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Ken Harvey began his creative-writing career as a young boy in Austin, Texas. He used to pen notes to the principal’s office of Lanier High School in his parents’ hands, and he had to think up different excuses for his continued absences from class.
“1201 Peyton Gin Roadthat’s the address of my old school,” says the Redskins’ former hardbody linebacker. “You forge enough notes, you’re going to remember things like that.”
Those early writings didn’t help Harvey too much at the time. He ended up having to drop out of high school because of chronic truancy and was flipping burgers at the local McDonald’s while his buddies on the Lanier football team finished up their senior season and got their diplomas.
But his juvenile lapses didn’t keep him from making it to the Pro Bowl. Now, at 38, he’s picked up his pen again. Harvey’s post-gridiron career finds him authoring a series of children’s books. The series, called Life in the ‘Fridge, aims to use the goings-on inside a fictional refrigerator to teach life’s lessons to kids 4 to 6 years old.
The morals in Harvey’s tomes are about as subtle as the forearm shivers he once delivered to the opposition on fall Sundays. Take, for example, the first installment of the series, When Chocolate Milk Moved In. The tranquil lives of a couple of cold milk jugs named Frank and Sally Gallon are disrupted when a jug of chocolate milk named Fuller Chocolate moves in alongside them on the top shelf. Mr. Gallon gets suspicious about his new neighbor for no good reason and begins warning other tenants that if they’re not careful, they’ll all end up “like Mr. Chocolate.” Mr. Chocolate gets word that the lighter-shaded beverage has been talking smack, so he goes looking for a confrontation. Just as Fuller and Frank are about to throw down, the oldest and wisest tenants in the fridgea family of popsiclesarrive on the scene. A peace is brokered when Green Pop explains his sibling situation: “We are all different colored icicle pops, yet we are all brothers.” Fuller and Frank quickly soak in that cold truth, shake hands, and “have been best friends since that day.”
“Well, it is for kids,” says Harvey, chuckling.
Harvey is now a partner in a Falls Church, Va., production company called Ikoya, which makes commercials and industrial films. He’d dabbled in writing with screenplays for still-unproduced feature films. Harvey, who is black, says the idea to put out When Chocolate Milk Moved In came to him when his two children (a third died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in the late ’80s) asked their dad why “there were no brown characters” on their favorite morning cartoons.
Harvey’s own life story could provide plenty of morals for young kids. His dropping out of high school caused a lot of family members and friends to openly question what sort of future he was building”My football coach told me I was a loser and that I’d been a loser my whole life,” Harvey recalls. But even as he pulled shifts at McDonald’s, Harvey envisioned and planned an escape from his hometown. Because of his truancy, academics wasn’t going to be his ticket out.
So Harvey, who figured he was stronger than his peers, decided brawn would get him into college. The weight room became his study hall.
“I set goals for myself, and I focused on them,” he says. “I went back to school and had to take the same classes as my younger brother, which was a very humbling experience. But I also had a job, and I worked out two hours a day and was benching 410, 420 pounds when I was 18 years old. Nobody ever sent a burger back to me because they didn’t like it, I’ll tell you that. They were afraid to. I figured that working out like that was the only way I’d ever get to go to college.”
A guy who caught Harvey throwing steel in the gym one day referred him to the football coach at Laney Community College in Oakland, Calif. Harvey used his McDonald’s money to move west. Though Harvey had played fullback in high school, the college coach decided his strength and speed would be better employed on the other side of the ball.
A linebacker was born. The Laney team fizzled during Harvey’s time in uniform, but scouts from across the bay in Berkeley noticed his blitzing prowess and offered him a scholarship at Cal. Harvey, just a couple of years removed from dropping out of high school, would attend one of the brainiest campuses in the land.
“I don’t want to sound silly, but the whole time I always felt like this was destiny,” he says. “When I was a kid, I had a dream that I was going to move to California. And then it works out that I do move to California. So even just being in Oakland, I felt I was living a dream. Then going home for the first time after being at Berkeley, as the first member of my family to ever go to college, after everything that happened [in high school], that was an incredibly liberating experience.”
To this day, Harvey endows a $10,000 annual scholarship to Laney Community College. Though Cal stayed out of the bowl picture while Harvey was a Golden Bear, he was named All-Pac 10 in his senior year, and in 1988 the Phoenix Cardinals took him with the 12th pick overall in the NFL draft.
Harvey played well in Phoenix, if anonymously. But everybody in the league knew Harvey’s name shortly after he came to Washington in 1994. Harvey put together a streak as glorious as that of any linebacker in the franchise’s history. By actually playing the way LaVar Arrington always threatens to, Harvey was named to four consecutive Pro Bowlsthree as a starter.
Unfortunately, Harvey’s Redskins tenure coincided with that of Norv Turner. Despite Harvey’s best efforts, the Skins never made the playoffs with him on the roster. He suffered a severe shoulder injury in the 1998 season, and when old knee injuries acted up before the next training camp, he hung up his cleats.
The Redskins made the playoffs for the first and only time under Turner in 1999, the year after Harvey quit.
“That’s kind of been the story of my life,” he says. “My high school wasn’t a winner, my junior college didn’t win, Cal didn’t win, the Cardinals didn’t win, and the Redskins didn’t win. When you look back, people think I should have just hung on for one more year.”
But he didn’t. And even if he wanted to dwell on whether he left too soon, Harvey says, he’s too busy these days.
“I don’t ever worry about what I could have done,” he says. “I went back to my high school once a long time ago, and there was a janitor who was sweeping floors, and I went over to talk to him. He started telling me, ‘I could have done this! I could have done that.’ That really hit me. From that moment, I said, ‘I never want to look back with regrets.’ You either take the chance and do something, or you don’t. But you move on.”
A popsicle couldn’t have put it any better.Dave McKenna