Thursday, September 6, 2007

Good Luck Joey

The National Football League is a tough business. Just ask Joey Harrington. Despite leading the Oregon Ducks to the best season in school history, a Fiesta Bowl win, a #2 ranking in the national polls, and finishing as a heisman finalist with a 10-story billboard in New York City, most people remember him as a bum; a journeyman quarterback who doesn't have what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

To go from "Joe College", the #3 player taken in the 2002 NFL draft with your face on the cover of a video game, to a bust whose only future in this leauge is as a backup. To go from loved and adored, to hated and written off.

But that's what the NFL can do to even great college players. If you just look at other quarterbacks from the Pac-10 conference who have been drafted into the NFL over the last several years, there is mixed success. Carson Palmer is an all-pro, but Ryan Leaf (Washington State), Akili Smith (Oregon), and Cade McNown (UCLA) were busts. Marques Tuiasosopo (Washington), Andrew Walter (Arizona State), Kyle Boller (Cal), and Aaron Rodgers (Cal) have barely seen playing time.

These guys were all outstanding college quarterbacks and yet they can't cut it in the pros. It makes me wonder what might have been, if guys like Joey or Akili Smith had not been drafted by two of the worst franchises (Detroit and Cincinatti, respectively) in the NFL at the time, where their confidence was destroyed.

After four miserable years in Detroit, and a somewhat better year in Miami, Harrington was all but written off; his confidence shot. After being traded to the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason as a backup to Michael Vick, Harrington realized "I could spend the next six years as a backup and never have the chance to play another game. But I was determined I'd be ready if the chance did come."

After Vick was indicted on federal dog-fighting charges, Joey got his chance.

"I've spent the last two years trying to get my confidence back as a quarterback,'' Harrington told Sports Illustrated writer Don Banks earlier this month at Falcons training camp. "So much of what a quarterback does is about confidence. That's what I lost in Detroit. But I'm much more of a quarterback today than what I was with the Lions, or even last year in Miami. Now it's time to show that."

As someone who had the good fortune to watch his career in person on Saturday afternoons at Autzen Stadium, I hope he does. To me, Joey represents everything good about sports. By all accounts he's an honest, down-to-earth guy who doesn't get into trouble. I once heard him say that he never cared about being a NFL quarterback. His dream was to be a college quarterback. And that's how he played - like a guy living his dream, having fun and playing his guts out. I never saw a player who wanted to win more than Joey. And now, with the opportunity to play on the most talented team in his career, he may get a chance to prove it.

"I've learned a ton the last two years in this league. About myself and about how this league operates. I became so much more comfortable with who I am as a person and who I am as a player. That's what has enabled me to be ready to take advantage of this opportunity.''

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