It hasn't been easy for Harrington to fit in with teammates

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  1. LaTunaNostra

    LaTunaNostra He Made the Difference

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    It hasn't been easy for Harrington to fit in with teammates
    Sunday, June 27, 2004
    By Tom Kowalski

    ALLEN PARK -- Both head coach Steve Mariucci and Joey Harrington say their conversation wasn't loud, combative or raucous, but time, place and circumstance -- and plenty of witnesses -- tell a different story.

    It was halftime of the Detroit Lions regular-season finale last December against the St. Louis Rams at Ford Field. The plan going into that game was for Harrington, the starting quarterback, to play the first half with backup Mike McMahon playing the second half.

    Mariucci wanted Harrington, who had been limited by a sore throwing shoulder for several weeks, to end his season with a strong first half. And Harrington did have a strong half, completing 15 of 20 passes for 160 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 114.6.

    But, Harrington had also injured his ankle and, with the Lions trailing the NFC's top team 20-10, it appeared certain McMahon would take over.

    In the locker room at halftime, though, Mariucci called Harrington into his small office and, as one player put it: "Coach called him out. He challenged him. No doubt about it."

    Mariucci refused to go into detail.

    "I'm not going to discuss publicly my conversations with a player. That's confidential," he said. "We had a conversation about the second half, man to man."

    At the lockers located close to Mariucci's office, a large number of players -- they could hear every word -- waited for the quarterback's answer.

    * When joining a new team, whether it's as a rookie or a free-agent veteran, some players blend into the new locker room with ease, their personality and charisma finding the right balance among their peers.

    Joey Harrington was not one of those players.

    After being taken with the third overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft, Harrington always seemed to be on the outside looking in. Harrington has a quirky sense of humor which rubbed many of the Lions veterans the wrong way. It wasn't that the players didn't like Harrington, they just didn't relate to him very well.

    "Joey has a lot of interests outside of football," said veteran kicker Jason Hanson. "He likes music, he likes the other sports and he has a good life out of football. Joey definitely has a lot of interests the average football player doesn't have. I don't know if it's a barrier."

    When Harrington was introduced to Detroit media members after he was drafted out of the University of Oregon, he playfully reminded them that he was from "Ory-gun" -- not "Ora-gon." In fact, when he showed up at his first press conference, he distributed bumper stickers that read "Ory-Gun."

    Funny, but Harrington took it too far. He would often not respond to conversation from teammates or their friends if they didn't pronounce his home state correctly. He thought he was being cute; his teammates wanted to strangle him.

    "I know what you're talking about," said center Dominic Raiola, one of Harrington's closest friends on the team. "He just has a different sense of humor and different personality, and that's the way the world is.

    "People see him every day and know that's Joey and that's the way he is and the way he's going to be. He's not going to change for anybody, regardless of what they say or what they think."

    Harrington may be different, but teammates have tried to adjust to his quirky mannerisms.

    "He can be real dorky, but when it comes down to it, he's a very mature guy and he just wants to play football and be the best quarterback he can be," said left tackle Jeff Backus. "That's what it comes down to. As far as people thinking he's quirky, whatever. He's not a dumb person, he knows what's going on. I think he's as real as a person can be and if people are turned off, too bad."

    Most NFL quarterbacks would take offense to their teammates calling them dorky. Not Harrington.

    "I am a dork. I'm not going to deny it," Harrington said. "You can put that in the headline, I don't care. That's who I am.

    "I haven't changed a bit. If anything, I've become more goofy, more of a dork. Honestly. That's me, I'm comfortable with who I am. The one thing that really bothered me when I came in was people saying 'You need to be this' and 'You need to be that.' And 'You need to be this guy for the team. The city of Detroit wants a leader.'

    "You know what? You got me. I'm not going to change for anybody. This is who I am and how I'm going to be because this is what I'm comfortable with. When I start trying to be somebody different for everybody, I lose who I am."

    While Harrington maintains that he hasn't -- and won't -- change as a person, there's definitely been a change in how he handles himself around the team and how he leads.

    "It goes back to being completely overwhelmed (as a rookie)," Harrington said. "I was being pushed and pulled in every direction. Now, I have more control."

    Backus acknowledged the tough role Harrington was in as a rookie.

    "His personality hasn't changed a whole lot," Backus said. "He's a good person and makes the right decisions. But, coming in as a rookie, it's hard to lead a team because you have so many older guys and I felt the same thing coming in.

    "I felt last year, in my third year, I could be a little bit more of a leader and the older guys wouldn't think of me as a joke. I think Joey's feeling it; this team is starting to be a younger team and he feels more comfortable being the leader."

    * Despite his plans of benching Harrington in the second half of the Rams game, Mariucci decided it was time to see exactly what he had in Harrington.

    "What I need to learn is how willing guys are to sucking it up and playing hurt for the good of the team, for the cause, to win a game -- and who's not willing to do that," Mariucci said.

    "The quarterback, in many ways, has got to be one of the toughest guys in sports. Not just physically, but mentally tough and thick-skinned, and poise-tough and pressure-tough. Sometimes you have to find out if a guy is willing to keep playing with a lot of aches."

    While Harrington knew of the plan to play McMahon, once he was in the heat of battle, Harrington was stunned that Mariucci would even suggest pulling him out.

    "I was emphatic about it. He said, 'What do you want to do?' and I said 'This is my team. Don't take me out of the football game,' '' Harrington said.

    Harrington stayed in the game and responded by throwing touchdown passes on Detroit's first two possessions. The Lions took a 24-20 lead and won the game 30-20. It was a costly defeat to the Rams, who lost home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

    Harrington's reaction to Mariucci's challenge didn't go unnoticed by Lions players.

    "I think that's big, I think it's big for (Harrington) and speaks volumes for him about this football team," Raiola said. "There's a sense of belief now and I don't know if there was that before. We can beat a top team, (a team) going into the playoffs with home-field (advantage) and all they had to do was beat us.

    "He answered the call. Answering a coach's challenge speaks volumes."

    Harrington said he was unaware until recently that his teammates knew of his halftime conversation with Mariucci or how they felt about his reaction to it.

    "Those aren't the kinds of things we talk about," Harrington said. "I don't think I proved anything. Proved is the wrong word because I don't ever want to get taken out of a football game. That's not proving anything. Maybe other people thought I'd come out and I was proving to them that I was going to stick with it.

    "In my mind, was it a big deal? How about this: As a leader on the team -- or someone who wants to be a leader -- you don't leave your teammates. You don't get up and walk out, I don't care if you're 4-11 or you're 11-4. You don't leave your teammates. In that aspect, then maybe, yeah, maybe I did prove something to people who weren't sure what to think of me."

    While coming back in the second half didn't prove anything internally to Harrington, he said the team's overall performance was revealing.

    "That we can win. So much of winning is a mentality. When you walk onto the field, there are certain teams that have a swagger about them," said Harrington, who believes the Lions' young players are talented and developing that swagger. Sixteen of Detroit's 22 projected starters have five years of experience or less.

    "Look at our team, it's a bunch of young guys now," he said. "Everybody in the huddle remembers what it was like to lose those games, but the freshest thing in our minds is kicking the hell out of St. Louis, beating the best team -- at that point -- in the NFC. The guys in the huddle who remember that, combined with the fresh faces, could be a huge springboard."

    And the Lions will need a leader to continue their dive into the deep end.

    "That's very true and I'd love for it to be me," Harrington said. "That's my job. I want it to be me."

    Mariucci believes it could happen.

    "Yes, I do. Just as I see improvement in his skills," Mariucci said. "The leadership skills are another thing that's part of the quarterback development, being able to get the most out of everybody else and that's being developed as well. It doesn't happen overnight.

    "People talk about natural-born leaders -- that's a bunch of hogwash. You've got to grow into that role and earn that respect. It takes time, it takes getting your butt knocked in the dirt and getting up and continuing to play and improving.

    "He's on course."

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