning 56-55 in a double-overtime thriller. "It was just one of those emotional games," he said. "We thought we won it. We thought we lost it. We thought we won it. So it was really a moment that stuck out to me."
Joey Harrington was to be drafted 3rd overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2002 NFL Draft and that leaves little room for improvement. For those who cannot remember, the Lions were anything but a good team prior to his arrival. Head Coach Marty Mornhinweg and starting quarterback Charlie Batch led the team to an incredible 2-14 in the 2001 season.
A major change was needed in the city of Detroit to say the least. Who did the Lions turn to with the expectation to immediately turn this team around? Joey Harrington, the young quarterback fresh off a Heisman campaign.
I can hardly think of a time where a quarterback came in and immediately and single-handedly turned around a franchise. Most quarterbacks are given a few years to develop under veteran leadership, given time to learn the nuances of the game before taking their shot. There are exceptions to every rule, but the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Peyton Manning.
As Joey pointed out to me: "Those successful rookie quarterbacks have the benefit of either a phenomenal running game or a phenomenal defense."
And he’s right! We talked about some of the successful young quarterbacks that had the privilege of having a great supporting cast. Matt Ryan in Atlanta had a tremendous running back in Michael Turner, and Joe Flacco in Baltimore who had a lock down defense anchored by Ray Lewis. And who did Joey have? A 31-year-old mediocre running back in James Stewart? Or was it wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim that was the difference maker?
Would it have been better for Joey to sit on the bench before diving in? Absolutely! Even he agrees: "I think that’s the best way to bring about a young quarterback."
"You’re putting a quarterback in a position with a team that may not be able to help him on the field and it’s a very, very difficult position to be in."
"That being said, I’m coming at it from hindsight right now. But at the moment I wanted to play!"
"I was the most confident kid in the world at that point and I knew I could turn things around."
So the question stands: Why is it that these quarterbacks come out of college and fail to thrive in the NFL?
In one recent instance, Detroit Lions quarterback Drew Stanton got into it a little bit with offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Martz was constantly trying to change Drew’s mechanics and the way he played the game. I asked Joey if he had a similar experience.
"Well, that’s just Mike’s style," Harrington replied. "You know, I was with him for about a month and that’s just what he does with everybody."
"Most of the NFL works under the philosophy of if it was good enough to get you here at this point then they’re not going to mess with it."
So we know that it wasn’t anyone trying to change his style of play that hurt Joey and I have to assume that it was not a lack of talent. Just look at what he did at the collegiate level. The talent was certainly there!
"A lot of people who get passed on by the NFL don’t get passed on because of a lack of talent, but because of a lack of confidence and belief in themselves" said Harrington. "The mistakes that I made were because I doubted myself and hesitated."
Wait. Hold on. Didn’t Joey say that he came into the NFL feeling like the most confident kid in the world? There had to be something that shook his confidence very quickly.
"When you get to the NFL, not everybody is playing for the same reasons and not everybody is putting out the same amount of effort," Joey told me. "When you need to rely on somebody who’s playing for other motives, it becomes difficult to count on them."
"It’s difficult to build a trust and relationship that you have to have in order to play football at that speed and at that level. So it was really tough for me when I was putting out a lot of effort and not getting it in return. Because of that, I feel I didn’t have the confidence in myself and in our team."
Joey went on to describe what a winning team needs to act like: "My experience in New Orleans was probably my best experience in the NFL, simply because it was a great team. When I talked about guys working hard and trusting each other… That was New Orleans. They were the ultimate team and the ultimate group of guys that played selflessly and did the things necessary to help your teammates."
I don’t want to point fingers, but I feel I have to because Joey Harrington is too humble and too nice of a guy to do so. Certain players on the Lions blamed Harrington for the team’s misfortunes, and it's players like these that create a divide in the locker room. Let me offer some evidence.
"If we'd had production on offense, in particular the quarterback position, [head coach Steve Mariucci] wouldn't have been fired," Dre Bly told the Detroit Free Press. "If Jeff Garcia hadn't gotten hurt, we wouldn't be in this position today. Mooch wouldn't have gotten fired. We're all at fault, but I just feel like Joey [Harrington]'s been here four years, and being the No. 3 pick in the draft, he hasn't given us anything. He hasn't given us what the third pick in the draft should give us."
Former Lions quarterback Keff Garcia had this to say to a local Detroit radio network: "You start to question whether the organization has the people in place who can go about making the proper selections," Garcia told WXYT-AM, according to the paper. "You really have to question that."
Maybe, just maybe, this is the lack of team chemistry Harrington reference. The lack of dedication to the team, the lack of camaraderie and really a disregard for decency will be the undoing of any NFL squad. If Harrington is putting in 110% then how can you blame the guy? Frankly, I don’t understand finger pointing among teammates. You’re a professional, put on your big boy pants, go to work and keep your damn mouth shut.
If I had to guess, I would say that there were not many memorable moments for Joey in Detroit. He was booed, harassed by fans and disrespected by his teammates despite an astounding effort and drive to win. But what about elsewhere in the league? After all, Joey ended up on the Dolphins, the Falcons and eventually ended his career as a Saint in New Orleans. There had to be some sort of positive memory from his time in the NFL.
"One of them was actually playing with Miami and coming back to Detroit to play them on Thanksgiving," said Joey. "That was a fun game for me because after getting run out of town, it was nice to come back because, you know, there were a lot of people that were out for blood and they did the Piano Man Billy Joel thing. But it was good see a lot of people in the stands that appreciated what I did."
That is a much more mature response than I would have offered. My answer to the fans that turned their backs on me like they did to Joey would have been a big middle finger when I ran out the tunnel. But Joey ultimately let his game do the talking, as he threw for 213 yards and 3 touchdowns in that 18-13 win over Detroit.
Despite his experiences in Detroit, Joey warmly recalls the people he met away from football, many who were very grateful for his work charitable help.
I was particularly interested in finding out how it all ended.
"I’m really involved in my foundation, trying to raise money for kids," Harrington said. "I was blessed to be able to be in a position where I didn’t have to continue to work. I told my wife that I didn’t want to go and chase a pay check
"I could stay in this league for fourteen years, but that’s not what I’m going to enjoy. I could pick up and go to Buffalo and then to Cleveland but I won’t know where I’m going to lay my head down next. I wanted to have stability."
"It wasn’t fun for me anymore and I knew what was going to be fun for me was giving back to charities."
This is one of the most incredible things I have ever heard come from an athlete’s mouth. The fact that he quit a multi-million dollar job with the intention of reinvesting it back into the community astonishes me. Especially in a world full of "superstars" who blow their money on drugs, guns and who knows what, all while sending photos of their you-know-what to women who aren’t their wives. (Here's looking at you Ray Lewis, Plaxico Burress and Brett Favre).
Joey goes around and studies various organization he's involved in. like S.M.A.R.T. and the Special Olympics, and incorporates business and organizational methods into his own foundation, the Harrington Foundation.
Another thing Joey seems to love more than anything in this world is his son, Jack Harrington. I asked Joey if he wanted to see his son play football when he grew older. Joey chuckled and said, "That’s funny. You know, any sort of ball right now, he’s all over. Baseball, soccer ball, football, tennis ball but most of all, he absolutely loves basketball.
"He has his little basket, he puts on his Brandon Roy jersey and runs around and shoots hoops."
It’s comforting to know that not every NFL’er has six kids in four states with four different women, and that there is a father that is really there for them. But come on Joey, Brandon Roy? Get the kid a Chauncy Billups jersey already!
"I want him to enjoy whatever it is that he’s doing and not because he feels like he should or that he wants to do it for me. As long as he’s happy with whatever he’s doing I will support him. I mean, how many people can, at 32 years old, spend every morning with their kid?"
Joey’s career in the NFL may not have worked out exactly the way he planned it. The fun and magic from his college years seemed to dissolve away as his teammates became more self indulgent and financially motivated. But with his career over, Joey has done nothing but use his God-given talents to give back to the community and his family. That is so refreshing to see in today's world.
When I was growing up, I admired Joey more than any other athlete for not giving up on his dream despite the cynics and naysayers. As I’ve grown, I've learned that there is much more to the picture than just how successful you were in the NFL. It's more about what kind of person you become along the way. And Joey, if you’re reading this, I think you turned out just fine.
If you would, please take just 5 minutes of your time to go to Joey’s website to look into his foundation. Joey has devoted so much of his time, effort and money towards helping others. The least we could do is to lend a little helping hand, too.