Written by Shelly Poe
Major Harris was one of college football’s most exciting performers in the mid-1980s. Coming to Morgantown at a time when West Virginia was coming off consecutive bowl-less seasons, the Pittsburgh native ignited a flame in the West Virginia football program that is still burning today.
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After struggling through the early part of his redshirt freshman season, the elusive signalcaller had a breakout game against East Carolina in 1987 and never looked back. He produced 1,200 yards passing and 615 rushing yards in helping WVU to a John Hancock Sun Bowl berth against Thurman Thomas-led Oklahoma State.
The following season, he was nearly perfect in directing West Virginia to the school’s first-ever undefeated, untied regular season and a matchup against No. 1-ranked Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship.
In getting the Mountaineers there, Harris baffled opponents all season with his daring, unpredictable, wide-open style. That was never more evident than in West Virginia’s 51-30 dismantling of long-time nemesis Penn State. Harris outgained the entire Penn State team, 301-292, and produced the school’s most exciting run ever in the first quarter of that game.
As the play clock wound down, Harris forgot the play he had called in the huddle. As soon as the ball was snapped, the entire West Virginia team went in one direction and Harris went the other.
He faked out the entire Penn State team leaving no less than seven tacklers grabbing air on the way to the most gorgeous touchdown run in school history -- a mere 26-yards forever embedded in the memories of West Virginia football fans.
“For all of the long suffering WVU fans to watch the way he played in that game took 25 years of frustration away,” said ESPN's Mike Patrick. “The play was an option to the right, he went left – he went in the wrong direction – and it was him against 11 white shirts. Eleven to one wasn’t good odds and he made one of the greatest runs of all-time. The circumstances and who it was against, that is what made it so special.”
That run and several more like it helped him finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy race that year and earn ECAC player of the year honors.
As a junior, Harris was equally spectacular despite not having as strong a supporting cast. He passed for 2,058 yards and rushed for 936 yards to finish third in the 1989 Heisman Trophy balloting. He earned first team Kodak All-America honors and was a second team AP and Football News All-American. Like 1988, Harris was again voted ECAC player of the year.
He established a WVU record with 7,334 total yards and became one of just two quarterbacks in Division I history to pass for more than 5,000 yards and rush for more than 2,000 yards. His 2,161 rushing yards rank eighth on the school all-time rushing list.
After the completion of his junior year, Harris was convinced to leave school early and was drafted in the 12th round by the Los Angeles Raiders, though he would never play a down in the NFL. Instead Harris played one season in the Canadian Football League with the British Columbia Lions before spending parts of the next five years in the Arena Football League.
“Major Harris went a long way to destroy all of the stereotypes that a black player could not play quarterback,” said Patrick.
Added ESPN's Ivan Maisel, who covered Harris when he was still at the Dallas Morning News, “Major Harris may not have been the first hybrid quarterback of the modern era – we now expect quarterbacks to have the ability to run and to pass – but in the late 1980s, Harris became a revelation.
“Defenses didn’t know how to handle him. His stewardship of the Mountaineers in those wonderful seasons of 1988-89 turned West Virginia from a regional team into a national team. The Mountaineers have been taken seriously ever since.”
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009, and in 2010, he was named The Legend of the Sun Bowl - the 28th member of the elite fraternity of the Legends of the Sun Bowl that includes Cornelius Bennett, Tom Brookshier, Terry Donahue, Vince Dooley, Tony Dorsett, John H. Folmer, Tony Franklin, Hayden Fry, Ken Heineman, Priest Holmes, Don James, Charley Johnson, Harrison Kohl, Verne Lundquist, Johnny Majors, Jimmy Rogers, Jr., Gerald J. Rubin, Craig Silver, Bill Stevens, Pat Summerall, Barry Switzer, Grant Teaff, Derrick Thomas, Thurman Thomas, Pat Tillman, Alex Van Pelt and Jesse Whittenton.