Harry the Hiker

“Look at the F’$#%& script, Harry!” Josh McDaniels bellowed.

In front of the entire team and thousands of Broncos fans that had arrived that day at training camp, things, for a brief moment came to a grinding halt. Mike Harrington, yes The Mike “Hands” Harrington, a.k.a. “Harry,” had screwed up. Camp is a critical time for all players; you need to take advantage of every rep and make sure you give off the best impression possible. So, to forget the snap count is just not something you want to do.

McDaniels, in his Napoleonic manner, had isolated Harry for humiliation. Sometimes you have to break down a player’s spirit to bring him up again. Perhaps this was what Coach McDaniels was doing.

The only problem was that he wasn’t screaming at a player.

Mike Harrington was an assistant equipment manager, who was bent over like a pretzel, trying to figure out how to snap the ball between his legs for the first time. This, according to Harry, was all part of his dream job.

Nobody has worked with more Broncos quarterbacks over the past 12 years than Harry. But, when you work in the background, the goal is to blend in silently. To stop a team practice because you forgot the snap count is a nightmare. Never mind the fact that you got to work at 5:30 in the morning and all you have been doing is lugging stuff around to make things easier for professional athletes and coaches.

KNOW THE DAMN SNAP COUNT!

But, Harry, as everybody knows him, has been the most consistent part of the Broncos offense, even if those who should know him best are slightly in the dark.

“I’ll tell you a great Harry story,” current head coach Gary Kubiak told me. “The other day, Harry had a baby boy. So I texted Flip (equipment manager Chris Valenti) and I said, ‘Hey Flip, give me Harry’s phone number so I can call him and congratulate him.’ Well he texted me Mike Harrington’s phone number and I said, ‘No, I need Harry’s phone number’ and he said, ‘That is Harry!’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve always known him as Harry.’ But, he’s been at it for a long, long time and they’ve been a big part of the organization and they do a tremendous job.”

Now, I have no idea if Coach Kubiak knows that Flip’s real name is Chris. But, the equipment guys wouldn’t have it any other way. They are their own special team. Along with Flip and Harry roll Jason Schell and Kenny Chavez. They are constantly running around the practice field with earpieces and walkie-talkies getting the next thing – drill, station, equipment – set up.

Kenny gets to drive a tractor filled with pads and gear while Harry gets to work with the quarterbacks. It’s just how it’s worked out over the years. They have their own locker room, but it ain’t fancy. Hell, it’s actually in the laundry room. But, if you want to see guys working just as hard as the players, watch how things get assembled, taken down, reassembled and then cleaned up. But, for fun, just spend time during training camp watching Harry play catch with Peyton Manning.

“I call it recess,” Harry explained to me, “I joke around with my buddies from high school; they talk about their days and how bummed they are and I say the same thing – joking around, ‘Aw man, yeah I went out and played catch with Peyton today and Brock. And man, it was tiring. Yeah, it was so hot out there today. You know, I hate it when it rains out at practice.’ They are like, ‘Shut up!’ They are sitting at a desk for four hours having to crunch numbers and I’m out at practice.”

Manning told me that Harry is in a long line of equipment guys that he’s worked with over the years that have meant a great deal to his development.

“Yeah, in Indy we had ‘T’ and ‘Frog.’ And now I have a ‘Harry’ and a ‘Flip,’ Manning said. “I guess you have to have a nickname to have that job. I mean those guys are the heart and soul of the team. I’m grateful how good they take care of us, whether it’s getting my shoes the right way or getting my glove ready. Harry’s fantastic for me.”

Brock Osweiller went even further.

“(Harry’s) is the best – hands down,” the Broncos backup told me. “In the offseason, when I’m training in Arizona, I wish he was there with me. I hope he’s here for my whole career. You need to simulate a real snap and he’s perfect. And if I need to throw, he’s got a great set of hands.”

Ah, the hands have earned Harry quite the reputation. Mike Klis wrote about “them” in the Denver Post following Tim Tebow’s first practice:

The former Florida Gator superstar displayed tremendous coordination while marching to strength coordinator’s Rich Tuten’s warm-up exercises, great agility during a ball carrying drill over and around blocking dummies and superb accuracy during a pitch and catch session with equipment manager Mike “Hands” Harrington… Tebow completed 21 of 21 passes to Harrington during the viewing period. Just as the media was herded off the field, Tebow zipped a 15-yard pass to Harrington, who made his first and only drop. Thus, Tebow was officially 21 of 22. Afterwards, Harrington declined comment.

I’m proud to say for the first time in years, Harry is now willing to go on the record about that incident.

“I had to give Klis crap; he said Tebow went (21 of 22) and ‘Hands’ dropped the final pass,” Harry protested. “I had to say, ‘Whoa, timeout, we have to go to the tape. That ball was way out here and I got one hand on it; don’t let my short stature get in the way of what happened. (Tebow) was really (22 of 22).’”

Harry, like a football neighborhood police officer, is there to protect and serve all Broncos quarterbacks great and small.

Harry is built like a heavy-duty mailbox – 5-foot-9 and a “generous” 220 pounds. But, it’s more muscle than Golden Corral. Harry met his wife when they were students at CU. They just added a third future practice hiker to their family. Together they have found happiness in what has to be considered one of the more bizarre jobs in professional football. They got married in the spring 12 years ago and that fall Harry’s life changed forever.

“Flip (the Broncos head equipment manager) and I worked together at CU; all I knew was defense,” Harry explained. “I was fully immersed in coaching stuff. When I got here, I said, ‘Where do you want me?’ It was 7-on-7 and they just needed somebody to throw the ball back to the QB. At the time you just stood sideways or down on a knee and threw the ball back. When I started, Danny Kannell called for the ball and I had no idea what the snap count was, and all the guys ran down the field. Coach Shanahan was like, ‘What was that?’ Kannel apologized, and I was like, ‘Oh, well, I’m the new guy.’”

It started innocently enough. He was just filling a hole. He was a role player, playing his part. There wasn’t one equipment guy considered on a higher level than another guy. There still isn’t a hierarchy amongst this dedicated crew. Harry just happened to be the one who was asked to be with the quarterback.

From Jake Plummer…

… “He helped me out huge. I was really nervous. My first game was the Hall of Fame Game. He made me feel part of the team. I remembered we got a big airplane and most of the staff got put in first class. All the guys were walking by me and I was hiding my head, Jake walked by and high-fived me and said, ‘Dude don’t worry about it, you’ve been busting your butt in camp.’”

…to Peyton Manning…

…“My worry was that he was doing something for so long, I didn’t want to screw it up. But the first thing he said was, ‘That’s not the mentality. Let’s work together – not just do what I want to do.’ He said, ‘Let’s do what I need on gameday.’ So he may say, ‘Your shotgun snaps are a little slow.’ Or sometimes, I play the linebacker. He’s like, ‘Run full speed, man! Don’t jog up on me, I got to make these quick decisions.’”

But the game changer was Tim Tebow…

“I remember it was very important to take as many snaps under center as possible. Whenever we could practice snaps, we would snap. Whenever we had to practice catching footballs for him, I would catch. It stepped up my game and he worked out hard. It was fun to work with him. With Tim, it’s how many footballs do you catch? I would say it would be about 1,000 footballs a day. It was Tim and three other quarterbacks.”

One thousand catches a day. One thousand throws back to the quarterbacks. This was the Tim Tebow era. Harry was an integral part of the Tebow Quixotic adventure.

The snaps had to be real because Tebow never had taken any. The throws had to be made because Tebow couldn’t really throw the football like an NFL QB. The practices were long and brutal because Josh McDaniels didn’t know what he was really doing and there was no CBA to stop him. Through it all, there was Harry – not complaining, bending over like a squat machine in the gym, working as hard as he could to remember the snap count.

In the end, Harry has endured all the trials and tribulations of every head coach (6) and every quarterback (more than 30 and counting) since the days of Mike Shanahan.

He has been nervous at the Super Bowl: “I remember being paranoid during the Super Bowl. Don’t chuck it! Don’t jam a finger!”

He has been the insiders’ insider: “Yeah, when they line up, I know what play is coming.”

He has become as knowledgeable as any player in the history of the team, save for perhaps John Elway.

“Really, I’m like staying in a Holiday Inn Express,” he said with a grin “I know just enough to be dangerous or sound really cool. It’s the surface; I just mimic a lot of things. I feel like I’m a little kid when you are teaching them a sport; they want to know why. But it’s like, ‘I’ll teach you why later, just do what I say for now.’ I just need to know that ‘crust.’ What’s my indicator? What am I looking for?”

For the football fanatic, nobody has it better than Harry: “I never considered this a job, never considered this from the fan’s standpoint. It’s not a big deal. My wife will say, ‘Look what you get to do!’ My plan of attack week-to-week is getting things done – I gotta get this done… I gotta get the glove ready for Peyton… you know stuff like that. People will sit there and say, ‘You have to deal with that and that sounds cool,’ and to me it’s just getting ready for another game.”

When you head out to camp keep your eyes on the guy whose job it is to follow Peyton Manning. Know that person is as dedicated to his job as Manning is to his. Know that person has been at work since 5:30 in the morning. Know that person will only go home after all the players leave and the laundry is done, well after 7 p.m. most days. Know that person is part of another team that keeps this football machine moving. Know there is pride in every practice, because every practice is game day.

Hey, you wanna play catch with Peyton Manning?

Harry gets to do it every day.

“Its a great place to be. I’m happy; my family is happy. It’s where I want to be.”

This article appeared in the July issue of Mile High Sports Magazine.

CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE

SHARE