In the Zone

For former NFL quarterback Joey Harrington, life after football has inspired a new mission to find the state’s next great leaders—and to keep them thriving in Oregon.

When you walk into the Pearl Tavern, you’re not just going to have a good meal—you’re going to get an education in Oregon sports, and you’ll be contributing to the state’s future while you’re at it.

The casual eatery’s décor is dominated by sports memorabilia personally curated by co-owner Joey Harrington, the former NFL quarterback, Portland native son, and philanthropist.

“It’s everything from my jersey and cleats from the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, to the glove that Kevin Gunderson wore as he was pitching the final out for Oregon State Beavers in the 2006 College World Series, to the shoes that Nat Borchers wore for the Timbers when they won the Major League Soccer cup, to the ticket stubs from Steve Prefontaine’s 1972 Olympic trials in Eugene,” says Harrington.

Harrington already owned some of these items, and he personally called other Oregon sports luminaries to acquire others. Long-distance runner and University of Oregon star Alberto Salazar, for instance, gave Harrington one of his track singlets to display. “It had just been lying in a box in his garage,” Harrington marvels. He’s also collaborated with the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame to display such invaluable items as the Oregon State Rose Bowl trophy from 1942. “It’s truly a celebration of sports from around the state.”

And Pearl Tavern is giving back.  Three percent of proceeds go to the Harrington Family Foundation, a charity that primarily funds a postsecondary scholarship for Oregon high school students aimed at keeping promising talent in the state. Harrington started his foundation in 2002, funding it with a portion of his NFL signing bonus. “I knew that at some point when I was done playing I wanted to come back to Portland and contribute—I wanted to give back to the people and the place that has given so much to me.”

Before he focused on philanthropy, Harrington’s first job was football. At U of O, his glittering record as a quarterback included being a finalist for the 2001 Heisman trophy. He was the third pick in the 2002 NFL draft and was signed by the Detroit Lions. At this point, his football fairytale took a turn. During his tenure, the Lions lost far more than they won. “To come from a place [in college] where I lost 3 in the 30 I played, to one where we struggled to win at all—it was a huge shock,” he says. “I struggled. It challenged not just what I did, but who I was.”

During his NFL years, he returned as often as possible to his home in the Pearl’s McKenzie Lofts to visit his family. “For example, Detroit plays the early game on Thanksgiving morning every year, and there was a 7 p.m. direct flight from Detroit back to Portland, and I was booked on that flight,” he says. “If the game ended at 4:30, with the time difference, I could make it back to my family in time for a slice of pumpkin pie.”

In 2006, he was traded to the Miami Dolphins, the next year to the Atlanta Falcons, and then finally to the New Orleans Saints, who released him in 2009. Reflecting on his pro career, Harrington is philosophical. “Sure, I would have loved to have spent 14 seasons in Detroit and wound up in the Hall of Fame,” he says. “But the experiences that I had and the things that I learned have gotten to me to where I am today—and frankly, I love where I am.”

He’s deeply focused on his family—he and his wife, Emily, now live in Northeast Portland and have two young sons—and on occasional TV broadcasting. After stints at ESPN and Fox Sports, Harrington now contributes community involvement and human interest pieces to KGW, the local NBC affiliate.

But primarily, he works on his foundation. “I started it without really knowing what I wanted it to be—we had a very broad mission statement,” he says. “We were set up for youth safety, health care, and education, so we gave soccer balls to kids in Uganda, we gave to schools in Portland.”  His football days behind him, he realized the organization needed more focus.

He used his quarterbacking experience as inspiration. “It’s a position of leadership,” Harrington says. He refined the foundation’s mission to cultivate local leaders and keep them in Oregon. The scholarship is open to any Oregon student in financial need and who can demonstrate leadership skills.

“There are countless students who are on the honor roll, and in the Key Club,” says Harrington, “but when we receive a recommendation letter from a teacher who says, I’ve been at this school for 25 years, and I can count on one hand the number of students like this one, that’s what we want.”

So far, 16 recipients have been awarded the Oregon Community Quarterback Scholarship, which comes with four years of financial support and pairing with relevant community mentors.

Pearl Tavern has become a part of Harrington’s broader mission—and not just from the financial support the restaurant is providing to the foundation. The vision for Pearl Tavern, he says, is to not just be a great restaurant but also “to be a meeting place and gathering spot—an old-school hub of the town,” he says. “If we want the Pearl Tavern to be part of the fabric of this community,” he concludes, “we have to contribute to the fabric of this community as well.”

– Alison Stein | Photos by Paul Wagtouicz, except NFL photo by George Gojkovich via Getty Images.