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Joey’s Magic Touch

His fan base is burgeoning, jersey sales are booming É Portland's own is a huge hit

He wants to be an ordinary Joe, but the fans of the Detroit Lions just won't let him. Neither will men who love football, women who read Cosmo and followers of the famous.

Pretty much covers everybody, doesn't it?

If anybody hasn't noticed, Portland's Joey Harrington has become a superstar before our very eyes. He's a rookie quarterback climbing the stairs to stardom by producing for the Lions. He's also a good-looking 24-year-old bachelor impressing everyone with his professionalism, charisma and personality.

Who's given hope to an NFL organization that had none? Joey Harrington.

Who smiles and touches hearts by saying he likes the feel of a woman's soft cheek (as quoted in Cosmopolitan)? Joey Harrington.

Who couldn't care less about fame? Joey Harrington.

'What you see is what you get,' says Denise Harrington, a cousin and, along with husband Michael, the young man's personal image-maker. 'There's a star quality to Joey.'

It all sounds familiar here because Harrington, who grew up in the Laurelhurst area of Southeast Portland, put the University of Oregon on the map in the last three years. He led the Ducks to 27 wins in 30 games, including three bowl victories and last year's No. 2 national ranking.

In so doing, he exemplifed wholesome. He became the face of the university, thanks to a 100-foot-high billboard in downtown Manhattan. He completed passes and led fourth-quarter comebacks and sat in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. He won hearts and didn't lose his innocence.

Harrington's high profile as a college star helped make his NFL transition easier, he says now. Drafted by Detroit with the No. 3 pick, he advanced to the pros with the intent of making an impact Ñ though maybe even he didn't know if the magic touch would follow him there.

'I just want to be Joey,' he says.

But, these days, how can he be?

They are crazy about Harrington in Detroit Ñ crazy and grateful that one young quarterback can give them that long-lost four-letter word: hope. Finally, long-suffering Lion fans can talk football without wearing a brown bag over their heads.

• • •

It's been a long, long time since the Lions were really good. There have been no titles since the mid-'50s, when the quarterback was Bobby Layne, a man whose star quality was considerably more rough-hewn than Harrington's. Since then, the Mustang, Motown Records, the Jacksons, and championships for the Red Wings, Tigers and Pistons have all come and gone from Detroit. Save for the Barry Sanders era, the Lions have been forgettable by midseason almost every year since.

But Harrington's Lions are a competitive 2-4, and with a bit of luck they'd be 4-0 since Harrington's takeover as starter in the season's third game. He led the Lions to victories over New Orleans and Chicago before boisterous home crowds in the newly opened Ford Field. And he nearly beat Green Bay and Minnesota with fourth-quarter comebacks Ñ interceptions on potential game-winning TD passes ended rallies both times.

Last weekend against the Bears, he led the Lions on a fourth-quarter drive for the tying points as time trickled down. The Lions won in overtime. Vintage Joey.

'He has fun playing the game, and that's contagious,' Harrington's agent, David Dunn, says. 'He has a way about him. It's very engaging. He's got a quality of being very genuine and approachable, and that's what people like.'

Yes, they do.

Harrington's first win Ñ against a New Orleans team that is now 6-1 Ñ was all it took to make a believer out of Lion fan Terry Zuehlke.

'This is a team that is laying the foundation. Yesterday's game was a glimpse of the future, more than a turnaround game,' Zuehlke wrote on the Detroit Free Press' Web site. 'Joey is a great combination of skill and leadership and will prove to be the better of the two top QBs in the last draft.'

Sales of Harrington's No. 3 jersey already have climbed to fourth among NFL players, and the Lions may try to secure the rights to sales of all officially merchandised ($200 each) and knockoff (about $60) Harrington jerseys. Television ratings in Detroit are way up.

Harrington charmed Detroit's jaded media on his first visit, pulling out an 'ORY-GUN' bumper sticker to assist the Michiganites.

His biggest fan, Lion owner William Clay Ford, persuaded management to draft him, convinced that a handsome and polished quarterback was just what the franchise needed to spark interest in their shiny new downtown stadium. General Manager Matt Millen wanted to draft a defensive back, and Ford finally had to pull rank, pointing out that no one buys tickets to watch a defensive back.

'Godsend? No, I don't want to use those words,' says Matt Barnhart, the Lions' public relations director. 'But the level of excitement is unbelievable.'

And to think he's a rookie just getting started.

ESPN has featured him in NFL Films' 'Hey, Rookie, Welcome to the NFL.' He has been on the radio with the Fox network, Jim Rome, Dan Patrick and Mitch Albom. He's done Fox's 'Best Damn Sports Show' twice.

Sports Illustrated soon will produce a Harrington story. He has been in Men's Health magazine and, of course, appears in the November issue of Cosmopolitan, which has just been put on newsstands.

For his Cosmo picture, Harrington refused to remove his shirt, unlike most of the 49 other 'Hottest Hunks' of the United States. Belying the image of macho jock, he told the magazine: 'I love when a great-smelling woman walks by Ñ that sexy hint of her perfume always makes me turn around.'

Though Harrington now claims to have been misquoted, the text continues: 'Touching a woman's face and putting my face against hers excites me. Soft cheeks are so appealing.'

In touch with his feelings? Yeah. He played the national anthem on piano before a Trail Blazers game, in front of Nike employees once, and says he was more relaxed playing football in front of 80,000 fans.

• • •

Harrington did endorsements for the Kendall Lexus dealership in Eugene, getting the use of a sweet, white Lexus while at Oregon. In Detroit, he has done two endorsements on behalf of the Ford family, one for the Henry Ford Museum, and he now drives a new Navigator and Jaguar.

'There are some real benefits to working for somebody with that name,' Dunn says.

He has done pitches for the Fords, EA Sports and Pepsi, but he's turned down other endorsement opportunities, which Dunn describes 'a steady stream.' The agent quickly adds: 'Right now, he's playing football. All of that can come later.'

It can wait because the football is being played for a hefty fee. Dunn negotiated a $36.5 million deal with the Lions, including $13 million in signing bonuses spread over the first two years. He has a base salary of $1.3 million this year, and, if he takes one-third of Detroit quarterback's snaps, a series of escalator clauses will kick in. Harrington could make $18 million in the final three years of his six-year deal.

'I'll guarantee you that's the last thing on his mind,' Dunn says.

Harrington has made few public appearances in Detroit, except for a Fan Appreciation Day held by the Lions Ñ at which fans chanted, 'Joey! Joey! Joey!' Ñ and at an alternative school.

Not that Joey can't handle fans, dignitaries or the media. He has been schooled in dealing with attention since his junior year at Oregon. His mother, Valerie, asked relatives who own a Portland media consulting business to work with him.

Indeed, if he seems too good to be true, part of him probably is Ñ a result of time spent with cousins Michael and Denise Harrington, who own Harrington & Associates. They instruct him on how to behave in public, at news conferences, with management, when giving interviews one-on-one or in large contingents Ñ and how to deliver key messages, how he feels at the moment and 'how to create really good sound bites,' Denise Harrington says.

'I don't want to say he's polished,' she says, 'but he understands how to handle himself. Great business acumen.'

She talks about getting the 'Wow!' from celebrities, such as Michael Jordan É and Joey Harrington:

'Naturalness plus skill-sets plus practice equals É Wow! A guy in the zone.'

Contact Jason Vondersmith at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..