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One would think Oregon Duck football hero Joey Harrington would have a pad slathered in football memorabilia. But upon initial glance, not a single college or NFL shot glass or jersey graces the interior. For Mr. and Mrs. Harrington, parents of 2-year-old son Jack, being low-key suits them fine. Having a conversation with Joey and Emily about parenthood, Joey’s recent bicycle accident and their latest nonprofit work through the Harrington Family Foundation, is where their humility shines through.
Sure, there have been well-documented ups and downs in Joey’s professional career. He acknowledges that while many people know him as a football player, that chosen path didn’t define who he was. Grounded by a strong sense of family, faith and community, Joey remains clear about his life’s priorities and giving back.
Emily, his wife, is a nurse with a passion for improving access and quality of healthcare. Both feel a strong sense of commitment to organizations serving kids. Joey and Emily agree that becoming parents two years ago to their son Jack has been the biggest blessing and eye opener of their lives. Now that they’re back in Portland to stay, they’re excited to be home and solidify a place within the community through the growth of the Harrington Family Foundation …
JL: How has your life changed since having a child?
JH: It’s one of the most humbling, joyful experiences. You think you’re prepared. Then, you bring the baby home, and it’s ‘Okay, now what?’ You’re constantly learning and growing as a parent to figure out what to do to raise your child. You’re going to make mistakes. He’s going to throw you curve balls. But at the same time, he wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Mommy, Daddy, up,’ walks up and gives you big hug and a kiss. And it’s … incredible. Absolutely life-changing.
EH: Joey and I knew we wanted children. We had things many couples make sure they have before making the decision to have a family: financial security, a home, basic necessities. We felt prepared. I thought, being a healthcare provider and working with babies, there’s nothing this child could throw at me that I’m not prepared for. Yet, when we had our child, we were knocked pretty far back on our heels because one can’t truly prepare for it until you’re in it. I’d like to think Joey and I are both selfless people but parenting is a never-before encountered force of selflessness.
JL: When you have a child you can have a game plan, but nothing stays to the rules.
JH: Your kid doesn’t care about your game plan.
EH: You’re a parent for life. I’m a 30-year-old woman and when Jack was a newborn and Joey was in New Orleans playing, I was having a hard time. I thought of my mom and dad. They’re the first people I call. You’re a parent for life.
JL: Joey, for you having a son, being close with your dad and the whole perception about following in his footsteps, did you have any preconceived notions about what you wanted for your son, but then changed your mind once your son was born?
JH: I don’t want to say the idea of following in my dad’s footsteps is overblown, but I think it’s a … nice, stereotypical story. People assume that a father pushes, that my dad pushed me towards Oregon or towards football. But that wasn’t the case at all. If anything, he was cautious not to do that.
JL: Do people have that misconception?
JH: In general, people do. But not people who know my father. He was fantastic. He’s an incredibly wonderful man, nothing but supportive when I was growing up. He didn’t push me in any one direction when I was deciding where I wanted to go to school. He was very objective … here are the good things, here are the bad things … you make your decision.
JL: You and Emily both come from tight families with strong religious faith. How does faith play a part in parenting?
JH: We were both raised in Catholic families. My great uncle was our parish priest for many years up at All Saints. It’s been a part of my life and family and I love that part of our family. I love the sense of community and taking care of each other. That’s one of the things that has stuck out for me is the idea that it takes a village to raise a child … the idea of … helping out family members, the idea of community. That’s a very faith-based idea for me. It’s not just about me. I’m not the only person. It’s about looking out for those around you.
JL: Did faith help you deal with the glamour, attention and trappings of NFL life? Did it balance or equalize you?
JH: Absolutely. I was able to put football in its place and say football was what I do, not what I am. This was largely based on a background of family and faith. When I got into the NFL, it was a priority for me, but it was put in its place. All the things that guys in the locker room thought were important? To me, were … ehhh … pretty trivial. We’re playing a game; people pay us tons of money to play a sport. There are thousands of people who can’t go see the doctor.
I saw a side of people and sports that … I don’t know. Like when you have people calling and leaving you death threats because you threw an interception, or people are screaming ‘I spent a $100 on this ticket and you didn’t win the game for me.’ I think, well, You know what? You have your health, your family—life’s great. In some respects, in order to be successful at that level you almost have to put a fake sense of importance on it. I eventually realized I’d rather be successful in life than successful in the NFL because I believed that in order to be successful in the NFL I was going to have to sacrifice certain things.
JL: Those thoughts must have included your wife or family?
JH: There’s a reason why so many guys in the NFL don’t see their kids or nearly 90% of people who are married in the NFL are divorced within five years. You place such an importance … your identity … everything on this sport and when it’s over, your life collapses and you have nothing to hang your hat on.
EH: Our family is our center. Our core groups of friends are the same people we grew up with. We all have kids around the same age. We pull a lot on the support of friends and family to maintain our sense of selves.
JH: We finally have stability. I remember sitting in New Orleans, having a conversation, ‘Well, do we unpack Jack’s boxes? Do we set up his room?’ We didn’t know if we’d be there next week.
JL: The recent bike accident you were in must have rocked your world … were you aware of what was happening when you got hit?
JH: I was hit from behind by a car going about 35 mph and flipped off my bike but never lost consciousness on either the impact with the car or the ground.
EH: I received the initial call that Joey had been hit, it was from a gentleman named Steve Collie. He was riding on a motorcycle behind the car that struck Joey. Fortunately, Steve was a trained wilderness first responder and had knowledge that I was a nurse. In a matter of minutes he was able to inform me of Joey’s injuries, but most importantly that Joey was alert enough to provide my phone number. I was able to talk briefly with Joey which provided me reassurance.
JH: I broke my right collarbone, the first two ribs below my collarbone and punctured my lung. I got six staples in my head behind my right ear. Ironically, I think that at some level, years of getting blindsided in football trained me how to absorb an impact but I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. I was in the hospital for three nights, the first night was spent in ICU so they could monitor the hole in my lung, the next two I was on a “regular” floor for recovery and pain management. The lung and broken bones just healed through rest but I will have a few months of physical therapy to heal my shoulder.
JL: Was this accident emotionally or mentally different than sustaining a sports injury?
JH: This was definitely emotionally different than any playing injury I had, because I knew that injuries were a risk of my job. After I retired I expected the “long-term” injuries to go away. It’s also difficult to maintain the type of rehab schedule I’m used to. When you’re playing, your job is to rehab your body and make sure it’s in shape to play that weekend. Time’s built into your day for that purpose. Now it’s an inconvenience thrown in with other daily activities. I never felt as though I was in any serious danger after the accident. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at my helmet, that I realized how lucky I had been. My helmet was pretty badly damaged and covered in blood. I never ride without it, but if I wasn’t wearing a helmet, things would have been much different.
EH: If you’re a cyclist and expect to be treated with the same respect vehicles are provided, cyclists need to be informed and honor the rules of being a cyclist. Helmets should be worn. I’m in disbelief when I see cyclists traveling at high speeds weaving through traffic without a helmet on. This is reckless and poor judgment. Whether or not a cyclist is traveling amongst cars, it only takes one fall and a significant blow to one’s head to truly alter a person’s life.
JL: This is also where the importance of health insurance comes in. You’ve both extended support to local organizations such as Project Access Now, which increases awareness about healthcare access and affordability. There are approximately 300,000 people under- or uninsured in Oregon. If something happens like Joey’s recent bike accident, lack of insurance could be catastrophic.
EH: Project Access Now does a great job of identifying medical providers in the city that have time and resources to give. The definition of the “needy” has changed. It could be a neighbor down the street who’s in construction, maybe had basic health insurance, but with the economy, had to let it go. They seem to have a normal house, drive cars, look together… but they’re uninsured. Project Access Now links fantastic providers willing to give care to the people who need it.
JL: Is there anything regular citizens can do to advocate for health care access?
EH: I’m a big supporter of think globally, act locally. We live in a city where innovative services exist. Lend support to local organizations such as Project Access Now, Central City Concern, Virginia-Garcia and Outside In, just to name a few. Additionally, we as citizens need to make judicious health care choices of our own and use our system, which is suffering, as wisely and carefully as we can.
JL: Was creating the Harrington Family Foundation a meaningful way to get involved with organizations doing great work? Joey, your whole family is involved including your parents and brothers.
JH: Now that Emily and I are home, the foundation will be a full-time focus for us. The foundation provides funds for existing programs. So if the agenda includes raising money for charity, you need to know where to go. I spent the last year trying to figure that out.
JL: The mission of the Harrington Family Foundation is that “Every child has a right to receive a quality education and proper healthcare in a safe and nurturing community.” Most of what you do is supported by “community partners, respected organizations, businesses, and individuals who are dedicated to the belief that improving the quality of life for children today is an investment in the well-being of society tomorrow.” It’s an awesome mission. Do you ever feel overwhelmed?
JH: I’m humbled by it. Children’s spirits are pure. Through the work of our foundation, and the programs and services we fund, we give kids and their families opportunities they may not have. With even basic stuff that so many of us take for granted, I’ve seen firsthand that a little can do a lot. Playing football afforded me a lot of opportunities. I used that time to learn about myself and others. I loved the game, I loved hard work. I enjoyed learning new plays. I loved the fans. But most of all, I was grateful for the opportunities both college and the NFL provided me to give back and help others. To open doors for those less fortunate. Portland is my home. My family, this place, and the people in it are what make my life special. I intend to show that giving to the community and helping others who have helped me along the way is an opportunity I won’t take for granted.
by Janna Lopez, publisher of Portland Family