HUNTINGTON, W. Va. — Mario Harvey has made something of a living as the underdog, the overlooked.
He didn’t get much attention from big colleges despite a stellar football career at Mary Persons, although not quite making it academically helped keep the calls down.
Then at Hargrave (Va.) Military, he was surrounded by players put there by the same major colleges that basically ignored him or took him off speed dial.
So he ended up at Marshall, a mid-major that has had its big-time moments. It was an FCS powerhouse that won two national championships prior to its move to the Mid-American Conference and ultimately Conference USA, and boasts current NFL standouts like Chad Pennington, Randy Moss and Byron Leftwich.
Now, Harvey is no longer the overlooked underdog.
“He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s explosive,” Marshall head coach Mark Snyder said. “He’s just a really good football player.”
After sitting out as a Proposition 48 signee, Harvey played in nine games as a freshman, then started all 12 last season as a sophomore, earning honorable mention honors in Conference USA. He had 107 tackles, seven for loss and 4.5 sacks.
The secret was out, further evidenced by his selection by both coaches and media as a C-USA first-team preseason pick this summer.
And, just a few days ago, he became one of 153 players named to the Rotary Lombardi Award that goes to the nation’s top lineman.
On the same day, he was named a team captain for the Thundering Herd.
All that is why veteran defensive coordinator Rick Minter — who has coached at Notre Dame (twice), South Carolina, North Carolina State and been head coach at Cincinnati — raves about Harvey.
“We have a real war daddy over there at Will linebacker, let me tell you,” Minter said in a recent Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail story on Harvey. “Mario Harvey is as fine a player as I have ever coached. He’s just a good football player. He really is a good football player and, probably more important, he’s a great kid.”
The pros are seeing all of that.
“It’s amazing,” Snyder said. “These NFL scouts come in to look at our seniors, and they all want to know who he is.”
Minter has told onlookers that NFL scouts have been extraordinarily impressed with Harvey, who indeed has sights set on the next level. “I had one tell me (recently) that (Harvey’s) one of the better linebackers he’s seen in the country,” Minter said.
Harvey will get a few big stages to perform on. Marshall visits Virginia Tech and West Virginia in non-conference play, and hosts East Carolina, one of last year’s early non-BCS darlings, in C-USA play.
And he’s ready.
“It’s a proving year,” he said. “Everybody underrated me when I was in high school and passed me up. I’m going to show them they should’ve picked me.”
Harvey admitted his grades “weren’t that close” in high school, helping chase away Georgia and Auburn as well as Valdosta State.
But he buckled down at Hargrave, and he did so well in improving his grades at Marshall that he got that Proposition 48 year back to get four years of eligibility.
Now, “Thumper” is hitting his stride.
“We were doing an inside drill, my first summer,” Harvey said of that nickname’s birth. “I was short, and everybody didn’t really respect me that much, doubted me.
“The offensive line came off, and I blew ‘em up, knocked ‘em off their feet. I did it back to back, till I got my name known.”
So impressed was then-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Steve Dunlap, who is now back at West Virginia for the second time, that Harvey suddenly had a new name: Thumper.
“He hits,” Snyder said. “He has that name for a reason.”
Harvey has become a poster child for the old “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog” adage. He carries about 245 pounds on a 6-foot frame.
And he carries it quickly. It was his time in the 40 at a Hargrave combine that got the attention of Marshall assistant Jared Smith. And it was the first attention he got at Hargrave, playing beside future Georgia starter Darius Dewberry (Peach County) and rooming with soon-to-be Florida State defender Justin Mincey.
“I didn’t have a big name,” he said. “You had all the five-star recruits there. I was the only starter without a Division I scholarship.
“I played with some big cats.”
But he was again overlooked.
“A lot of people came up to me,” Harvey said, “but a lot of D-2 schools. (The big schools) just came to see their players. They already had their minds made up.”
Huntington is a city of about 50,000 — and metro area of roughly 250,000 — along the Ohio River near the Kentucky and Ohio borders.
“Even thought it was eight hours away, it was like home,” Harvey said. “They love football.”
Things have shaped up nicely for Harvey.
He’ll graduate in 2010 with a degree in sports management, and people outside of his team know how good a football player he is.
Playing the NFL is still his goal, and an increasingly reachable one. But his heart still belongs to the area around Dan Pitts Stadium.
“Hopefully I can go back home and get a coaching job,” he said of his career goals if pro football doesn’t work out. “And maybe be an (athletics director).”
Odds are that the youngest son of Verna and Michael Harvey will get a chance to play for pay.
He hasn’t gotten any taller, but he’s now impossible to overlook.