by Joanne Zuhl, Staff writer
Joey Harrington is a guy who happens to play football; not a football player. There’s a difference. Football doesn’t define him, he says, it was a career, it afforded him a nice living, but it is not who he is.
Who he is is much more than the son of University of Oregon football stars, where he himself had three years as the celebrated quarterback of the Ducks. He is far beyond the hype of his 2001 candidacy for the Heisman Trophy. And today he is so much more than the NFL could ever give, or take away.
Harrington is settling back home in Portland with his wife, Emily, and their new son Jack. It has always been home for him and his family throughout his career. Portland is the base for the Joey Harrington Foundation, established with his signing bonus with the Detroit Lions, with whom he played for four seasons. In recent years, however, his career was tethered to one struggling team after the next — to the Miami Dolphins, the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints.
But Harrington’s having a much bigger impact in Portland than he did throwing a ball in any of those others towns. The Joey Harrington Foundation supports numerous youth-focused groups in Portland, including the Shriners and the Boys and Girls Club, where he serves on the board of directors. He has joined the board of SMART (Start Making A Reader Today), and he’s working with Girls Inc. on their “Power of the Purse” campaign.
Harrington is not just the name behind the check. In his opinion, he was given a blessing with his career, despite its ups and downs, and he wants to give back. In addition to his other work, he both supports financially and volunteers at the Blanchet House, which provides meals for people experiencing homelessness, and on Jan 30, he did the Special Olympics’ Polar Plunge.
Joanne Zuhl: Did you actually do the plunge?
Joey Harrington: Oh God. Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
J.Z.: A lot of people would have cut the check and gone home.
J.H.: Hey — you jump in the water. If you’re going to do it, you got do it all the way. You know, to be in the position I’m in today, I’ve been supported by countless people. I’ve been supported by the community of the state of Oregon, by the city of Portland. These are people who have been wonderful to me. And when I’ve come back in the off-season in years past, I’ve had a small bit of time. I used to do a fundraiser concert for Shriners Hospital, (Harrington is an accomplished jazz pianist) but I wasn’t around enough to be involved like I wanted to give back, to say thank you.
J.Z.: And now?
J.H.: It’s great! It gives me the opportunity to completely jump into it. And while my NFL career didn’t necessarily turn out as storybook as my college career, I’m still able to help certain organizations in the city and the state, that other people may not be able to. It’s funny to me how people respond to professional athletes in general, but the reality is it opens doors. Football has never been a destination to me. Football has been a way to open a door to something else I wanted to do.
By using the contacts that I’ve made through playing football, I’m able to help out the people who have helped me get to this position.
J.Z.: You’re involved with and support several charitable endeavors here in Portland, including the Blanchet House, where I understand you’ve volunteered on several occasions. Some people write the check and that’s it. Was there an event or moment in your life that compelled you to get involved?
J.H.: We made a sizable contribution to the new building project simply because the Blanchet House has been something that’s been close to my family and Emily’s family. My grandfather was one of the members of the original group that started the Blanchet House. And Emily had volunteered for years before we met. She was the one who actually brought me down there to volunteer for the first time, maybe five years ago.
What I really liked about the Blanchet, is that there were no requirements. It wasn’t like you had to sit and listen to someone speak first, it was simply come in and eat. And whether you live on the streets and need it for every single meal, or whether you just need it because the money runs tight at the end of the month, it’s an open door. You asked if there was a moment. I don’t think that there was one moment, but it’s something that my mom and dad really emphasized when we were younger; that it doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a mailman, a plumber, or someone who is out of a job, or someone who is doing drugs on a street corner, everybody deserves respect. And so, having been raised with that as a model, it’s tough to see people turn their back. It’s tough to see people treat others like they’re not good enough, or their time is too valuable for them, or that they are somehow less. And that’s something that has always resonated with Emily and me.
J.Z.: Why do you volunteer for meals?
J.H.: Why? Because I’m able to. I’m blessed with the ability to not to have to go to work 9 to 5 in order to support our family. That truly is a blessing. We’re currently honorary chairs of the Capital Campaign for the Blanchet House. So we’re involved on that side. My cousin sits on the board of Blanchet. It’s something that’s close to our community.
J.Z.: As a native Portlander, leaving and returning – how have you seen the city change with regard to the homeless and people in need?
J.H.: My wife and I got married in March 2007, moved to Atlanta in April. Two years later when we came back, the number of people on freeway ramps, and the number of people sitting outside coffee shops and grocery stores asking for a little bit of help, increased exponentially. In two years.
The line on Burnside, when you come over the bridge, if you see it every single day, you may not notice the one person that was added this week or the two the next week. But when you’re gone for an extended period of time and you come back and see that there are 200 more people in line, or that the freeway exits and on-ramps and off-ramps are now completely filled, whereas before there might have been someone there occasionally. It was pretty dramatic.
J.Z.: What were you thinking when you came back? How could this happen to Portland?
J.H.: I know how this could happen to Portland. Times were tough — times are tough. To be frank, the bumper stickers say keep Portland weird for a reason. Having seen Detroit, having seen Florida, having seen Atlanta and having seen New Orleans, there’s a definite uniqueness to Portland. It wasn’t necessarily how could this happen to Portland, but what can we do to help.
When we set up my family’s foundation back in 2003, it was and is very much a children’s charity focus — that is our mission statement for the health, safety, education and welfare of the children. And that allows us to work with a lot of childrens’ charities: Shriners, Boys and Girls Club, Special Olympics, a lot of great schools. But there was no real avenue for working with the homeless population through the foundation because of the mission. And so Emily and I just really have taken it outside of the foundation as something we have chosen to do.
J.Z.: What did the NFL teach you about success and failure, and how do you measure that in your personal life today?
J.H.: I went from a 10-story billboard in New York City to getting booed out of my own stadium. I went from the top of the football world to the bottom in a very short amount of time. So there were a lot of things that those experiences taught me. The first of which is not to let football define who I am. I’m a person who plays football, I am not a football player. There’s a big distinction.
Something else that I learned is that everybody needs a little help. Everybody needs a break. Everybody needs somebody in their corner. Everybody needs somebody to back them up sometimes. And you can have what seems to be everything in order, and without a little bit of help, without someone opening a door, or helping you along, things may not work. I think I learned a lot of life lessons. Everything I did was so public. Before I left Detroit, one of my teammates went on “Sports Center” and on a live feed essentially blamed me for our coach getting fired. I’ve had to deal with everything in a very public manner, and it taught me a lot about who truly is going to support you and who is simply along for the ride
J.Z.: Are you still hosting the radio show?
J.H.: For another two weeks, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 on Fox Sports. It’s funny. I never wanted to do a sports talk radio, and I was always pretty against it. But when I was presented with the opportunity, I didn’t necessarily want to close a door. There were other things that can come from this, and the more I thought about it, I believed that I could offer an opinion that a journalist couldn’t necessarily offer, that I could offer an insight to get people thinking or understanding what’s actually going on, as opposed to inciting a riot.
J.Z.: Because you’ve taken it from both sides.
J.H.: Exactly. I was not going to be the person who got on the radio and ranted that somebody needed to be fired or somebody needed to be traded. I wasn’t going be that person because I’ve been on the other side of it, and I don’t think there’s any merit for that. I try to offer some sort of insight and offer a perspective that a journalist wouldn’t necessarily have — from my experience. I’ve been able to come at it from a different side. It’s been challenging, not necessarily in time or difficulty of work, but because I’ve been on the other side of the questions. I’ve been there after a game saying to myself, “Why is this guy asking me such a stupid question.”
J.Z.: So you’ve gotten a better understanding of the media, too?
J.H.: Yes a little bit, but I’ve also gotten to know the responsibility of the media. How people rely on you for their own opinions. Your words shape other people’s opinions and therein lies, I think, a very big responsibility.
J.Z.: And I read that you’re thinking of starting a medical clinic. Is that true?
J.H.: I would say that’s a long-term dream. Emily’s a nurse practitioner. She’s done rotations at Central City Concern, and she’s worked in rural populations where you’re working with people who are uninsured, people who don’t have the access to everything that would help them. It’s still down the road, but we are working with the Portland-based group called Project Access Now, which is essentially connecting the health care providers who are willing to volunteer and the people who need the health care.
A lot of people ask, what can I do or is it really going to make a difference. Even if it’s just walking up to someone and introducing yourself or offering to buy a cup of coffee. It’s making somebody feel human. Everything you do has an impact on somebody, and so to sit there and say it’s just such a huge problem, what can I do — well, do something, because it’s going to have an impact on somebody else.
That’s why I love Street Roots, because it’s not just somebody standing there with a sign. It’s not a prop at all. (The vendor’s) got a job. Not everybody has every opportunity to go do exactly what they want to do, but this is work, and you can respect that. It’s respectable work and people should be rewarded for that.
J.Z.: I have to ask, who have you got in the Super Bowl?
J.H.: Of course I want the Saints to win. Great people. It was by far the most enjoyable team that I played on since I left college. Once I left college, I never felt that connection with a team — felt like I belonged. I just had such a great experience, that everything paled in comparison. Then I got to New Orleans and it was different. It was guys who loved to play not because they loved the check. It was coaches that were good people, and not necessarily out to save their jobs. It was just a really unique collection of people.