Ever hear of Joey Heisman?
He’s a legend. 100-feet tall, Joey is, with a cannon for an arm — a Civil War-era cannon. Fact is, Joey himself fought in the Civil War, fought in two of ’em. And now he stands like a sentinel in New York, watching over the voters at the Downtown Athletic Club.
Joey Heisman’s real name is Joey Harrington, and he’s not a myth; he’s Oregon’s 6-foot-4 senior quarterback. It’s his likeness that stares across the street at Madison Square Garden, a 10-story billboard promoting Harrington’s candidacy for the 2001 Heisman trophy. Oh yeah — and it set Oregon boosters back $250,000.
The figures, the one on the billboard as well as the other six, are grand. Harrington is a little more humble.
“It was definitely an interesting experience,” Harrington says of travelling to New York to see himself in all his two dimensions. “It was more embarrassing than anything, but you smile. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and something I’ve enjoyed.”
Opportunities are what Joey Harrington is all about.
Often described as an Oregon kid through-and-through, with a father who played for the Ducks in the 1960s and strong ties to his home state, he actually nearly ended up taking snaps down the coast at Stanford. But the academic all-American passed up a Stanford education to give his family the opportunity to see him play college football.
Harrington speaks glowingly of his dad, John Harrington, who he says never pressured him into a college decision or even into the game of football.
“He wasn’t a very vocal person,” Harrington says. “He wasn’t a screamer and he didn’t force me to do anything I didn’t want to do.”
His father accepted the job as coach of Harrington’s Pop Warner team once Joey decided he wanted to play football. The elder Harrington, according to Joey, took a reserved role that was more like a guidance counselor than a signal-caller. John would just sit down and handle problems when they came up, giving his son and his teammates the opportunity to merely be kids and play ball.
The University of Oregon has not been so passive. After all, you don’t pay a quarter-million dollars to launch a campaign and then sit on your hands. So, at the behest of the school, Harrington has been blitzed by the media, answering all requests for interviews even during busy, tiring two-a-days.
Coming out of an hour-and-a-half meeting with coaches and just prior to another grueling practice, it sounds like the last thing he wants to do is talk on the phone with a campus newspaper from halfway across the country. Asked if he’s had a lot of interviews, Harrington just laughs.
“I’ve done a few.”
He says he tries not to worry about the media attention and the Heisman hype, since it’s out of his control. He also can’t control that the biggest game of the season against Oregon State — the Civil War — was pushed back two weeks to Dec. 1 so that ABC can air it between conference championship games. The move lets Oregon make more money, which will help pay for the expensive billboard.
No one is quite sure whether the long layoff will help or hurt the teams (neither Oregon or OSU has a game between Nov. 10 and Dec. 1), but Harrington knows that the added television exposure is an opportunity for the program that will, in the long run, translate into more wins. The same was true about the Ducks’ 35-30 win over Texas in last winter’s Holiday Bowl — a game in which he ran, threw and caught for touchdowns.
“[Texas is] one of the schools you think of when you think of college football,” Harrington says. “And for us to have a chance to knock them off on national television was a big boost for our program. It was a great chance for us to make a name for ourselves.”
Under head coach Mike Belotti, with the help of players like Harrington, Oregon has done just that by leading the Pac-10 in wins during the six years he has been head coach. Aware that things are changing in the conference, with either the Beavers or Ducks expected to take the crown away from perennial powers UCLA, USC and Washington, Harrington is happy that he’s had the opportunity to be a part of the success.
But, as a true competitor (he regrets that Oregon doesn’t have a chance to play the Rose Bowl-champion Huskies this fall), Harrington wants more. A school-record 10 wins in 2000 was unsatisfying because the Ducks, though in a three-way tie for first, failed to qualify for the Rose Bowl and were left out of the Bowl Championship Series altogether with two losses.
“The Wisconsin game cost us the Rose Bowl,” Harrington says. “Simple as that. If we would have won that game, Oregon State wouldn’t have mattered.”
Then again, he says, “Nothing’s more important than the Civil War.”
The Ducks have lost the two battles Harrington has started against those in-state rivals; the 2000 contest was highlighted by his five interceptions. This time, it appears the Oregon State matchup will prove a deciding factor in the national-championship picture. If he can perform at the level he is expected, that crucial win might come — along with individual postseason awards and a possibility to play professionally.
A proven winner with an accurate arm, he stands to garner a fair look from pro scouts before next April’s draft. Harrington says he plans to split his time next spring equally between NFL workouts and Ducks basketball games. For now, despite the distractions, he is focused on winning in college and taking Oregon to a title.
“I always wanted to play college football and play in the Rose Bowl,” he says. “Those are the things I’ve been dreaming of.”
Oregon’s rise to prominence has given him the opportunity. Now, if he can only avoid the shadow of his own billboard and ignore the pressure from his Heisman-crazed school, all Joey Harrington has to do is perform.