Harrington moves focus back to football

When the season finally started, he tried to put all thoughts of New York out of his mind. His “Joey Heisman” banner adorns the side of a building there, and a successful publicity campaign, combined with another strong season, should earn him a trip there in December as a finalist for college football’s most coveted piece of hardware.

But the quarterback who majors in focus and minors in comebacks wanted to forget about New York. And it worked during seventh-ranked Oregon’s 3-0 start ���� at least until it became impossible to think about anything else but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.”I was glued to the TV the first three or four days,” said Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington, whose team eeked out a win against USC on Saturday. “After that, I couldn’t take it anymore. It’s a terrible, terrible thing that’s happened. I couldn’t watch it on TV anymore.”It really shows how unimportant, maybe that’s not the right word, but, yeah, unimportant things like football are.”

The serious side of Harrington was a bit of a surprise, especially since he seems to save it for the football field and the classroom. Away from work, he is laid back, a self-described “dork” and an ardent admirer of the movie “Tommy Boy” and of Britney Spears.

Sure, there is some serious money behind his Heisman Trophy campaign, which includes the aforementioned banner in New York and a Web site, www.joeyharrington.net. But the site is as casual as Harrington seems to be, unless, of course, fans really care that the most important things for Harrington to take on the road are clean boxers.

The tragedies, however, profoundly affected people across the country, and Harrington is no exception. He has made a career out of remaining focused no matter what is happening around him, but that has proved difficult to do.

“Last week was a very tough week to practice,” he said. “It was a tough week to be focused. Obviously, I wasn’t focused. You can’t be. I was constantly thinking of other things when I was on the practice field, but I’ll be ready when we get to the game.”

“He’s extremely talented and can hurt you in so many ways,” USC free safety Antuan Simmons said. “And he’s got to be licking his chops about playing us again after he made his living off of us last season.”Two of the major milestones on Harrington’s career path were games against USC, although he remembered last year’s game much more fondly than he did his first appearance against the Trojans.

As a redshirt freshman in 1998, Harrington was on the field for only one play the entire season. He took a pitch from Ducks quarterback Akili Smith and threw an errant pass just as he was crushed by USC linebacker Chris Claiborne.

“I looked up and I had flown 4 or 5 yards back from the force of the hit,” Harrington said with a laugh.

Harrington finally got his revenge last season in the Coliseum, when he burned USC’s defense with four touchdown passes, including one to tight end Justin Peelle with 1:10 to play that sealed the 28-17 victory. The 382-yard performance served as Harrington’s coming-out party, and he has been considered one of the best quarterbacks in the nation ever since.

Harrington’s reputation has been enhanced by his ability to stay cool when the Ducks are down, and he has seven fourth-quarter comebacks from deficits to his credit.

“You get into the huddle and he has this confidence that makes everybody believe we’re going to win,” Oregon wide receiver Keenan Howry said. “He is so calm and collected, and he isn’t fazed by the pressure at all.”

“Joey is the guy that wants the ball when the game is on the line and the guy that the coaches want to have the ball when the game’s on the line,” Coach Mike Bellotti said.

Although Oregon flirted with national prominence in the 90s, it didn’t embrace its role as a title contender until Harrington developed into an elite-level quarterback. The change in expectations in Eugene, Ore., however, hasn’t overwhelmed the quarterback who can handle most things.”It’s different, I’ll admit that,” Harrington said. “It’s very different. I think that as a team we’ve done a good job of handling it. We had to come to the realization that the attention we were getting was coming from what we did last year and it all will go away if we don’t keep winning this year.”

Oregon struggled in its opener against Wisconsin before it pulled out a 31-28 victory, and the Ducks beat Utah, 24-10, on Sept. 8 to run their winning streak to 22 games at Autzen Stadium. Much of the credit for the streak goes to Bellotti, who consistently fields competitive teams, and to Ducks fans, who make life miserable for visiting teams.And some of it belongs to Harrington, who never has lost at home and is 16-2 as a starter.

“I think I do a good job of putting us in a position to win games,” Harrington said.

Harrington is widely praised for the intangibles that help a quarterback, but USC coach Pete Carroll said there is more to it than that.

“He’s big and he can move around,” Carroll said. “He’s got a strong enough arm to make all the throws. This guy is really well equipped. He’s obviously a very bright player because they do so much. I’m preparing as if this is an NFL quarterback because of the things he can do.”

One of those things Harrington does best is focus. That means when he steps on the field Saturday, for a few hours at least, he will turn off the thoughts of everything, from the high expectations to Britney to the worst terrorist attack ever against the United States, and concentrate on football.

“I believe that’s how I win football games,” Harrington said. “I’m not the greatest athlete, but I can put everything aside when it matters and just focus on what it takes to win.”