MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The holiday season at the Harrington household is extra special this year, as 12-year-old Andrew and his family get ready to go to the Birmingham Bowl, to watch the family’s favorite college football player, Memphis Tigers tight end Joey Magnifico, play against Wake Forest.
When asked if he’s Joey’s biggest fan, the Elmore Park middle schooler said “I’d say yes.”
“My family and friends always call me the leader of the Joey fan club,” Andrew said.
That’s why it’s not surprising that the top item on Andrew’s Christmas list this year is a new Joey jersey. Andrew loves the Tigers junior, and that relationship goes back to the day he was born.
“Sept. 7, 2006, my dad actually left the hospital to go and coach Joey at his football practice,” Andrew said.
Tony Harrington, Andrew’s father, chuckled.
“That’s the story,” Tony said. “I don’t remember that, but that’s the story.”
Tony and Joey’s father, Keith Magnifico, worked together as firemen, and also coached together. The two families are close.
When Joey was playing high school football at St. Benedict, Tony took Andrew to his first prep football game, and Andrew instantly found his favorite player.
“His eyes were as big as watermelons,” Tony said. “This guy is awesome. Is a good guy. A good Christian guy, and ever since then he’s followed him.”
“It’s amazing honestly,” Joey said. “It makes a warm feeling in my heart to know somebody looks up to me like that.”
At the age of nine, Andrew needed his role model more than ever. He went from an active and healthy kid, to having to sit down all the time, because of serious leg pain. Andrew’s friends started to leave him out of pickup football games, even telling him to referee instead of playing.
“It definitely brings your confidence down," Andrew said. "It defeats you. It basically tells you that you can’t do something, and that you’re not good enough.”
The pain got progressively worse over the year, and a routine visit for his scoliosis revealed Andrew had a more serious problem. His legs were not growing correctly, and he needed major reconstructive surgery.
Around the same time, Joey and the Memphis Tigers football team decided to cheer up one of their biggest fans, and made Andrew the team’s kickoff kid for the UCLA game in 2017. Drew’s responsibility for the day was to run on the field, and pick up the kicking tee after every kickoff, but there was a problem. Andrew was nervous. Luckily, his role model Joey was right behind to reassure him everything was going to be okay.
“I was just like, ‘it’s alright,"’ Joey said. ‘“Nobody’s watching. Everybody’s out here. Everybody’s doing it. You’re going to be fine. Just go out there, and run as fast as you can really.”’
“He said, ‘be yourself,’” Andrew said. ''Try not to be nervous,' and he told me to ‘go out there and have fun,’ so that’s what I did. I went out there and had fun.”
On April 2, 2018 Andrew had surgery at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. Two physicians operated on both of his legs for seven hours, requiring a one week stay in the hospital. It was a tough obstacle for the 12-year-old, but Andrew said he got through it because of his role model.
“I’ll approach him or ask him for help to get through a day or a tough time, because I’ve encountered a lot of those, and I think Joey has too," Andrew said. "Especially in practices and UCF games. Getting through those. I ask him, ‘how do you do it?’ He says, ‘you gotta be strong. Just gotta push through it,’ and that’s what I do.”
With a Joey jersey beside him during his entire hospital stay, Andrew did get through. He even shattered his physical therapist’s recovery expectations.
“They said, ‘you won’t be able to walk for six months,’” Tony said. "He walked in three. He said the other day. ‘when I think about things. When I’m having a bad day. What would Joey do? How would Joey react? Joey would push through. Joey would be strong.’ Things like that from a parents aspect was priceless. Better than any medication anybody could give him.”
Andrew hopes to fully recover by Spring. For now, he’s more worried about the Tigers and his favorite player in their upcoming bowl game.
“My hopes are obviously to win," Andrew said. "I think he’s going to make some good plays. Definitely represent himself well for other NFL teams that are going to look at him.”
Joey said he thinks about Andrew every time he’s steps on the football field, keeping him on his mind among other loved ones.
“At this age I never thought that somebody was going to be able to look up to me like that," Joey said. "Just the fact that he does that, and he’s always around. Couldn’t ask for a better little brother like that.”
Joey and the Memphis Tigers kickoff against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in the Birmingham Bowl at 11 a.m. on Saturday Dec. 21.