Harris was taken from the hospital, and kept overnight at the downtown Pittsburgh jail. The next morning he was arraigned on charges of throwing a missile and resisting arrest. At a preliminary hearing 10 days later, Palmieri said he saw three youths, one of whom he later identified as Harris, "making throwing motions" before the police car was hit. He said he couldn't see the youths' faces, only their clothes. Paul Gettleman, Harris's lawyer, asked Palmieri if he had yelled racial epithets at Harris. Palmieri said he had not. Palmieri said he chased Harris in his patrol car and ordered him to stop, but that Harris kept running. The officer said he pinned Harris on the hood of a car, and that Harris struggled and then swung at him. Palmieri told the court that he hit Harris once with his flashlight, then used it as a bar to hold his suspect. Harris was ordered to stand trial after the 1987 football season, was released on bond and returned to West Virginia.
One night during preseason camp, several Mountaineers put on a Gong Show skit that featured a player who was supposed to be Harris throwing an object and then being beaten by the police. Harris smiled but didn't enjoy it. Later that month, at a hearing in Allegheny County's Common Pleas Court, Judge Robert E. Dauer dropped the charges. "There was no probable cause to hold Harris on the charges," says Dauer. At the urging of his family, Harris had filed a complaint of police brutality with the Public Safety Department's Office of Professional Responsibility. But the case was closed when Gettleman refused to provide names of witnesses to investigating officers. "I wanted to be present when the witnesses were interviewed," Gettleman said. "I was afraid they [the police] would intimidate them." Harris still has six months left to decide whether he will sue the city and police department on charges including false arrest, malicious prosecution and violation of his civil rights.
"What I want is for him to stand up and tell the judge the truth," says Harris of Palmieri.
"I had never been affected by racism before," says Harris. "That put me back on a straighter path. I was going into things blindly."
Harris took over West Virginia's offense that fall, and the Mountaineers started shakily, with a 23-3 victory over Ohio University and three losses, to Ohio State, Maryland and Pitt. In the Pitt game, a 6-3 heartbreaker, he fumbled on the WVU 27 with 5:34 to go in the game, to set up Pitt's winning field goal. The Mountaineer offense finally exploded in a 49-0 win over East Carolina in which Harris completed 6 of 12 passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for another touchdown. The Mountaineers would go 4-2 over the rest of the regular season, the losses coming by a total of five points to Penn State and Syracuse, and would lose 35-33 to Oklahoma State in the Sun Bowl, when the Cowboys stopped a two-point conversion attempt with 1:13 left in the game.
The Major Harris era in Morgantown had begun. The West Virginia football program was moving in a new direction. But then so was Harris. That semester he began to consider becoming a lawyer. "It was something I had to do," says Harris. "I've got about a 2.4 or 2.5 grade point, so it won't be easy. But now there is a special goal I want to accomplish. I want to know law."
Something else happened after that '87 season. On New Year's Eve, Sandra Harris was laid off from her job at the Edgar Thomson Works, a USX Corp. steel mill, after more than 13 years. A year later, Sandra Harris is on public assistance. Lamont, who has a bachelor's degree from St. Francis, is also unemployed. Joseph Harris Sr., who no longer lives with the family, isn't working either. A sister, Tywanda, 27, lives nearby with her five children. Joseph Jr., 26, Harris's other older brother, is a security guard and the family's sole wage earner.
And 70 miles from the Hill, in the bracing mountain air of Morgantown, Harris is preparing for the biggest game of his young career. "We have to open it up to have a chance to beat Notre Dame," he says. "We have to throw. They aren't going to let us option them to death. We can't win if I'm held back."
Forced into the center of a media and publicity storm, Harris is nevertheless relaxed, joking easily with his teammates and the press. But there is also about Harris a certain seriousness, a new, more thoughtful demeanor. He was disappointed but said nothing, when Nehlen suggested last year that it would be better for both the team and Harris if Harris dropped the police-brutality complaint. (Nehlen said he doesn't remember making such a suggestion.) When one of his black teammates told him recently that swastikas adorned the rooms of a couple of his white teammates, Harris didn't laugh it off, as he once might have. And when a white Mountaineer defender came off the field in a game this season and said, "That nigger hit me in the throat!...Sorry—big black guy, big black guy," well, Harris understood.
"I've got a lot to learn," Harris says, reaching absentmindedly to touch the scars on his head. "It's not going to be easy. But a voice speaks to me in the classroom now. It says, 'You can do it. Major.' Mr. Ford [Garrett Ford, the team's academic counselor] says he can help me get into the West Virginia law school. We have a good one here. It's up on the hill." That's a far different hill from the one on which Harris grew up. "See, up above the football field. I came here to learn."