When I saw yesterday that the folks up the road from me at West Virginia University had decided to retire the No. 90 worn by former Mountaineers linebacker Darryl Talley, my first thought was, “Well, if they’re retiring Talley’s number, when are they retiring Major’s number?”
They announced it on Friday.
I walked outside this morning to get the newspaper, popped it open, and saw that Major’s No. 9 also will be forever set aside by WVU on November 6.
I still think of Major Harris simply as “Major.” In 1988, if you said that word anywhere within the jagged and random but ultimately unique and memorable borders of the state that many still stupidly think is part of Virginia, everyone know who you meant. I arrived in Morgantown for law school that year, the year Major become a phenomenon, leading the Mountaineers to their first 11-0 season and, but for a shoulder injury suffered early in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, a potential first and only national championship.
Major played even better the next year, but the team around him wasn’t nearly as good. In only three seasons, he became the first college player to rush for more than 2,000 yards and throw for more than 5,000.
It didn’t help him at the next level. Harris fell all the way to round twelve, with 316 players picked before him before the Raiders put his name on a card. It didn’t help that Harris showed up for the Scouting Combine woefully unprepared for the workouts, wearing blue jeans and a dress shirt. Then again, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if he’d been decked out in whatever the state-of-the-art track gear was at the time.
“They just didn’t like me,” Harris told Sports Illustrated after the draft.
The quotes from Harris appeared in an article that tried to make sense of both Harris and Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice, whose teams finished with a combined record of 53-13-1, getting the cold shoulder from the NFL. At least Harris got drafted; Rice wasn’t even among the 331 players selected that year.
Here’s what Dick Steinberg, who served at the time as G.M. of the Jets, had to say to SI about Harris and Rice: “What you had was 28 scouts who all saw the same thing — that these are two quarterbacks who do not have NFL passing ability or the skills to develop into NFL quarterbacks.”
Said an anonymous scout (yes, they existed back in 1990) regarding Harris: “He does not throw that well. His accuracy is not consistent, he winds up and throws like a third baseman, and he lacks precision, a quick release and a strong arm.”
In response, watch the highlights.
Is his throwing motion perfect? No. Are there starting quarterbacks currently in the NFL and/or 2021 first-round picks whose throwing motion is the same or worse? Yes.
Said Major’s father, Joseph Harris, at the time, “I think the pros were too busy looking at Major’s faults instead of at his talent.”
What Major may have lacked in high-end passing skills (and he really wasn’t lacking all that much), he made up for in elusiveness. Here’s the signature play of his career, against Penn State in 1988. Now, check out this one, from the following season against the same team. It didn’t count because a lineman released, thinking Harris would be running. Look at how Harris moved, how he bought time. How he kept the play alive long enough to find an open man.
I remember thinking at the time that Major would have maybe fared better in the draft if he’d returned for the 1990 season. But now I know that’s incorrect. Major was simply ahead of his time, by about 30 years. The pro game wasn’t ready for him. He didn’t fit with the way things were done in the NFL, and the NFL remained decades away from realizing the benefit of not making a great quarterback fit an offense but of making an offense fit a great quarterback.
Also, one of the most important skills modern teams crave is the ability to take a bad play and improvise it into a good one. Harris could do that. The league just wasn’t ready for it.
None of that means that an NFL team would have ended up retiring Major’s number, but it’s hard not to think about how he would have fared in the pro game if he’d played in today’s version of it. Chances are he would have been drafted a lot higher. Chances are he actually would have played in at least one regular-season NFL game.
Chances are that those YouTube highlights of him running rings around Nittany Lions also would have included clips of him confounding Bears, Bengals, and Packers, too.