Fazio, who had once coveted Harris's arm, left Pitt after the 1985 football season to coach the defense at Notre Dame. In January 1986, the new Pitt coach, Mike Gottfried, sent an assistant, Tommie Liggins, over to Brashear. where he met Wabby and Harris in the cafeteria. Wabby says that Liggins did not seem interested in Harris as a quarterback, and Harris did not want to play defensive back, a position that some scouts felt he was well suited for. "Major at defensive back?" says Wabby. "Major couldn't hit a teddy bear without apologizing." Liggins, who had arrived at Pitt only days before his visit with Harris, says that the player had already made up his mind to go to West Virginia.
Nehlen had indeed made it clear from the start that he wanted Harris only as a quarterback. "I knew Major was going to be a great quarterback at this level," says Nehlen. "I just didn't know when." So, while Harris's home up on the Hill is a stone's throw from Pitt Stadium, he chose West Virginia.
"I'm proud I'm a good athlete," says Harris. "It took hard work. But of the things I can do, I can throw best. That was always easy." He flexes his right hand. His arms are not particularly long nor well-muscled. His fingers are of average length. But his palm is huge: almost 5 inches by 5 inches. "Sometimes the football feels like a baseball in my hand," he says, "and I know I can put that football anywhere."
In August 1986, just before he left for West Virginia. Harris played in the Big 33 Football Classic, which pits Pennsylvania's schoolboy stars against the best from Maryland. During practice Harris told teammate Michael Owens, Billy's brother, now a running back at Syracuse, that he could throw a football into the end zone from the 50-yard line while on one knee. Owens scoffed until Harris did it.
During the game, Harris, the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart for Pennsylvania, threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Owens and a 51-yard touchdown pass that was called back. Pennsylvania won 21-7.
That fall, Nehlen brought in another fine quarterback. Browning Nagle from Largo, Fla. Nehlen had two juniors, Mike Timko and Ben Reed, sharing the quarterback position, so Harris and Nagle were redshirted. But after the 1987 Gold-Blue spring game, there was little doubt as to who would be the Mountaineers' quarterback in September. By the end of the school year, Nagle had transferred to Louisville, saying, "I'd really like to wish Major luck. I hope he still has a flame under his rear end to do well, even though I'm not there."
Harris decided to spend his summer in Morgantown, working for the West Virginia highway department. On the night of June 27, while home for the weekend, he decided to walk to a fraternity party in the Oakland district, near the Pitt campus, to meet his cousin Vern Kirk, a tight end for the Panthers. When Harris arrived, the police were outside, announcing on a loudspeaker that the party was over. Harris couldn't find Kirk. Then he heard the sound of breaking glass. Someone had hit a police car with a bottle.
"A voice inside me said, 'Maj, you don't need this.' So I started walking away," says Harris. A police car followed him. "I had no need to run. I hadn't done anything wrong."
Harris turned a corner and so did the car. It screeched to a halt alongside him. Officer Thomas Palmieri emerged. "He said, "You! Hold it there, nigger! Put your hands up, turn around and face that wall!" " says Harris. "I turned around with my back to him. He started beating me with his flashlight. He was trying to kill me. I know he was by the force. Then he said, I should kill you, nigger.' I covered my head with my arms, so he brought the flashlight in front and started choking me with it. I started to black out. I came back to myself in the car. I was handcuffed. Blood was everywhere."
Palmieri and a backup unit took Harris to a nearby hospital. He required four stitches on the front of his head, two in back. At the hospital, Harris says, he was uncuffed and told to sign his name. "I signed my name, and everything changed," he says. 'They looked at it, then at each other. The other officers left right away. The one who had beaten me started talking to me then. He said, 'Major, why didn't you tell me? I saw you play in high school. You were so great.' Then he told me he wanted to let me go, but if he did, I might sue. He told me that sometimes people make mistakes. I was in a haze. This is the same guy who tried to kill me."