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Chandler Harnish will land on his feet, even on this unfamiliar terrain.
Harnish was released by the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday and was not signed to the practice squad on Sunday, ending his two-year run with the team. The Colts signed rookie quarterback Jeff Mathews (Cornell) to the practice squad instead.
The decision leaves Harnish, a Norwell High School alum, without a football team for the first time since he began playing the game. He joined the Colts as the final selection of the 2012 NFL Draft after a standout career at Northern Illinois University.
“It's definitely a new situation for me; I haven't been through anything like this,” Harnish said. “It's hard. It's not easy. I'd be lying if I said it was easy. I've been talking about it forever that you never know when the game is going to end and you have to be ready. My dream is still alive and well. I've got to keep my head up and move forward.”
Maybe he'll get a shot somewhere else or, possibly, gets some looks from Canadian Football League teams. He's only 26, not necessarily done with football. Many CFL quarterbacks possess similar strengths to Harnish (athleticism, ability to run or throw, and to throw on the run). Even if he doesn't start the season with an NFL team, he could be signed as injuries change rosters in the weeks ahead.
While he said he didn't have a long conversation with the Colts about the decision to let him go, he holds the organization in high regard. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson told Harnish the team had decided to go in another direction.
“There's a level of frustration in general in being released because there are so many gray areas and questions there,” Harnish said. “I got a good piece of advice from a close friend today. He said, 'Keep your head up and don't burn any bridges because you never know what could happen in the future.' So I'm taking the high road. I'm grateful for the opportunity I had. It's definitely not over.”
If Harnish is at the end of his playing career, he has more than enough work ethic, ambition and business acumen to move on to the next phase of life. He is already involved in a few different business endeavors.
But, dating back to his days when he was an under-recruited high school player to temporarily losing his starting job at Northern Illinois after an injury, he has thrived on beating the odds.
The decision by the Colts not to retain Harnish came as a surprise since Harnish had spent two years as an integral part of the Colts' quarterback room. He developed a close bond with starting quarterback Andrew Luck and veteran backup Matt Hasselbeck, with both players pointing out Harnish's contributions behind the scenes. The Colts seemed to be grooming Harnish for the eventual No.2 spot.
Harnish did not have the performance he was hoping for in the final preseason game at Cincinnati, completing 13 of 24 passes for 102 yards, one touchdown, one interception and five sacks. It's hard to say how much that last game figured into the Colts' decision to part ways with him. The third-string quarterback isn't going to play, but the Colts know Hasselbeck's years are numbered and they'll need a backup moving forward.
Harnish has seen a number of players come and go, even in the quarterback room where he started in 2012 as part of a group with Luck and Drew Stanton. The joke is that NFL stands for Not For Long, but it's not so much a joke as a harsh reminder. The average length of a player's time in the NFL is between three and four years. Most don't last that long.
Harnish was taken with the last pick of the 2012 draft – Mr. Irrelevant, as it's known – in the first Colts draft run by general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano. Rather than look at the Mr. Irrelevant tag as an insult, Harnish took the nickname as a lighthearted nod to his long-shot status. Then he dove into his chance with the Colts with 100 percent commitment.
Over the course of two years, Harnish was a vital a part of the locker room as you could be without being a regular player. He helped the Colts defense at times by running the scout team offense. He helped Luck by offering another set of eyes in the film room. The night before the first preseason game against the Jets this season, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton asked Harnish to address the offense.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano praised Harnish's play during training camp and the preseason, saying he was playing at his best in three camps. And, yet, there was the business side of the sport rearing its head. Harnish's potential was apparently judged against Mathews', and the Colts staff decided to go a new direction with the third-string quarterback.
Cutting the Colts ties will be tough for Harnish, who developed close friendships with the quarterbacks, offensive lineman Joe Reitz, long snapper Matt Overton and others on the team. Chances are, he'll always feel connected to the Colts as long as his friends are still with the team.
"The hardest part will be not being around teammates and coaches who have become some of my closest friends," Harnish said. "I have no doubt we'll still remain friends, but that will be one of the most difficult things to get through."
NFL bottom lines are harsh. Players are here today, gone tomorrow.
Harnish will land on his feet and, eventually, when he looks back, he'll know he played a role in building this era of Colts football.