The 6'4", 220-pound Harrington, who turned 24 last month, claims to be a shy, withdrawn homebody who doesn't have the nerve to start up a conversation with an unfamiliar woman. In a football context, however, he is bold and confident. Ask him if his rookie responsibilities—learning a new offense with complex terminology, asserting himself in the presence of older teammates, handling off-field commitments—are more daunting than he expected, and he smiles and shakes his head no. "I feel really good," he says. "Football is what I love, and I know I can do it, too. I know I can play in this league, and not having to wonder about that helps keep me calm."
Harrington's breezy confidence has generated excitement in the Lions' locker room and has won over teammates. "I've been around young quarterbacks who get so freaked out that you can see the whites of their eyes, but not this guy," says guard Tony Semple, a nine-year veteran. "He's so relentlessly positive and has such a passion for the game that it's a pleasure to block for him." Fellow guard Brown, a 15-year veteran, played for Washington in '94 when the Redskins brought in Heath Shuler with the third pick in the draft. "Joey's not in over his head like Heath was," Brown says. "He's not overwhelmed by this. Before the opening kickoff against New Orleans he sidled up to me and told me a joke."
Davis, a cornerback in his 13th year, compares Harrington's demeanor with that of former San Francisco 49ers teammate Steve Young. "Joey's a special player," Davis says. "He wants to perfect everything he does. He's always pulling me aside during practice, saying, 'How did you know I was going to throw that way?' or 'What can I do to sell that fake?' "
Of all the qualities a quarterback can possess, none captivates a team like toughness—and Harrington has that, too. "We were playing the Bears, and Brian Urlacher put a nice hit on him near the sideline," Brown says. "Joey got up and patted him on the ass, like, I'm coming back, fool." Harrington brought the Lions from behind in that game too, directing a 12-play, 72-yard drive in the last 2:21 to set up the tying field goal. Detroit won 23-20 in overtime.
If, on Sundays, Harrington is free to lose himself in the moment, the rest of the week presents different pressures. Like most rookies, Harrington has been waylaid by the grind of a season that counting preseason games can be almost twice as long as the typical college campaign. "I'm learning just how long it is right now," he says. "I'm tired. But it's a good tired."
He apparently doesn't expend a lot of energy off the field. "It's true; we sit around the dinner table eating spaghetti and sounding like our dads," says Harrington's longtime friend Steve Bramucci, an aspiring screenwriter who is living in the quarterback's condo. And Harrington remains fiercely protective of his privacy. "I was in a drugstore a while back," he says, "and when they were ringing up my items, the checker asked for my phone number. I said no, and it caused a scene. I said, 'I don't think I should have to give you my phone number to make a purchase here,' and she said, 'Yes, you do.' The manager ended up putting his phone number into the system."
There is no shortage of female fans who'd love to get Harrington's digits, but he swears dating isn't a priority right now. "I don't have time," he says. "That's something I can worry about later on, when I get a handle on this offense." Besides, Harrington says, when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex, "I'm awful. Awful. I'm just terrible."
Pardon those of us who aren't young, handsome, rich (he has a six-year, $36.5 million deal) and bound for stardom while we express our skepticism. "It reminds me of Sylvester the Cat with Tweety Bird feathers in his teeth," says Harrington's father, John, a high school principal in Portland. "He appears to have a lot of friends who are girls. During football he has never had the time, but he seems to make up for it in the off-season. Besides, how does a guy who can't talk to girls end up in Cosmo?"
Ah, yes, the infamous Cosmopolitan photograph. In the magazine's November issue, Harrington is featured as one of the 50 "Hottest Hunks in the U.S.," espousing his regard for "great-smelling" women, "soft cheeks" and vanilla bean ice cream. It wasn't quite Ricky Williams posing in a wedding dress, but there was plenty of locker room fallout. "It's easy to pick on a guy who seems like a perfect kid," Semple says. "I'm calling him 'Cool Sharp Hollywood.' "
Speaking of which, that inevitable rendezvous with Eminem beckons, if only to settle the debate over which performer is the true darling of Detroit. "Those are the two biggest guys in town right now," Bramucci says, "and somehow or some way, they've got to meet."