When the 2010 season kicked off, Chandler Harnish stood on the Northern Illinois sideline, believing he should have been the one taking snaps at quarterback.
Harnish felt he was never given the opportunity to win the starting job that spring and fall, and now he began to wonder whether he should return for his final season. He would have his business degree. Maybe it was time for him to start networking, get a job and join the real world.
The thoughts were fleeting, though. Harnish watched starter DeMarcus Grady struggle, throwing for 93 yards and three interceptions in a 27-10 loss to Iowa State. The following week, Harnish was given the starting nod.
Humbled by the experience of standing on the sideline and motivated to never give the job back, Harnish turned in one of the best seasons in school history.
Harnish became the first Northern Illinois quarterback to be selected to the MAC all-conference first-team after breaking the Huskies' 47-year-old school record for total offense with 3,366 yards (836 rushing, 2,530 passing). Harnish had 28 total touchdowns on the year and threw and five interceptions, leading the Huskies to a perfect MAC regular-season, Top 25 ranking and a win in the Humanitarian Bowl over Fresno State.
“After the Iowa State game, I had a strong feeling they were going to go a different direction away from DeMarcus, so deep down I thought hopefully they were going to come back to me,” Harnish recalled in a recent phone interview. “When they did, I just took it and ran with it and I decided I was going to prove everybody wrong. It was a trial by fire. If I didn’t play well in that first game, they would have gone with the next quarterback and stuck with him rest of the season.”
Luckily for Northern Illinois that never happened. Now Harnish returns for his senior season as one of the top non-AQ quarterbacks in the country. He has the benefit of playing behind a solid offensive line, a deep and talented receiving corps, and a deep and talent running back crew as well.
Still, there are some questions about the offense. Leading rusher Chad Spann is gone. Northern Illinois is on its third head coach and fourth quarterbacks coach since Harnish arrived. But Harnish says this has been the easiest transition of them all. It has to be easier given all the adversity he had to overcome. Part of the reason why he was overlooked as starter last season was because of a serious knee injury that nearly ended his career.
Harnish had meniscus and cartilage removed from his knee in 2009. After the season, the doctor wanted to re-examine the injury, and decided Harnish needed reconstructive surgery to put his knee back together. There was a 50 percent recovery rate, so it was unknown whether he would be able to come back and play.
His knee hurt, and Harnish was torn about whether to have the surgery. But in March of 2010, he started feeling better. He was able to run and jog. He e-mailed the doctor and said he wanted to hold off on surgery until he could see how he felt during full contact spring practice. He has not had any pain in his knee, and calls his recovery “a miracle.”
“I realize I had a lot of people helping me,” Harnish said. “I built the muscles around my knee and did pre-hab stuff to prevent anything else. I haven't had any pain ever since.”
Still, by the time he returned, he had missed the first week and a half of spring practice, and was repping with the second and third team. That continued into the fall and Week 1.
“At the time, I don't think the coaches believed in me or that I could stay healthy,” Harnish said. “But it was a blessing in disguise. It was a slap in the face and set me in my place and made me realize this was not a right to play football. It was a privilege, and renewed my passion for the game. I wanted to come out and prove people wrong and it ignited the season that I had.”
We’ll see what he does for an encore.