Commentary

Green Bay's Harrell inspired by father

QB grateful for opportunities -- as hard as they've been to come by -- thanks to father

Updated: February 4, 2011, 1:32 AM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Graham Harrell never had a problem finding perspective during his often frustrating road to the NFL.

Harrell, who set an NCAA record with 134 passing touchdowns at Texas Tech, was dismissed by scouts and personnel executives as a "system quarterback." He didn't get drafted. He didn't even get an invitation to an NFL training camp.

He spent last season in the Canadian Football League, stashed on the Saskatchewan Roughriders' injured list. He got a tryout in Green Bay in May and was signed after a 10-minute throwing session in front of head coach Mike McCarthy. He's now the Packers' scout-team quarterback, spending most of the season on the practice squad before getting promoted to the 53-man roster when Aaron Rodgers suffered a concussion in December.

"There were days where I was like, 'Man, I don't want to go work out,' " Harrell said at Super Bowl XLV media day, a night after he made the trip home for dinner with his parents. "Then you think, 'Dad would do anything to be able to work out.' His toughness and thinking about him, it's always awesome.

"I think about him a lot. Any time I'm tired or thinking I don't want to do something, it's like, what am I complaining about? There are lots of people who would be killing to do this, and Dad is one of them."

Dad is Sam Harrell, well known around these parts as the coach who built Ennis High School into a Class 4A powerhouse, winning three state championships the past decade. He recently retired from coaching due to symptoms from multiple sclerosis.

Sam Harrell looks more like a librarian than the typical football coach, but the former high school quarterback unquestionably possesses the toughness required to have so much success in his old line of work. Yet his voice goes soft when told what his middle son said about him.

"I never knew really he felt that way," said Sam, the son of a Texas high school football coach. "We're not a sit-down-and-share type of family. I'm obviously touched by it.

"That's just the way I was raised by my mom and dad about handling adversity. You don't ever give up and start thinking about, 'Oh, woe is me.' You think about how you've been blessed and how you're going to get through it."

That's how Sam dealt with his health problems. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005.

"I don't want this disease to take our joy away," his wife, Kathy, said at the time.

They decided not to tell their three sons, Zac, Graham and Clark, until necessary. Zac, the oldest Harrell boy and now the offensive coordinator at Van High School, was just starting his coaching career. Graham was fighting for the starting job at Tech. Clark, who is about to graduate from Abilene Christian with plans to become a coach, was preparing for his college football career.

"They had plenty on their plates," Sam said. "They didn't need something else to worry about. There was nothing they could do about it."

He waited until his condition worsened and the symptoms became more apparent before informing his sons. That happened in the spring of 2009, when Graham was graduating from Tech and getting ready to pursue his pro career.

"It's tough, but my dad is a lot stronger of a guy than I am," said Graham, who set several state passing records playing in his father's spread offense at Ennis, which is about 35 miles south of Dallas. "He always tells me, 'Don't worry about me. I'll be fine.' "

Sam does believe he's getting better, an encouraging development after five years of steady decline. He traveled to Panama in June for adult stem cell treatment. He plans to return to Panama in March for more treatment.

Sam holds out hope that he'll be able to return to coaching in a few years. He took a medical leave last summer, getting reassigned to be the director of the school district's career and technology education program. He retired from coaching in December, accepting that he's not healthy enough to withstand the heat and stay on his feet for hours at a time.

For Graham, the best part of this Super Bowl run is that he gets to share it with his father, who will be at Cowboys Stadium with his wife and other sons on Sunday.

"To me and my brothers, it doesn't matter if he's in a wheelchair or running 40s with us," Graham said. "He's our dad and we're so proud of him. He's like a hero to us, all three of the boys. To get to be here with him is going to be special."

Tim MacMahon is a reporter and columnist for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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