When Major Harris was 16, he threw a football more than 70 yards for the winning touchdown on the last play of the game as his high school team, Brashear of Pittsburgh, beat Indiana (Pa.) High 22-21. That same year Foge Fazio, then the coach at Pitt, told Harris he would be the next Dan Marino. When Harris was 18, he went off to West Virginia University. Now Harris is 20, and the quarterback of a Mountaineer team that ended its regular season with an 11-0 record, the best in the 98-year history of West Virginia football. On Jan. 2 he will take the Mountaineers into the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame. The winner will likely be crowned national champion.
"No one has done more for his team than Major has done for ours," says West Virginia coach Don Nehlen. "Before a big game Major will be...well, there's no telling. He's a joker. He keeps our guys loose." In the locker room, Harris cracks jokes, dances and has a nickname for everyone. "It's more than a game to some people." says Nehlen. "As long as it stays just a game to Major, he'll be all right."
"Once we're in the huddle. Major won't say much," says senior guard John Stroia. "He leads by example."
For 90-odd years, West Virginia football was led by men named Stydahar, Huff, Marconi, Howley and Braxton. It was bull-necked, spit-and-cuss football, but it lacked that special something that might propel a lesser football power in a wretchedly poor state toward a national championship. Harris has changed that.
Harris's importance to West Virginia can't be grasped by mere statistics. He doesn't have enough pass attempts—he's just under the required 15 per game—to be nationally ranked, though if he were ranked, his rating of 167.4 would have beaten out Washington State's Timm Rosenbach for No. 1 in the country. No, Harris doesn't bring stats to the party. Harris is the party.
Consider two plays from this Mountaineer season. The first was against Penn State on Oct. 29. On first-and-10 from the Penn State 26, with no score in the first quarter, Harris found himself caught in a busted play. The rest of the West Virginia team went left; Harris went right, where only he and five Penn State defenders remained. Harris cut back hard against the grain and scored standing up, touching off an eventual 51-30 Mountaineer rout.
Harris came back to the sideline and told Nehlen, "My fault, Coach." Nehlen shook his head and told Harris that he thought he could live with it.
The second play came midway through the second quarter against Rutgers on Nov. 12 at Giants Stadium, with West Virginia behind 10-7. Standing in the pocket just short of midfield, Harris set himself to throw as a Rutgers defender was about to smash him from the right—his blind side. At the last possible instant, Harris sensed the pass rusher's presence and reacted, looking like a man falling off a tightrope while hurling a dart. The ball whistled 50 yards down the middle, not more than 12 feet off the ground, and knocked wideout Reggie Rembert in for a touchdown. West Virginia went on to win the game 35-25.
"The feel, I can't explain," Harris says. "I hear a voice in my head. Sometimes it says, 'Move, Major.' I know to listen to the voice."
West Virginia closed out its schedule with a methodical 31-9 victory over Syracuse on Nov. 19 at Mountaineer Field. Harris gained 210 total yards in a light rain. "I could've done more," he said afterward, in a hoarse baritone. "If people believe in you, then you shouldn't let them down."