July 25, 2011 - Arena Football League (AFL) - Milwaukee Mustangs
Wide receivers with decade long careers aren't easy to find in the Arena Football League. Pass catchers in the AFL move on to other leagues or decide that their football playing days are over after too many run- ins with a padded wall.
Longevity hasn't been a problem at all for Damian Harrell. The 35-year-old product of Florida State is truly the "Iron Man" of the AFL. This year marked Harrell's 12th season in the league, a career that started with the New England Sea Wolves in 1999.
"I wasn't really thinking about Arena Football (when I joined the Sea Wolves)," said Harrell. "I just wanted to go somewhere where I could get some feel, and try to get to the next level. I just ended up making a career out of it. The first two years I wondered if this was something that I wanted to do. I was really tested. After the third year I kind of realized that this could possibly something I could do (for a while)."
A pair of knee injuries in college (torn ACLs in both knees) might have limited his chances of reaching the next level, but they haven't slowed him down in the AFL. Harrell's lanky 6-foot-3 frame is well suited for snagging footballs over smaller defensive backs in the crowded AFL end zone.
"He has the ability to make tough plays look routine," said Matt Menzl, the radio voice of the Mustangs on 540 ESPN. "You could throw the ball a mile away from him and he somehow finds a way to haul it in. He's the ultimate class act, and the ultimate receiver in the AFL."
Harrell's 2011 season ended after a game with the Philadelphia Soul on June 3, due to a cyst behind his knee. Before the injury, he hauled in 77 catches for 824 yards and nine touchdowns. In his two years in Milwaukee, Harrell has 37 TDs and 2,089 receiving yards.
"(Longevity) is especially tough in the Arena Football League, because they're taking hit after hit," said Menzl. "It's a small environment. You're hitting the wall, and sometimes you're flying over the wall. This year Damian has been the target of defenses, and he's taken his share of cheap shots. He somehow finds a way to get back up and act like nothing has happened."
Plenty of spots in the AFL record book have "Damian Harrell" next to them. He's the career leader in receptions (1,164), receiving yards (15,134), and touchdowns (358). He's had nine seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving, which also leads the AFL. He was the offensive player of the year in 2005 and 2006 with the Denver Crush. Harrell helped the Crush claim ArenaBowl XIX in 2005 by scoring a pair of touchdowns in a 51-48 win over Georgia.
"You always want to play at the top level of competition," explained Harrell. "I had ACL injuries, and once I realized that I was pretty much red-flagged in the league, I wanted to be the best at something. I have a lot of blessings. I still don't really look at the stats. I couldn't tell you what records I have. Once it's over I can look back at it and really enjoy it."
When it's over is the big question. Does Harrell have season 13, or even 14, left in his receiver's body\'
"I do know that I can still play this game at a high level," the receiver added. "It's pretty much a family
decision. If I can get (my knee) taken care of, and rehab it this off-season, then I think I might be able to
come back and make something happen."