Now that summer is over and I am back on the job — and the NFL season is just a few, delicious days away — I figured I’d catch up with the athlete who, more than any other in Detroit, will determine our happiness this fall.
I called Joey Harrington.
The good news for Kid Quarterback was that I only had one question.
The bad news was I had four categories.
“OK, what’s the question?” he said.
What three things do you know now that you didn’t know last year at this time?
“And the categories?”
The NFL. Quarterbacking. Detroit. And yourself. “Whoo,” Harrington said. And then he clicked them off as if calling plays.
“OK, three things I learned about the NFL since last year.
“No. 1. It’s a long season.
“No. 2. I knew it was a business, but I didn’t expect to see my friends cut. I didn’t expect to have someone show up one week, with a locker across from mine, and be gone so quickly that I didn’t even learn his name. That actually happened.
“No. 3. I learned I’m not in Kansas anymore. What I mean is, in Oregon, we won, and when we didn’t win, people were understanding. Here, you’re a professional. You’re paid to win. If you don’t, people aren’t going to hold back.”
Cold business, cold weather
Well done, I told Joey. On to the second category. Three things you learned since last year about quarterbacking?
“OK. No. 1. There is no margin for error in the pros. If you’re a half-step off, you’re late. And if you throw the ball when you’re late, it’s coming back the other way.
“No. 2. Guys aren’t open in the NFL like they are in college. In college, my receivers were either open or I could throw it to a spot where they would be open. You try that in the NFL and — again, it’s coming back the other way.
“No. 3. Players want to play with a winning quarterback. Brett Favre. Joe Montana. John Elway. They were considered winners, so other guys wanted to play with them. But if you’re not perceived as a winning quarterback in this league — how can I put this? — these guys are here to support their families. They’re here to put bread on the table. And just because you’re their friend doesn’t mean they want to be on the field with you.”
Interesting, no? We moved on to the third category. Detroit. Three things Joey Harrington knows now that he didn’t before:
“OK,” he said, laughing. “First of all, there are no mountains in Detroit. No matter what anyone says!
“No. 2. I now know what cold is.
“No. 3. I now know Detroiters are way more passionate about sports than even I expected them to be. For example, I was at an event here last week, and during a break, someone started chanting ‘Let’s go, Red Wings!’ And pretty soon the whole building was doing it. And it’s not even hockey season!”
You have to draw the line somewhere
Finally, we reached the last category. Three things Harrington now knows about himself. I expected this to be the most intriguing because Harrington, only in his second season, takes this kind of stuff seriously. There’s an old soul in his young body, and the chance to reflect comes naturally to him, despite his relatively few years.
“What did I learn about myself?” he said. “No. 1. I learned I can take criticism and remain positive.
“No. 2. I learned that I miss my family. In college, I was never more than a two-hour car ride away. Now I spend a lot more time on the phone.
“And No. 3 — well, I learned how uncomfortable I am in the public eye. When I go out of the house now for dinner, my first thought is: ‘Do I need a baseball cap?’
“Yes, the positive comments definitely outweigh the negative, but the negative sticks with you more. And if I encounter someone who’s, say, had too much to drink, I have to turn away, and then they really get upset.
“Last year, people got hold of my home number and called in the middle of the night yelling, ‘Hey, Joey! Let’s go to the bar!’ I don’t like that. During the off-season, people got hold of my home address and sent me all kinds of requests. My mother read one and she said, ‘Aren’t you going to answer this?’ And I said, ‘No, this shouldn’t be coming to my home.’
“And she said, ‘But you should hear this, it’s a nice story.’ And I said, ‘You don’t understand. There has to be some kind of line drawn. You get tired of having to star-67 your phone number all the time because you’re afraid of someone realizing it’s you. You get tired of being watched all the time.
“I guess learning to deal with all that is the biggest thing.”
He sighed. I looked at my watch. It had taken him less than 20 minutes to mow through all those questions, thoughtfully and insightfully.
I don’t know how many games Harrington is going to win this year. But I can tell you this. He’s gotten more efficient.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).