Rich Harbison happened to be in town and was driving on Menlo Avenue over the summer with his son, Billy, when he noticed that the front gates to Memorial Stadium were open. Harbison decided to stop and take a look.
Inside was a crew from the Napa Valley Unified School District doing maintenance work. Harbison let himself in and showed his son, an eighth grader, around.
Missing were the tall, colorful Poplar trees that used to surround the old stadium. Gone were the cement bleachers, the Quonset huts at the north end that served as team rooms, and the old light standards. Also gone was the grass field, replaced by a new synthetic surface.
Harbison couldn’t get over what he was taking in — a state-of-the-art, beautiful complex that was built to accommodate a big crowd, such as those who will be on hand for Friday’s Napa-Vintage Big Game XL in the final contest of the 10-game regular season. It’s a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
Harbison didn’t use his visit to Napa to reflect back on his dramatic game-winning 75-yard touchdown run with just 1:23 to go, lifting Napa High School to a 7-0 win over Vintage in the 1982 Big Game in a match-up of two 9-0 teams that decided the Monticello Empire League title and the league’s only spot for the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs. The game drew over 9,000 fans, one of the largest crowds to see a football game in Napa Valley history, and it attracted media from around the Bay Area. Channel 7 news in San Francisco was here, along with the San Francisco Examiner and Cal-Hi Sports.
“It is a very nice stadium for high school athletics,” said Harbison. “Folks should be very proud of that stadium and building new history for it will come in time. The kids should be very proud to play in that stadium.
“There’s been lots of athletes go through there and lots of history built in the older stadium.”
People jammed their way into the old stadium that night, occupying spots behind the end zones, taking in one of the most historical games ever played here with so much on the line. It was arguably the best Big Game played in the history of the intra-city series, which dates back to 1972.
“I didn’t really reflect too much at that time on the old stadium. It does bring back some memories,” Harbison said last week from Bellingham, Wash., where he works as the operations manager at the ConocoPhillips Ferndale Refinery. “You feel more proud about being part of the tradition of the high school programs there, being a person that contributed in a way that maybe had motivated some other kids to play the game, to give it the best that they can.”
Harbison remembers telling his son, who plays in the North Cascades Youth Football League as a wide receiver/cornerback, “This is a really nice stadium. Take a look at this stuff.”
Harbison is legendary in these parts. He wore No. 10 for Napa High and at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, was a big-time quarterback who ran the Indians’ triple-option offense with a cool poise and confidence. The 1983 NHS graduate was 21-2-2 as a starter with his only losses coming in the playoffs — including a 14-10 section-title defeat to Christian Brothers-Sacramento when he was a junior. He played on back-to-back MEL championship teams and was twice named as Napa’s MVP. He is in the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame, a three-sport athlete who also played basketball and baseball for the Indians.
“Rich was such a classy guy, just the kind of player you love to coach,” said Les Franco, Napa’s head coach from 1979 to 1989. “We were fortunate to have Rich for two years. Rich was really the nucleus of that football team. It’s nice when you have a young man like that — you can give him the reins and just turn him loose.”
Big Game XI was a defensive battle, as there were seven forced turnovers, nine punts and both quarterbacks were sacked a combined 12 times. Harbison had 101 yards rushing on 15 carries. His biggest play came on a third and 1 from the Napa 25-yard line. He broke two tackles around left end, got behind the Crushers’ secondary, and turned it into a spectacular touchdown run that brought a thunderous ovation from the Napa side.
It ranks as one of the single greatest athletic achievements in city history.
“I remember we were in quite a battle in the game,” said Harbison, 46. “Vintage was playing very, very well, as we were. We had two teams that were very competitive and equal.”
The play call was “33 option,” a play that the Indians had practiced since Day 1 of the season. Harbison faked a handoff to fullback Joe Jernigan, turned the corner, and had Ben Barker trailing the play at tailback, but kept the ball all the way to the southeast corner of the end zone.
“I ran and ran — it seemed like I ran for an eternity,” said Harbison. “I remember vaguely looking back at (Vintage’s) Ernie Ilsley. He was a little bit faster than me, but he had to come from a farther distance. We both collided right at the end zone, right at the goal line. He landed on top of me. I think he got off and then the rest of the offense caught up and they all landed on top of me after that. We were a big pile-up in the end zone. There was quite a roar going on in the stadium at the time.”
Harbison, unfortunately, was not able to celebrate with family, friends and teammates afterward. He went to Queen of the Valley Hospital’s emergency room that night to have stitches to close a cut on his chin. He didn’t get back to his home until around 1 or 2 in the morning and, because he was so tired, got in bed and fell asleep.
“It was really a heavyweight fight, both defenses just knocking each other out,” Franco said last week. “For the people that were there, it was the most memorable, most exciting game that’s ever been played in the stadium. Here you had two of the best teams in the history of Napa Valley, both Vintage and Napa. For Vintage to have to stay home was a crime.
“We were emotionally just wrought after that game. It was one of the hardest hitting games I’ve ever been involved in. Both teams wanted it very badly and you could see that play after play after play. It was really incredible.
“It was a classic game — I’ll never forget it,” said Franco, who was Vintage’s coach from 2000-2006. “A lot of people in the community have no idea that this took place. The character of the players on both teams was really something, that I think set the tone for the Big Game through the years.”
Franco said had the Indians gotten the first down on third and short, they were going to go into their two-minute offense.
It was 30 years ago that Harbison’s electrifying TD run vaulted Napa to a 10-0 regular season record. On Friday, Napa (6-3 overall, 3-1 MEL) and Vintage (3-6 overall, 3-1 MEL) meet in the Big Game in a battle of second-place teams to determine the league’s second playoff spot. The MEL has two automatic berths.
Harbison was All-Napa County and second team All-MEL as a junior, and All-County, All-MEL, All-Region, MEL MVP, All-Region MVP and All-Northern California as a senior.
“I’m just very proud to have been able to participate in the high school sports programs at Napa High,” Harbison said. “The community should be very proud of the level of play of the programs and the leadership that’s provided in those programs. It’s a very special place.”
Harbison went on to play football for four years at San Jose State. He was recruited as a quarterback, but played for the Spartans at tight end, H-Back and outside linebacker. He was on the 1986 California Bowl championship team.
“It’s a game that you have to have a lot of passion for. You have to give it 100 percent,” said Harbison, who majored in engineering/industrial studies in college.
To this day, he has not seen film of his touchdown run from Big Game XI. He said he’d love to see it.
“The moment of that play, and the time and the buildup to the game and the great competitiveness between the two high schools, that stands clear as a moment in time that I will never forget,” he said.
He recalled playing for a Napa team that had confidence and a belief that it was always going to be in the game.
“I’m proud of being a part of the team that created that opportunity. I happened to be the guy that was carrying the ball that time. It could have been somebody else.”
Harbison and his wife, Mary, also have two daughters, Emily, 14, a freshman in high school, and Kristina, 20, a junior in college.