The Ducks were wilting in the desert. Once up 21-7, Arizona tied up the game with Oregon late in the third quarter. Starting quarterback A. J. Feeley was struggling--just 7-23 passing--and Mike Bellotti felt like he needed a change. In came the home-grown kid, the one who had received an in jest scholarship letter as an infant, one J. Joseph Harrington from Portland.
Seeing his first significant game action late in a critical contest, he drove him team to the goal line--where he promptly threw an interception. Arizona turned that pick into a 32-yard touchdown catch by Dennis Northcutt to take the lead.
It was an experience that would have broken a lesser quarterback. Instead, it took Harrington all of three plays to throw a 36-yard scoring strike to Tony Hartley to tie it up. When Arizona drove down and took the lead again, Harrington again responded, leading his team on a second fourth-quarter touchdown drive. And tied on the road in the final minutes, Harrington led a thrid scoring drive, ending with a Josh Frankel 32-yard field goal. Ducks win.
Captain Comeback was born.
And comebacks were something Harrington seemed to have a penchant for. His first start, the next week vs. Arizona State, saw the Ducks down four with :49 to go and sitting on their own 29 yard line. In 40 seconds, Oregon took the lead on a Harrington touchdown pass. It was more of the same with another comeback in the Sun Bowl. And, of course, he led Oregon's most dramatic comeback of all-time, a 56-55 thriller in Tempe in 2000.
But Joey Harrington was more than Captain Comeback. In an era before the glitz and glamour of ever-changing uniforms, absurd spread offense point totals, and recurring Pac-10 dominance, Harrington was Oregon's first true national star. He captained Oregon's 10-2 2000 season--which saw Oregon's first top ten finish and set the stage for high expectations in 2001. It was Harrington's face and an Oregon uniform that graced the college football preview editions of SI and ESPN the Magazine.
And of course there was the billboard. The ten story behemoth in New York promoting "Joey Heisman" was Oregon's first outlandish marketing ploy, and it was effective in first launching Oregon into the national consciousness.
But for all the hype and publicity, Harrington let his on-field play do the talking. He finished his career with a 21-3 record as a starter, including two Pac-10 titles and Oregon's first ever BCS win--a thrashing of Colorado in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. That 2001 team finished ranked No. 2 in the country, with only shenanigans by BCS computers keeping them out of the national title game. Oregon--for decades one of college football's dumpiest backwaters--was not only on the map, it was in bold letters with all caps.
Harrington was drafted No. 3 by Detroit in the first round of the NFL Draft. While his NFL career didn't go the way everyone had hoped, his star in Oregon has never dimmed, and the native son has made his home in his hometown of Portland, where he runs the Harrington Family Foundation.
If "The Pick" opened the door to national relevancy for Oregon, it was Harrington that first walked through it and took a seat on the couch. And while Oregon would see a decline after Harrington left, he set the path for those after him to knock down that door for good.