HARRINGTON’S PARTING SHOTS

Last of two parts

In Part I of Joey Harrington’s Exit Interview, he spoke about his naïveté in arriving in Detroit, his biggest disappointments and his relationships with his coaches, particularly Steve Mariucci, whom he chided for letting the team be “mediocre.” Here is Part II of our conversation from the night Harrington was traded to Miami:

QUESTION: Was there a moment when you felt that Coach Mariucci had lost confidence in you?

ANSWER: There was an incident. It was about halfway through my third season. I went into his office to talk with him. I said, “Coach, I need you to give me permission to throw the ball downfield. To take some shots downfield. I feel like I can’t.” He said, “I don’t know where you’re getting that idea.” I said, “You tell me every day if there’s any chance of a mistake, pull it back, check down. I feel roped in. Let me take some chances.” He stood up, went to his sink and started brushing his teeth. He said, “I’ve got to go do some interviews. If you want to talk about this, come back later.”

And then he walked out.

I look back on that now and it seems like such a defining moment. But at the time, I was so focused on making him happy, on getting in his good graces, I just let it go.

Q: When people tell you not to take chances, to never risk a mistake, how does that affect you?

A: You press. The same thing anybody else who is trying to please someone, please a group of people or please a city does … you press. You try and do it harder. It consumes you.

Q: How did you feel during or after a bad game?

A: It ate at me. It consumed me. It was like I walked out there with a monkey on my back … because I thought that people expected me to be a certain way, you know? If I threw an interception last game, I better throw a perfect pass this game.

Q: How would you remold yourself as quarterback?

A: I would play more like I did during the last six games of this year. Cut it loose. If you make a mistake, so be it. At least you went down trying.

You need to be able to step back and say, “You know what, whether I complete this pass or not I’m still a good person. If that DB knocks the ball down, I’m still going home to family that will always be there for me.” You do that, you can cut it loose. When your mind is free, you play so much better.

Q: Let’s talk about your receivers in Detroit. Did you feel let down by them at all – particularly Charles Rogers and his problems?

A: (Long pause.) I don’t feel the need to single anybody out. I would see myself no different than Dré Bly and what he did if I came out and said what I think Charles needs to do. I will only say that I don’t care who you are or what position you play, you have to be into being part of the team. You have to buy into the idea of sacrificing things that you personally may find valuable or important.

Q: How about Roy Williams?

A: I will miss throwing the ball to him. I always appreciated that he showed support for me; I really did. And I think he can be a very special player in this league.

Q: What was your approach to criticism in the media?

A: I don’t know that I picked up a newspaper five times in all the time I was in Detroit. I never watched a local newscast. I never listened to sports radio. I couldn’t tell you a single sports radio station. I even stopped watching “SportsCenter” on ESPN, the one place I thought was safe. … There was still too much news about me on that.

Q: How about the fans?

A: Lions fans want to win. That’s it. The word fan comes from fanatical and they are fanatical. And that’s great. I wanted them to be happy. I wanted them to be fans of us winning.

Q: After Dré Bly made his critical comments about you, didn’t you ever bump into him?

A: Yeah. I acted like I did every other moment I’ve been in the same room with him. Just normal.

Q: Did he ever apologize?

A: About a month or so later. We were in Green Bay, I think, before the game, in the hotel. We were standing in a group waiting for an elevator. He pulled me aside. He said his comments were from frustration. I asked him why he didn’t say them to my face. He said he was in the moment, and it was an emotional moment. He said he respected how I handled the whole thing. We shook hands.

Q: Were you satisfied?

A: I didn’t need to be satisfied. … I don’t know that I really felt much differently afterwards.

Q: Did you sense your Lions career was over after your last game?

A: I did. I’m not saying I wanted it or didn’t want it. I just assumed that all the signs were working against me. Four years of losing. Huge (salary) cap number. New coaches. If I had to place a bet, I would have bet on me not being back.

Q: When did you first hear from Rod Marinelli?

A: He called me when I was in Detroit for the Super Bowl, and it was just a brief phone call to introduce himself. But from the moment I spoke with him I was very impressed.

Q: What happened at the “Quarterback School,” which turned out to be your last official time with the Lions? There were rumors that you were uncooperative.

A: Well, I was uncomfortable when I came back. Did I sabotage Quarterback School? No, I didn’t. But I was uncomfortable, because I felt that people were just trying to sweep under the rug what had happened the last four years.

Q: What made you uncomfortable?

A: Being back in that environment, walking back in through those doors into a building where I felt people had turned their back on me – and then to have people pretend it never happened. They acted like “you have a fresh start with us,” but there are 50 other guys in the locker room who saw what happened. It wasn’t just about having a new start with the coaches.

I was probably visibly uncomfortable, which (Coach Marinelli and I) ended up talking about. But I took notes. I studied. People might have come up and said, “Are you OK?” I probably wasn’t as talkative as usual.

But I didn’t have any cross words with Coach (Mike) Martz. Not at all. I wanted to listen. A lot of the stuff was difficult for me because it was so completely opposite of what I’d been coached, the drop, the ball carriage, the release point.

Q: You said you spoke with Coach Marinelli about all this.

A: We spoke. I was honest with him. It was one of the best talks I’ve ever had with a coach. I told him how I felt. I told him the things that had happened when I had been here. I told him I felt that people had turned their back on me. However, at the same time – I want to emphasize this – at no time did I ever tell him, “Coach, I want to leave.”

My exact words to him were: “If you want me to be your quarterback, I’m here for you.”

Q: And what did he say?

A: He told me exactly what he was thinking. He said you signed a contract with the Detroit Lions and I said, “Yes, I did, and I will work to get though these issues.” And I went home after Quarterback School and he called me before my overseas trip that I had planned for six months and he said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about our talk and I need to decide if you’re the right quarterback for this team at this time.”

I told him, “Coach, if you want me to be your quarterback, then I’ll get on a plane and I’ll cut my trip short and I’ll be there for report date, but I’d like you to let me know.”

Q: Did he let you know?

A: They let me know when they signed two other guys.

Q: How did you find that out?

A: When I left for my trip, my agent told me they were thinking about signing Jon Kitna. I understood that. There were still moments during the trip when I thought, “Let’s change this ticket.” … But then they signed Josh McCown.

I was in Bali when that happened, sitting outside on the deck of a house my fiancée and I had rented. I was looking at the Indian Ocean. I made my morning check-in call with my agent and he said they decided to sign Josh.

My emotions? A lot of different emotions. … I was disappointed at first … because I didn’t finish what I started … but the uncertainty was over. My fiancée was packing for us to come home, then she came outside and sat down and we talked.

And then we unpacked and continued our trip.

Q: In your heart, did you really want it to work out?

A: Part of me did, part of me didn’t. That’s natural. What person is going to 100% want to walk back into a situation where they’ve been booed out of a home stadium, where they’ve lost four years, where some people on the team have openly, publicly and nationally blamed things on you?

I was upset when it happened, I was, but I knew there was gonna be a chance to get a fresh start somewhere. I wasn’t gonna let it ruin me.

And the next days, when we went to Thailand, I felt a sense of freedom.

Q: Do you think if you had pushed for it harder, you would still be the quarterback here?

A: Yeah, I think I probably would.

Q: Your thoughts on Matt Millen throughout your four years in Detroit?

A: I think he was always fair. … I think that’s a good way to put it. He criticized me plenty of times. He looked me in the eye and said, “You need to make that throw. You need to do this better or that better.” But he was always very fair, and I always appreciated that. He was always honest and upfront.

Q: Was your image in Detroit that you were too nice, too much of a cheerleader type?

A: You mean “Joey Blue Skies”? I don’t care. Image is what people think you are; character is who you are. Too upbeat? Too upbeat for what? For who? For all the years of the Lions losing? What is too upbeat?

That was the job they handed me, to go in and change that organization, make it a winner. Am I gonna do that by conforming to whatever happened in the past? That wasn’t gonna work and that wasn’t who I am. So for people to criticize me for being too glass-half-full – I don’t care. I had a goal. I had a job to do. Listening to what people thought and said around you is probably part of why things are the way they are in Detroit.

Q: Why do people do it then?

A: Because it’s easy. It’s easy to fit in. Easy to conform, easy to follow everyone else and what has always been because you never have to stick your neck out there, you never have to risk anything. I felt I did that every day.

Q: What mistake will you not repeat on your next job?

A: I will never let other people control my happiness. I will never let other people try and dictate who I am.

Q: Will you think of Detroit fondly?

A: Yeah, I will, I will. It was my first opportunity in the NFL. There were people who taught me a lot of very important lessons here. But it was the most frustrating football experience I’ve ever had.

Q: Any last things to say to the people of Detroit?

A: Don’t stop being fans. Don’t stop caring. I really do believe that things will turn around with Coach Marinelli, I really do. And when they do, that city is gonna go crazy. That city will go absolutely crazy.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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