Next Tuesday, the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame and Museum will honor its 2012 Class of Inductees. Among those being celebrated is former University of Oregon and NFL quarterback Joey Harrington. Though one of this year’s younger inductees, Harrington’s career as not only an athlete but as an Oregonian is worthy of praise.
Since childhood, Harrington has always held a special place in my heart. The first game I saw at Autzen was Harrington’s last home game before his inspiring Fiesta Bowl performance. I grew up wearing #3 on my first green and yellow jersey and graduated to Detroit Lion blue and silver once he started his NFL career. I watched him jump from team to team, struggle for starting positions, and eventually retire early from the professional stage.
Nowadays, Harrington serves as a color analyst for Fox Sports, his cleats left behind and his days of playing football a simple reference point for the insight he provides on the air. And still after six years in the NFL, the Duck hero goes far beyond just a golden arm out of Oregon. Harrington in all his years has perfected the comeback, the positive spin, and stood as a role model in a sports world that has frequently seen heroes fall into villainy.
In 2001, he was declared Joey Heisman and was plastered on a Times Square billboard. A year later, he was being booed off the field in Detroit. It would have been easy for the once praised and coddled Oregon quarterback to grow discouraged, washed up, and frustrated. And yet Harrington maintained optimism. He was dubbed Joey Sunshine by the cynical Detroit media. When the criticism continued, when Harrington was traded, he returned to Detroit and defeated his former team in a televised Thanksgiving game. I like to call that justice.
The rest of his career was marked by few high points. He lost starting jobs; he bounced around the country to Atlanta and New Orleans. And finally it was done. He returned to Oregon, to the home that praised him through his college career and cheered him to the NFL with high hopes.
But for Harrington it wasn’t defeat.
With the same work ethic that made him the third pick in the NFL draft, Harrington threw himself into charity work. When he isn’t putting on a headset for Fox, he’s working with the Harrington Family Foundation, a philanthropy project started with his signing bonus in 2003. He works with a number of organizations, including Portland’s Blanchet House. Harrington has been known to use his fame as a quarterback in order to bring attention and raise money for several causes.
It’s nothing out of the ordinary for athletes to take part in community service. Cutting checks and making appearances are common staples in maintaining a celebrity image. But what makes Harrington a special case is his ability to turn what some might have called an unsuccessful football career into something positive. And if Harrington excels at one thing, it’s certainly finding the brighter side of struggle.
Maybe the greatest example of his character came in the summer of 2011. Harrington was back in Portland, riding his bike downtown when he was struck by an SUV. After recovering from a broken collarbone and punctured lung, he decided to spread awareness about the importance of bike safety and led a helmet drive. Joey Sunshine came through again, turning a difficult, negative situation into a chance to make a positive impact.
Overall, Harrington has come to embody the importance of getting up after falling down. He could’ve easily cut a few checks and enjoyed a lavish retirement. Instead he has continued to be a large part of giving back to the state that so proudly sent him to the NFL. He’s become a role model not just as an athlete who was born and bred in our beloved state but an Oregonian who cares about his community. In a time when we’ve experienced athletes from all sports blunder, cheat, and fall from heroics, it’s refreshing to see a quarterback go beyond winning games. Perhaps his career won’t go in the NFL record books but his service, optimism, and leadership should make Oregonians proud. He has more than earned his place in the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, forever legendary as a Duck, persevering in his NFL career, and constantly bringing a little Sunshine to a grateful state.