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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, November 13, 2001
Heisman HYPE USED TO BE SO SIMPLE. BACK IN THE last century (say, 1997), if you were an underexposed school in the Pacific Northwest (say, Washington State), you would just grab some leaves, stuff them into envelopes and then mail them to the voters for the award. Presto, Ryan Leaf for the Heisman Trophy! ¶ These days a Heisman campaign requires far more than a little ingenuity. Take Oregon's. In June 2001, still glowing from the first 10-win season in the program's history, the national-title contenders from Eugene began promoting the candidacy of senior quarterback Joey Harrington by commissioning a billboard. Not just any billboard, but a 10-story, leap-tall-buildings-in-a-single-bound billboard. In New York City. Right across from Madison Square Garden. ¶ The Joey Heisman billboard cost Ducks boosters $250,000. Shortly after it went up, Harrington was flown across the country to see the signage for himself. "It was overwhelming," he says. "To look at myself on a billboard that size, sitting in New York City, blows my mind. It's something special, but you have to keep it in perspective. If we had gone 7-5 last year, none of this would be happening. If we don't win this year, it will all go away. All the attention I get is because of the success of my team, and I have to remember that."
"Hey, that's Take Five," says Harrington, correctly identifying the Dave Brubeck Quartet jazz tune playing in a reporter's car. On the next track a trumpet takes over. "Miles Davis: So What," he says. A pianist since age four—first classical, then jazz—Harrington is no doubt the only Heisman candidate who hires himself out for banquets and birthday parties. While his teammates gorge on rap and heavy metal before games, Harrington listens to Herbie Hancock.
A 6' 4", 220-pound alpha male who grew up in Portland, about 100 miles north of the University of Oregon campus, Harrington was all but born with a green O on his chest. His father, John, quarterbacked the Ducks in the late 1960s, and his extended family includes seven other signal-callers. You could say that the Ducks got to Joey early: Shortly after he was born, a "letter of intent" arrived in the mail, courtesy of longtime Oregon coach Len Casanova.
Harrington is college football's version of Shane Battier; he is an Academic All-America (with a 3.3 GPA in business) who spends his winters leading the student cheering section at Ducks basketball games.
"A lot of people dream about playing for the Cowboys," says Harrington. "I always dreamed of playing college football. I'm having the greatest time in the world—living with some of my best friends in a town that adores everything the University of Oregon does."
In an age of game-breaking, multiple-threat quarterbacks of the Michael Vick sort, Harrington knows his limitations. "I'm not an athlete; I'm a quarterback," he says. "I don't have great speed, and I can't throw 90 yards down the field. I win games because I've done the mental preparation."
HARRINGTON'S MOST IMPRESSIVE STAT ISN'T HIS Pac-10-leading 22 touchdowns and 247.3 yards passing per game in 2000; it's his 14-2 record as a starter over the past two seasons. The mythmaker was the Ducks' 56-55 double-overtime win at Arizona State last year, in which Harrington threw for 434 yards and six touchdowns and led Oregon back from a two-TD deficit with less than six minutes left in regulation. Says Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, "When it's crunch time, it doesn't matter what he's done to that point, Joey will put the ball where it can be caught or make the audible or get a first down on a scramble to keep the drive alive."
Says one NFL scout, "He's almost Manning-like in his field presence. He's an excellent decision maker. Good touch. He's definitely a first-round player. You can win with him."
The most painful of Harrington's two career losses occurred on Nov. 18 in Corvallis, playing against archrival Oregon State. The 23-13 defeat cost the Ducks a chance to go to the Rose Bowl, and in the game Harrington was badly outplayed by Beavers quarterback Jonathan Smith, who threw for 246 yards and two touchdowns. Harrington was intercepted five times and fumbled once. "I get physically ill when I think about last year," says Harrington, who concedes that he thinks about his performance in that loss every day.