After three consecutive losses, Howard University's football team was itching for a spark. Then the Bison got a bite of good fortune from "The Flea."
Gary Harrell, a 5-foot-6, 148-pound freshman who has been nicknamed "The Flea" since he was a sophomore at Northwestern High School in Miami, last weekend put on a remarkable show in a 49-13 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference victory over Morgan State. He averaged 30.8 yards on seven punt returns, 27.7 on three receptions, 22.3 on three kickoff returns and gained seven yards on a reverse as he earned MEAC rookie-of-the-week honors.
Among Harrell's 372 all-purpose yards were two long punt returns and two receptions that set up four Bison touchdowns as they improved to 6-3, 3-1 in the league. By winning its final two games against Florida A&M (5-4, 4-0) today and Delaware State (6-3, 3-2) next week, Howard would claim at least a share of its first MEAC championship (it was stripped of the 1987 title after discovery of ineligible players).
Harrell is closing the season as a major weapon for the Bison. His 216 yards on punt returns tied the NCAA Division I-AA single-game record set by Willie Ware of Mississippi Valley State in 1984. His 397 yards for the season surpassed the Bison record of 231 set by Robert Goodson in 1950. He is the No. 1 punt returner in I-AA with an average of 15.9.
"I have taken a lot of punishment," said Harrell, who prefers to gain an extra yard rather than spare his diminutive frame by opting for the sideline. "But the advantage I have is that a lot of people can't see me."
Harrell faced high expectations from the first day of preseason practice. He said he felt pressured to live up to them and attempted to return every punt, ignoring the fair catch. He tried to run through tacklers, had a few fumbles and took some direct hits.
Although Harrell has learned to use larger teammates as screens, Howard's return team had a problem in trying to adjust to the best punt returner the school has had in more than a decade.
Coach Steve Wilson said Harrell's initial reactions after catching a punt and his unpredictability make him a good return man.
"What he has shown is a great ability to make one person miss, two people miss and then, all of sudden, three or four people are on the ground," said Wilson. "But whether we have the return set up to the right, to the left or up the middle, no one really knows where he is going. I don't even know."
Bison Notes: Wilson said freshman Chris Dubose, who threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns against Morgan State, will start against Florida A&M, which is 10-2 against Howard. . . . Center Paul Ramseur broke a bone in his foot in the first quarter against Morgan State. Although he played into the fourth period, he will miss the final two games. . . . Howard remains No. 1 in I-AA total defense (263.3 yards per game) and pass defense.