Sometime early next May, long after the 1979 college football season is history and the All-Americas have been selected and the Heisman Trophy has been awarded, Perry Harrington finally will get what he deserves—recognition as one of the finest running backs in the nation.
This belated tribute should occur no later than Round 1 of the NFL draft. In Harrington's case, that rite of spring will serve to point up a wrong of autumn. For he seems certain to be selected ahead of a legion of more publicized players, including many who, by then, will have accepted the honors for which Harrington never was considered.
Odd, this lack of recognition. After all, last year, as a junior, Harrington led his 10-1 team by racking up 1,105 yards and 12 touchdowns, seven of which were scored on runs of 30 yards or longer. He also rushed for 125 yards or more in four games. He carried the ball only 133 times, which means his average gain was 8.3 yards—or almost a full yard better than that of Billy Sims, the Heisman winner.
The problem is that Harrington did all this good work for Jackson State, a predominantly black school in Jackson, Miss, whose football program gets national attention only in the spring, when the pros pick their annual contingent of players off the Tiger roster. The rest of the time, Jackson and the Southwestern Athletic Conference in which it plays are rarely heard of—for one thing, their games appear on TV less often than Irish hurling—and consequently are largely ignored by those who cast ballots for postseason honors. Consider this. Jackson State has had at least 10 alumni make the NFL Pro Bowl but is still waiting to get a first-team All-America selectee. Among the overlooked have been Coy Bacon, Robert Brazile, Verlon Biggs, Lem Barney, Rich Caster, Jerome Barkum, Harold Jackson, Speedy Duncan, Leon Gray and Walter Payton.
Harrington is unconcerned about his performing in such athletic obscurity. As the ninth child—and one of only two boys—in a family of 11, Harrington is ill-prepared to be the center of attention, even if he wanted to be. Describing himself as "a homebody type of person," Harrington expresses no regrets about having stayed in Jackson.
"You can look at it two ways," he says. "If I had gone to a place like Oklahoma or USC, I might have been better known or I might have been on the bench. I think I had a chance to develop better here than I might have had at a bigger school. It's still nice being close to home and around friends. They know what I'm doing and they appreciate it."
So do NFL scouts. To that choosy electorate, Harrington is a blue-chip candidate. "He's a cinch to be taken very high in the next draft," says Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' vice-president for player development. "He's as good a back as there is anywhere in the country," says Joe Woolley, an Oiler scout. " Sims and White are the two best-known backs around, but Harrington might be better than either of them."
The pros hanker after Harrington for several reasons, starting with his combination of size (5'11", 208) and speed (4.44 for the 40). Harrington is strong and solid enough to break tackles or power over a defender, but given a choice, he wisely prefers to outmaneuver or outrun the pursuit.
"When I've got the ball," he says, "the thing I think about most is 'get away'—get away from the defender and try not to get hit too hard. Sometimes I think, 'What am I doing out there where everybody's trying to hit me?' I figure I've accomplished something when I say to myself, 'That dude right there, you better get away from him,' and do it. Sometimes I look at myself on the films and say, 'Man, I did that? Hard to believe!' "
Harrington, who was the Mississippi state high school low-hurdles champion in 1975 and '76—his best was a 19.0 in the 180-yard event—also has superb balance and heavily muscled thighs, which combined with his speed make him hard to bring down even when he is sent inside the tackles. The pro scouts are also impressed with another of Harrington's stats, the 3.0 grade point average he has as a business finance major. He hopes to become an accountant, and his first client may be himself, because he is entertaining thoughts of acting as his own agent come spring. Harrington also gets high marks when he blocks for other Tiger ballcarriers.