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From the first two Super Bowls to chance encounters with superstars, Gene Harrington has knack for being in right spot at right time

Breen and Harrington
Courtesy of Gene Harrington
Gene Harrington observes Green Bay linebacker candidate Gene Breen during a late-’60s workout.

Gene Harrington was there at the beginning, on the sideline at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles 42 years ago, back when it was known simply as “First World Championship Game, AFL vs. NFL.”

He was back a year later, too, this time at Miami’s Orange Bowl, where the event’s name had changed — Super Bowl II — and its stature already had grown (first $3 million gate in football history), even if the outcome and the MVP stayed the same. Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr earned that trophy both times, leading the Packers past Kansas City 35-10 in January 1967 and Oakland 33-14 exactly 364 days later.

Harrington will be in front of the TV to watch again Sunday, too, the Roman numeral up to Big & Tall proportions (XLIII), the game long established as an unofficial American holiday. He might even think about the Super Bowl rings he never got.

“I would have settled for a tie clasp or something,” he said recently, sounding half-annoyed and half-amused. “Give me something that says, ‘I was there.’ “

Harrington, after all, was the Packers’ — and the NFL’s — first conditioning coach.

Quite possibly, he was the first person to ever hold that title in professional sports, essentially inventing the position in an impromptu conversation with legendary Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi.

Driven by an unusual exercise gizmo in 1965, Harrington held the chisel and Lombardi swung the hammer for the first few whacks, unwittingly carving out a role now considered as vital to teams across all major leagues as the head trainer or a lead assistant.

All because Harrington had a station wagon loaded with Exer-Genies to peddle.
 
Harrington’s life filled with Forrest Gump moments
Most folks these days know Harrington as a veteran Twin Cities sports correspondent, a gentleman and a gentle man whose broadcasting career began as a page boy at WCCO-AM in the 1950s. Today, he is the almost tireless octogenarian — OK, the other one — who still works the press boxes and locker rooms of Minneapolis and St. Paul, gathering sound bites for the Minnesota News Network and other national radio outlets.

Gene Harrington
MinnPost photo by Steve Aschburner
Gene Harrington

Listen to his stories for a little while, of the sort he shared with me over pie and coffee a few weeks ago, and you sense a real Zelig-like quality to Harrington’s life, a series of Forrest Gump moments owing to its length and breadth.

There was, for instance, his first real job in radio, after the Cretin High graduate returned from the Army eager to finish an education he’d begun at St. Thomas. The folks at Brown Institute pointed him to a part-time job over at WCCO, where its behemoth broadcast signal and Cedric “Mr. Northwest” Adams sent the state’s farmers off to bed each night.

Harrington signed on to work in the big studios, with live audiences and barn dancing on the fourth floor. There were two other page boys working at the time. One was a high school kid who would become WCCO legend Bill Carlson. The other went on to become “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” actor Robert Vaughn (a North High graduate and journalism major for a year at Minnesota).

There was Harrington’s first paying job in broadcasting, a classic (good and bad) town of the South, Greenville, Miss. This was in 1953 — he and his then-fiancee, Betty, figured they would start as far away from home as they could. “Nice town, but it was like there was a line down the middle of it — this side was black, this side white,” Harrington said.

He worked six shifts a week of block programming — two hours of “sweet” music (pop), two hours of “race” music (black) and two hours of country — fabricated minor-league baseball broadcasts off the Western Union ticker and did early interviews with recording artists such as Little Esther and B.B. King.

Zeke Bartkowski
Courtesy of Gene Harrington
Green Bay backup quarterback Zeke Bartkowski does a resistance routine on the Exer-Genie. Offensive lineman Fuzzy Thurston is in the background.

“One day, I’m getting ready to sign off and a young fellow comes around — they sent him to the back door,” Harrington said. “He knocked and came in, and he had a record he wanted me to play, a 45 [rpm] with the Sun Records label. One side was a boogie, the other side, I can’t remember, but I played the boogie. He sat beside me on a chair while I’m spinning the record, nice guy — ‘Yes, sir, no, sir.’ I signed off, and we went next door to have a Coke at the drugstore that was attached to the record station.

“Six months later, he was Elvis.”
 
Everywhere, brushes with greatness
From there, Gene and Betty headed to Great Falls, Mont., where he would drive 150 miles to broadcast a high school football game on Friday night but where they gave him a chance to do some TV work. Then his big shot: sports director at Channel 11 in San Jose. This was 1957, so when owner Horace Stoneham moved Willie Mays and the rest of the New York Giants to San Francisco in 1958, Harrington was there to greet them. When the NBA Warriors made a similar trek from Philadelphia to the Bay Area in 1962, Harrington was the guy climbing onto a chair for a gag shot of him interviewing Wilt Chamberlain.

Harrington’s brushes with greatness continued in that job for eight years and, frankly, haven’t ceased yet.

In the 1970s, at Muhammad Ali’s training camp in rural Pennsylvania, Harrington brought his son Greg along when he spoke with the champ for more than two hours, through Ali’s entire “Brazilian” rubdown, in a rustic gym. It was a proposition — rather than an interview, actually — with Harrington trying to sell off a sports library of reference books, photos, footage and collectibles acquired through the years by several media folks in and around San Jose. (Ali wanted only the boxing wing, so no deal.)

He has known and covered every big sports name to pass through the Twin Cities and, for a dozen years at Target Center, Harrington was the fellow with the microphone who would cheerfully banter with Kevin Garnett after games, warming him up for the other reporters’ deadline questions.

But it was Harrington’s unscripted foray into sales and strength conditioning, and his time spent on the frozen tundra with the power sweep, Lambeau Field, the roots of America’s most famous sporting event and a piece of its lore and legend (think Max McGee and Paul Hornung breaking curfew the night before “Super Bowl I”) that provide the most compelling chapter in Harrington’s life.

Actually, John Facenda, the “voice of God” from the early NFL Films, ought to be the one narrating this tale. But Harrington will have to do.
 
Exer-Genie device opened door to Vince Lombardi
Harrington was hosting a distance coach from San Jose State named Dean Miller on his show, wondering about the team’s remarkable success, when Miller told him about a quirky training contraption the squad used. It was a metal cylinder with a nylon cord wrapped around a central core, one end of the cord used to anchor to a post or door, the other to grab.

The device was calibrated to provide isometric and isotonic resistance; three wraps, for example, was good for 90 to 100 pounds. It had been tested to 3,000 pounds and was conceived as a fire-escape mechanism: A person trapped on the second floor could attach one cord to some fixture, set the cylinder for his body weight and then step through a window for a controlled descent to the ground.

Bart Starr
Courtesy of Gene Harrington
Packers quarterback Bart Starr strains to pull up on the Exer-Genie, which is anchored by an unseen partner holding it with one hand.

“It eventually morphed into the ‘Exer-Genie,’ ” Harrington said. The name came from developer Gene Hulkavick, and its principles remain in play in training products still sold today. After Miller’s appearance, the station was inundated with letters and phone calls, so Harrington had the coach on again. “We had twice as many the next time,” he said.

That’s when the people producing Exer-Genies came to Harrington with a deal.

Familiar with his on-air salesmanship (most announcers did live commercials back then), they offered him “10 percent of the country” as his Exer-Genie region: Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan. The goal: Bring the device to the masses. “Betty’s from Hudson, so we talked it over and we decided, yeah,” said Harrington, then 36. “I hated to leave television but we’ll give it a shot.”

Harrington initially approached the Twins, who were headed to the World Series in the summer of 1965.

But enlisting the Packers as clients was a no-brainer — by then, Green Bay was well on its way as Titletown, U.S.A. Lombardi already had led the franchise to three championship games and two NFL crowns, and had intact a squad that would produce 10 more Hall of Famers besides their coach. In truth, the Packers would be doing more for Exer-Genie than the equipment ever could do for them. But Harrington had a major factor in his favor: Lombardi’s inveterate competitiveness.

“[Packers assistant coach] Phil Bengston told me when I called, ‘Yeah, the Old Man is always looking for something that’s an edge on everybody,’ ” Harrington said. “So they said, ‘When can you be here?’ “

Uh, yesterday?

Harrington was asked to demonstrate the Exer-Genie for Lombardi, Bengston, Tom Fears and a couple of other assistants, the Packers’ trainer and the team doctor. Fortunately, they gave him running back Jim Taylor as his guinea pig.

“He was a hog for workouts,” Harrington said. “In about a minute, I had the sweat pouring off of him. I could tell that he really liked it. After about 10 minutes, I say, ‘Well, that’s what I’ve got. I can set the whole team up.’ They had me step outside and, in about five minutes, they come out, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it.’ “

The Packers installed posts on their practice field to attach the Exer-Genie at about 12 work stations. The veterans embraced it for the way it eased the stiffness and soreness of training camp. After two weeks, Harrington thanked Lombardi and said he was headed to the other teams in his region: Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota. The Green Bay coach looked at him, stunned. You can’t do that, he said.

“But that’s what I do,” Harrington told him. “He said, ‘No, you stay with us this year. You’ll be our … conditioning coach.’ That’s what he called me. Their conditioning coach. That’s the first time I ever heard the expression.”

What’s funny is that the Vikings wouldn’t have had to wait an extra year for their Exer-Genies if Harrington’s demonstration at their camp in Bemidji, sometime around his initial contact with the Packers, had gone as well as the one in Green Bay.

“Our coach here was Norm Van Brocklin, a pretty good coach but an ornery son of a bitch,” Harrington said. “He just worked the bejesus out of the players. At the end of a workout, the guys are lying on the ground, panting, and he tells them, ‘Listen to this guy. He’s going to show you something.’ Yeah, about more exercise.

“So I hooked it up and said, ‘I need someone to run on this rope and I’ll show you how it works.’ Freddy Cox is the one that he gave me — Freddy was their kicker, and he had a bad back. So Freddy went to run on it and somebody stepped on it — it lets out rope as you run, so when you step on it, it stops it just like that! It took him right off his feet and flat on his back. It was like somebody had hit [Cox] with an ax. The players are all looking, Van Brocklin is looking at me, and I said, ‘Thanks a lot, Coach,’ and I left. That was all, man.”
 
Newly minted ‘conditioning coach’ had historic Super Bowl seat
Harrington did fix up his friend, Bud Grant, with some Exer-Genies when he was coaching in the Canadian Football League in Winnipeg. Ditto Jerry Burns, the coach at Iowa. So when those two made their way to the Vikings in 1967 and 1968, respectively, the Exer-Genies went along.

Harrington’s “exclusive” deal with Lombardi loosened up after 1965, anyway. But when the Packers went to L.A. for this new thing called the Super Bowl, their former conditioning coach went along. “Lombardi was so worried that they might lose that game. He just did not want to be the first National team to get beat,” he said.

Packers fullback Jim Taylor works out, his raised leg partially obscuring Harrington.
Courtesy of Gene Harrington
Packers fullback Jim Taylor works out, his raised leg partially obscuring Harrington.

Not everyone in green and gold was so worried. At this point, most everyone knows the story of Max McGee in “Super Bowl I” — how he and Hornung broke curfew the night before the game, neither thinking he would play, and how McGee, pressed into action, caught seven passes and two touchdowns in an improbable performance from a hung-over, broken-down, 34-year-old receiver. He had only four catches all that season.

Turns out, though, that Harrington had a VIP seat for this bit of history, too. “The night before, I was out quite late with Hornung and McGee,” he said. Remember, this was, ahem, the Packers’ conditioning coach. “We’re down at the far end of the bench — I’m standing behind the two of them — and they’re just laughing and carrying on.”

On Green Bay’s second drive, Boyd Dowler suffered a separated shoulder. “He’s out for the game. The Old Man is down there yelling, ‘McGee! McGee!’ I’m punching Max in the arm, ‘He’s calling you.’ Max comes in, he becomes a hero.”

McGee, a successful businessman from ownership stakes in Chi Chi’s and Original Pancake House restaurants, settled in the Twin Cities. He died in October 2007 at age 75 after climbing onto the roof of his Deephaven home to clear leaves. “I will never forgive him,” Harrington said, “for getting Alzheimer’s and getting up on his roof.”

The Exer-Genie continued to provide for the Harringtons. He had a couple of years at $40,000 or $45,000, big money in the late ’60s. He also burned through four Mercury wagons in five years, logging more than 100,000 miles on each. The gizmo — later dubbed the Apollo Exerciser after NASA bought a few to send up with astronauts — was said to be used by 82 pro teams, more than 1,000 colleges and some 10,000 high schools at its peak.

On a trip to Florida, Harrington said he sold one to almost every big-leaguer he encountered at spring training. Twins owner Calvin Griffith, not know for throwing money around, bought 25, one for each of his players.

But the travel was a grind, and the darn things were so durable that a lot of Harrington’s contacts didn’t need replacements anytime soon. Also, there was the lingering memory of an unexpected hiccup from Winnipeg.

“I had set it up for Bud there. Everything was beautiful. I set Bud up as a dealer, just like [basketball coach] John Bennington at Michigan State,” Harrington said. “So one day I get a letter from Bud. Special delivery. Open it up and inside, there’s a newspaper article from the Chicago Trib, the Times, one of them. Big story out of Chicago: ‘Professor So-and-So says Exer-Genie causes cancer of the sphincter.’

“I think, ‘What the hell is this? My God, what have we done?’ I call Hulkavick out in California and tell him we have a problem. I read it to him, and he says, ‘Call that professor and find out what you can. Track this thing down. But boy, be careful about it.’ “

Harrington called the University of Chicago, just like the newspaper story said, and asked for Professor So-and-So. No such fellow. Harrington was stumped. His next call was to Winnipeg.

“Now those bastards, Bud and Jerry Burns and John Michels, how they had it timed the way they did, I’ll never know. They were sitting around waiting for me to call,” Harrington said. “The minute I called, Bud gets on there in a straight voice, but then I hear John Michels break up, Burnsie breaks up, they’re laughing uproariously. It was unbelievable. They were all gangsters anyway.”

Some 40 years later, Harrington cracks up too, until his eyes water.
 
Life after ‘Genie’
By 1970, the Exer-Genie still could melt two inches in two weeks off the average user’s waist and still was a steal at $29.95. But the original company had been sold, and Harrington’s arrangement fizzled.

“It was probably running its course,” he said. “We were getting patent infringements all the time. It was well-patented, but there were all kinds of copies coming out. I wanted to get back into broadcasting anyway. When I did, by then I was no longer the matinee idol that I’d been. I never tried to get back into television — radio was fine.”

Harrington worked at KSTP for a spell, long enough to introduce a pair of moonlighting newspapermen — Joe Soucheray and Patrick Reusse — to the airwaves. “They didn’t know how to get into the studio or turn the mikes on,” he said. “So I’m the one to blame.”

He still works the games and hallways at the Metrodome, Target Center, Xcel Energy Center and Williams Arena for MNN. And when the Boston Celtics came to town on Nov. 21, three days before Harrington’s 80th birthday, the Wolves’ media relations staff surprised him with a cake in the work room. Garnett shared a little banter for old times’ sake.

“I can divide my life up into sections,” Harrington said. “Some of them were really fun.”

Some of them still are.

A month or so into the Vikings season, Harrington was doing interviews out at Winter Park and, at one point, walked through the parking lot and paused momentarily against a car. “Another car pulls into the handicapped spaces,” he said, “and out steps Bud. He sees me leaning over and says, ‘What are you doing?’ I tell him I’m resting my hips.

“Bud says, ‘Why don’t you get yourself an Exer-Genie?’ How he remembered that … it was the first thing that came into his mind. We both laughed.”

Steve Aschburner, who has been writing about sports for nearly three decades, writes about sports and other topics for MinnPost.com.

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