How the Detroit Lions drove Joey Harrington into depression; Thanksgiving revenge memories

Detroit Free Press

Bill Dow
 |  Special to Detroit Free Press

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Free Press special writer Bill Dow continues his “where are they now” series about former Detroit Lions players.

Today’s profile is on Joey Harrington:

How we remember him

In his senior season, the 2001 Heisman Trophy finalist led No. 2 Oregon to its second consecutive Pac-10 championship and an 11-1 record; he finished his college career with a 25-3 record. After being selected by the Lions as the third overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft, he signed a six-year deal for $36.5 million. His first start was the first regular-season game at Ford Field; the Lions lost to the Packers, 37-31. In four seasons in Detroit, Harrington was 18-37 as a starter.

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After the Lions

Harrington welcomed a trade after the 2005 season to Miami for a 2007 fifth-round draft pick. One of the highlights of his career came on Thanksgiving in 2006, when he threw three touchdowns to beat the Lions, 27-10. The following year, he signed with Atlanta before finishing his career in 2008 with New Orleans. He later worked as football analyst for Fox Sports Radio, Fox College Football on FX and Fox, and the Oregon Sports Network.


Now 42, Harrington and his wife of 13 years, Emily, live in Portland, Oregon, with their sons, Jack and Emmet. He helps teach his home-schooled third- and sixth-graders and runs the Harrington Family Foundation that he established in 2003 with his bonus money. The foundation annually awards four Oregon high school seniors four-year college scholarships, based upon demonstrated community leadership and financial need, and while providing mentoring.

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Joining the Lions

“I wasn’t really surprised because I knew I was going somewhere between the third and 15th pick, so I was absolutely thrilled even though it was a team that had finished 2-14 in 2001. I saw it as an opportunity to make a mark on an organization that had some potential even though they hadn’t won a championship in a long time. I was a young, naïve, optimistic and confident player when I came to the Lions and thought, ‘Why the hell can’t I help do this in Detroit.’

“Oregon had a bottom-feeder program when I arrived there as a freshman, and as a class, we told ourselves that we would make it a championship team and a perennial power and we did it. Literally when I walked off the jetway in Detroit the day after the draft, this stranger welcomed me and then said: ‘The two toughest jobs in Detroit are playing quarterback for the Lions and goalie for the Red Wings.’ He then slapped me on the back as he was walking away and said, ‘We haven’t had a quarterback since Bobby Layne, good luck.’ I did not feel pressure but I recognized it. Did it ultimately result in a mindset that was counterproductive? Yes.”

His first start

“We lost the first two games with Mike McMahon at quarterback, and when I got home, I received a phone call from (head coach) Marty Mornhinweg, who told me that I was going to be the starter for the third game, which was the inaugural opening at Ford Field. I didn’t anticipate that and it was completely out of the blue. It was exciting to go up against Brett Favre and the Packers, and a thrill to start the process, but I had a gut feeling that it would have been best for me to sit for a year and learn. I was not an extraordinary athlete who made unbelievable naturally skilled plays, but I was successful in college because I was better prepared than my opponents. That was not the situation when I was starting those first few games in the NFL. Now every first-round quarterback starts right away, but back then there was significant debate as to whether that was the right move. Carson Palmer, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers sat for most of their first year and Rodgers basically didn’t play for two seasons.”

Difference between college and NFL

“In my rookie year we are playing the Raiders and I was throwing to Scotty Anderson, who had a 15-yard square route on the back side in front of the safety. I cut it loose, Scotty was right there, but Rod Woodson picked it off. After the game I asked Woodson, ‘Did I tip it off? I knew you shouldn’t have been there.’ He said, ‘You’re right I shouldn’t have been, but I have seen that route for the last 14 years so I’ll be damned if a rookie was going to beat me on it. I knew what was coming before you did.’ That’s a difference between the NFL and college game. But then there’s the locker room. In college, you are all in the same place in life with the same frame of mind, practice and school work. In the NFL, I’m a 23-year-old coming from pizza, beer and final exams stepping into the huddle with Ray Brown, who turned 40 that year. I’m studying film until late at night and my teammates had families and responsibilities. The scale of what people are experiencing in life is completely different from what you get in college.”

Most difficult part of playing in Detroit

“I knew Steve Mariucci (second head coach) wasn’t necessarily thrilled with having me, and I don’t think Mornhinweg was either. I wasn’t their style of quarterback. Mike McMahon was more mobile and athletic than me and fit better in their Bill Walsh-style West Coast offense. There was a lot of trying to put a square in a round hole and they weren’t willing to adjust to my strengths. When I wasn’t playing well, two to three years into my career, I think teammates started getting pissed. It was like ‘They’re paying you a heckuva a lot of money to be playing better than you are,’ and that was the truth. There was also this culture of losing that I did not want to subscribe to and it created a bit of a rift. Looking back, I could have handled it in a different way. My continued insistence that we can get better if we keep working didn’t sit well with people. At a certain point, I learned that people want you to acknowledge that things are not going well. I never felt in Detroit that I got to the point where I felt I had command of the offense, my own game and the locker room.”

On Dre Bly blaming him for the firing of Mariucci

“That was the end of it for me. At a certain level, I understood where he was coming from since they were paying me millions for a job that I wasn’t doing, for a whole host of reasons. But I was very upset that he didn’t come to talk with me. The only ones to back me up in the building were one player and the cafeteria chef. When Rod Marinelli was named head coach, he told me that he and Mike Martz liked me and thought they could help turn things around. Rod was the first coach to sit down and have an honest conversation with me. I said, ‘That’s great, but you to need to know that I will play for you and Matt Millen because I respect both of you, but except for a couple of teammates, the rest of them can all go to hell.’ I was then traded to Miami. The confidence I had that was brimming when I left Oregon was completely gone when I left Detroit. It created a whole lot issues for me that went beyond performance because I was dealing with depression and anxiety.

His legacy with the Lions

“Having been removed from it for 15 years, I can acknowledge that there were times I was really terrible and other times when I played really well. But in the end, things didn’t go well and I know the fans were frustrated. “

On beating the Lions on Thanksgiving Day in 2006

“Before the game, the Lions showed this video montage on the scoreboard showing me getting sacked and throwing interceptions while Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ played in the background. I was standing next to my teammate, Justin Peelle, who had played with me at Oregon and we just started laughing. Justin said, ‘Well, you really made an impression at this place.’ When I got back to Miami, Billy Joel sent me a note suggesting that maybe the Dolphins would want to play ‘Piano Man’ when I was introduced. He also wrote, “P.S. Maybe the Lions should play my song, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’ When the game ended my former teammate Roy Williams said to me, ‘I’ve tried to tell them it wasn’t your fault.’ I said, ‘I really appreciate that Roy.’  I am grateful that Detroit gave me the opportunity to be a starting quarterback in the league and they paid me well, but beating the Lions on Thanksgiving Day proved to me that I could dig myself out of a hole and play well as an NFL quarterback.”

The work of his foundation

“I started the foundation because I was very aware that there were a whole host of people who helped me get where I am. I also realized that not everyone starts at the same starting line. This is what I do full time now and I love it. We are giving the college scholarships to those who may not have a perfect G.P.A. and have shown some leadership. Maybe someone got a C in English class because they had to work after school or on the weekend. Besides providing financial support for college, we also connect them with mentors in their own community and to help make connections. One of my favorite students is Karen, a young Hispanic woman who every weekend volunteered with the City of Salem’s junior cadet program to help bridge the gap between her Hispanic community and local law enforcement. I want to make sure that when I’m 75 and sitting on my porch in Portland that the city and state is taken care of by people who have a seat at the table, not because their parents knew someone, but because they have valuable experiences to share to help make the community better.

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