‘THEY WILL NOT BREAK ME’

Let’s see. He plays hard, he doesn’t do drugs, he won’t boast, he has never been suspended, he’s polite, he supports his teammates, he’s big into charity and no one questions his work ethic.

I can see why we want to run him out of town.

Joey Harrington has become a garbage dump for Detroit sports fans. Everything that’s wrong with this year’s Lions is heaped on his pile, and, while we’re at it, everything that’s wrong with last year’s Lions, and the year before that and the decades before that. Rarely has an athlete had his job slapped, whacked and all but handed to someone else by the media and fans. During Sunday’s game, the crowd chanted “Joey sucks!” This week, this newspaper asked “Is Joey done?”

At least we framed it as a question. To many, it’s a fait accompli.

“They will not break me,” Harrington declares Tuesday, talking on his cell phone. “I’m not gonna quit. They will have to drag me out of here. I know I’m still a good football player.”

Imagine having to say that when you were the third guy chosen in the 2002 NFL draft. But this is life for Harrington, who insists he does not watch the TV news, listen to the radio or read newspapers, even when they offer a free week’s trial on his porch. “I just take them, in their plastic, and put them in the recycle bin,” he says.

Hey, at least he recycles.

Over the last two days, I’ve spoken several times with the Lions’ quarterback, long conversations about his job, his team, his feelings and his status. What I’ve gathered is that Harrington is doggedly determined to keep his position, even if he’s privately hurt that coaches and teammates haven’t rallied to his defense – the way he would to theirs.

He resents the idea that forces around him are “trying to take something away from me.”

When I ask what they’re trying to take, he paused for a long time.

“My spirit,” he says.

Here, then, is a man fighting to be who he knows he is.

As if football weren’t hard enough.

In his own words

Are you too nice?

“No. People who say I’m too nice don’t compete against me. Put on a different colored helmet, then ask me.”

Then why is there a perception that you’re not mean enough or grizzly enough?

“They’re making judgments because we’re losing. If we were 4-1 instead of 2-3, then being nice would be the hot thing. You know how they say 50 is the new 40? Being nice would be the new screaming.”

Are you disappointed that your teammates aren’t rushing to support your starting job – and some are even questioning whether you should keep it?

“Well, I have had a number of teammates come up and say, ‘We support you no matter what.’ But I know the other stuff is out there, whoever it may come from. I don’t want to say I don’t care, but I don’t have time to care. I have to keep working. Anyhow, people are going to say what they feel.”

But does it bother you that you wouldn’t question them publicly yet they question you?

“Do I think a team works better when everyone supports one another? Yes I do.”

What about the booing – or fans chanting “Joey sucks!”

“Those are the same people who’ll be cheering when we start winning.”

But doesn’t it hurt when you hear it?

“I used to get angry at it. Now it’s motivation.”

You use it to say, “I’ll show them?”

“You bet I do.”

Have you ever thought about being more defensive about yourself in public? Or maybe calling out some of your teammates or the organization?

“For me to stand up and start screaming that things have got to change … I’ve heard it all before. Do you know how many team meetings we’ve had where people have stood up and said – myself included – we have to get better?”

The wrong numbers

So why aren’t they better? They’ve had plenty of draft picks. Plenty of time to build. Steve Mariucci was supposed to be a coach with a pedigree, but so far the Lions’ pedigree seems to be imprinting him, not the other way around.

And Harrington? Well, this is his fourth year. Learning curves are supposed to be over. He is resilient – more resilient than most of his offensive teammates, who seem to disappear with injuries at least once a season. But his career passer rating is 66.2 and he’s still thrown more interceptions (58) than touchdown passes (52).

On the other hand, it’s not as if Harrington forgot how to throw a ball. You don’t get drafted third in the league with a shaky arm, bad eyes or rotten football acumen. More than one team thought Harrington was a star in the making. And at 26, he can’t be accused of fading skills.

So what is it? Why isn’t he playing better?

“Because nobody on offense is playing well,” he answers. “We’re not running the ball well, throwing the ball well, not doing anything offensively. …

“I know what I’m supposed to do. I know where I’m supposed to go. But when you’re struggling, when you’re working with different guys all the time, it’s not as natural, you’re not quite sure it’s gonna work out because maybe last time it didn’t when it was supposed to. …

“When I let a ball go, it goes where I think it’s gonna go. … But the half-second leading up to it, if there’s hesitation, then the whole play falls apart.”

One play. One series.

On such things have several Lions games turned this season.

He loves his job

Not long ago, Harrington ran into a woman he knew at the grocery store. She was, as he recalls, near tears as she spoke to him, because she was that upset over the things people were saying about Joey on the radio. She even showed him her cell phone display and the numerous calls she had placed to the station to try to defend him.

Which put Harrington in an awkward spot. On the one hand, he was grateful. On the other hand, he really didn’t want to hear all the junk they were saying about him. “Sometimes you want to say thanks, but can you be quiet now?” he says, laughing.

Can you imagine trying to tiptoe across the most watched stage in the city? Can you imagine building a cocoon that connects you from your home to the stadium and back again? It’s not like we don’t know how vicious this town can get toward its quarterbacks. Scott Mitchell knows it. Rodney Peete knows it. Andre Ware knows it. Charlie Batch knows it.

The funny thing is, all those guys, at some point, were hailed as the answer to the quarterback problem – finally! – only to be tarred and feathered on the way out.

For a while, Joey was the answer. Now Jeff Garcia is somehow the answer. Garcia, who has never played a down that counted for this franchise. Garcia, who is 35 years old. Garcia, who relies on mobility, yet is coming off a broken leg. Garcia, not even cleared to play this week, is somehow, already the answer.

You might expect, given this, that Harrington would be bitter. That he would say – or think -“if you go with Garcia, don’t expect me to come back and save things later.”

Instead, he remains eternally the team player.

“If they go away from me,” he says, “I’ll still prepare every week to be the starting quarterback for them. And if they come back to me later, I’ll be ready to do that.

“It’s not Jeff’s fault. He’s a great guy.”

You want to shake Joey. You want to say, “Why are you being so pleasant?” You want to ask, “Why don’t you scream, holler, hit somebody?”

But then you’re advocating the same behavior that he’s dealing with every day.

Besides, this is who Joey Harrington is. You could no more take the gentleman out of him than you could wash the blue out of blue jeans.

What do you want to say to the fans?

“I’m not gonna quit on you. I don’t care what anybody says. I’m not gonna quit.”

And to the critics?

“I cannot let anyone take this thing from me – no player, no coach, no reporter, no fan in the stands. They will never take my passion for this game. People say I’m too nice, do it this way, that way, they don’t see half of what goes on. They don’t see 95% of what goes on.”

And if they could, what would they see?

“They’d see somebody who’s more devoted to their team than …”

Than some other people?

“I’m not saying that. They’d see someone who’s devoted 100% to this team and this city.”

Do you ever feel silly giving 100% to a city that doesn’t give it back?

“It’s my job; I love my job. It may be banging my head against a wall, but that doesn’t mean I stop banging. Eventually, something’s gotta give. Either the wall is gonna fall down, or I’m gonna get a headache.”

Or both.

(SIDEBAR)

PASSING GRADES

Joey Harrington’s game-by-game passing statistics this season:

OPP ATT CMP PCT YDS TD INT RATE Packers 28 15 53.6 167 2 0 95.4 Bears 37 19 51.4 196 1 5 36.4 Bucs 27 15 55.6 137 0 0 69.5 Ravens 23 10 43.5 97 1 2 34.1 Panthers 28 17 60.7 201 0 1 67.7

Class of 2002

Harrington was selected third overall in the 2002 draft. David Carr of the Houston Texans was the No. 1 pick. Both are fighting for their jobs. How they compare through five games this season:

CATEGORY CARR HARRINGTON Completion pct. 59.4 53.1 Yards 721 798 Touchdowns 4 4 Interceptions 4 8 Passer rating 71.7 55.6

Next up: Browns

Matchup: Lions 2-3; Cleveland Browns 2-3.

When: 1 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Cleveland Browns Stadium.

TV: Fox (Channel 2 in Detroit).

Line: Cleveland by 3.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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