Photo: Rider QB Graham Harrell throwing to injured receiver Weston Dressler

 
by Rene Lalond

For a player who has yet to dress for the Roughriders, Graham Harrell has an astonishing amount of buzz surrounding him, at least when compared to other practice-squad players. He might have the most impressive college resume of any player in the CFL, and is likely the most hyped fourth-stringer in the CFL. 

It’s safe to say Harrell’s college credentials are probably the most impressive seen in Riderville in some time. The 24-year-old is the all-time leader in career touchdown passes in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 football. He is also the only quarterback in NCAA history to pass for over 5,000 yards in consecutive seasons.

Last season, as a senior at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, Harrell finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy – the famous statuette awarded to the best player in American college football. He did, however, win the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award as top graduating quarterback in the NCAA.

The six-foot-two, 220-pound Harrell was not drafted in this past spring’s NFL Draft. After a tryout with the Cleveland Browns, he decided the CFL offered him the best chance of playing, and signed with Saskatchewan.

However, Harrell didn’t join the Riders until a few games into the regular season. He admits it probably cost him a chance at getting on the field this season. But says the practicing has helped familiarizing him with the Canadian game.

“It gave me opportunity to come in and learn, see how things happen and develop as much as possible.”

Harrell’s current role with the Riders is to continue learning the new style of play and run the scout team offence versus the defense. “I’m watching, trying to take my mental reps and throw against the defense, try to give them the looks they’ll see from other teams.”

Harrell plans to go back to Texas for the offseason and workout with his brother and his dad, a high school football coach.

Harrell’s father, Sam, is the highest paid coach in high school football and, according to Harrell, the environment is very similar to what is portrayed in pop culture.

“In Texas, everything revolves around football and high school football is the king… It's kind of like Friday Night Lights or Varsity Blues, the town usually shuts down on Friday nights… it’s like nothing else.”

Harrell went 41-3 in his three years as the starting quarterback under his father at Ennis High School. “I first learned to throw the ball with him (dad) running the spread offence.”
Spread offence is something Harrell likes about the Canadian game.

“I like the wider field, the extra guy, the unlimited motion, there’s almost an unlimited number of things you can do offensively… I think it adds excitement the American game can’t really compare with.”

Although CFL games don’t attract the same level attendance as the NCAA, Harrell said the Rider fans are among the best he’s seen.

“The Saskatchewan fans are closest to American collegiate fans. They tailgate, they get wild, and they’re crazy about the team. That’s what it’s like back home. But in college, we’d play in front of 70,000 to 100,000 fans, the stadiums here just aren’t as big. But the level of play is pretty comparable.”

2008 was a storybook season for Harrell. Not only did he receive individual accolades, but  he also helped his team to what many have called the biggest win in Texas Tech history.

On Nov. 1, 2008 with eight seconds to play, a touchdown pass from Harrell to All-American receiver Michael Crabtree gave Tech the upset win over the number one seed Texas Longhorns. It was the fifth most watched game in ABC history, with over 8.5 million households tuning in for the contest.

Harrell has also reached success in the classroom; a perennial Academic All-Big 12, it took him 3 1/2 years to complete an undergrad degree in history, and he is currently six credits short of earning his masters in education.

“You’re there all year... free schooling is never a bad deal, so I took advantage of it.”

Crabtree, a close friend of Harrell’s, recently returned to the gridiron with the NFL’s  San Francisco 49ers, following a contract hold-out that lasted for several months. The contract is reported to be worth $32 million, with $17 million guaranteed.  

“He’s a great player and I don’t think any receiver’s done what he has at such a young age… I don’t know if I’d ever hold out, when your talking about that kind of money, but Crab knew he could get more and he got more.”

Texas Tech was also home to college basketball’s all-time winningest coach, Bobby Knight. Harrell made certain never to antagonize the coach’s famed temper. “We’d see him a bunch, he was always nice to me but I made sure I never crossed him, or ever said anything too wild to him because he just had that crazy look in his eye.”

Lubbock and Regina are very comparable, which made the move to Canada a lot easier for the Texan.

“Lubbock’s in the plains of West Texas, so its very flat, more of desert than here. The scenery is much more beautiful around here, and in terms of people and things to do, the two are very similar,” said Harrell.

As for next year, “I’d like to get on the field at some point, but also continue learning the game, learning the offence and we’ll just see what happens.”