Friday, May 31st, 2019

Slot Machine

Simon Clancy

Lead Feature Writer

Slot Machine

Simon Clancy NFL

Seventeen names. That’s what Chris Harris Jr., one of the NFL’s premier cover cornerbacks, uses as inspiration. These are not people who’ve slighted him or receivers who’ve caught touchdowns on him – as if that list stretches to 17. No, that’s the number of undrafted free-agents the Broncos signed in the summer of 2011 before offering one last deal to an undersized and underappreciated cornerback from Bixby, Oklahoma on the brink of hanging up his cleats after yet another snub.

“Man I’ve always been an underdog,” Harris tells Gridiron after a scrimmage in the dying days of training camp. “Don’t matter where it’s been, I’ve always had to scrap my way to be recognised. Whether it was high school, college or as the final dude to sign with Denver, that’s just been the tale of my life.”

That life, at least in a sporting context, has taken many turns: barely recruited out of high school, no All-Star game or combine invites and a draft weekend spent soul searching instead of celebrating. After the latter, Harris finally signed with a transitioning Denver team late in training camp. He’s now developed into a shutdown corner as good, if not better, than anyone in football. But to say it’s been a long journey would be something of an understatement. “Man, that’s crazy to think about now, when you see how he’s played, what he’s done,’’ teammate Aqib Talib says. “But you can see it in how he handles his business. He remembers.’’

Harris remembers alright.

He remembers the critical moments in his life and the people who helped set a course for the NFL when most doubted him. Starting with University of Kansas defensive coordinator Bill Young whose team needed one more corner for their 2007 class. A football lifer whose features belie his 71 years, Young had one player in mind: a two-star kid from across the state line.

But Harris, disillusioned at a lack of recruiting offers, had taken to the hardwood to try to land a basketball scholarship. “He was a real good hoops player,” Young tells Gridiron. “You could see the skills he showed on film at corner were there on the court. That ability to turn quickly, change direction, flip those hips. He had a lot of traits I liked. I’d have to say we wanted Chris pretty bad.”

Bad enough that within 24 hours Harris received his first concrete offer. “He called me the very next day and told me the news,” says Harris. “Shoot man, I always thank Bill for that because he was the first person who saw something in me. He believed. And you just need one person to believe.”

It is, of course, the oldest story in the recruiting book: unheralded prospect shatters expectations and becomes a pro star. But it never gets old. “I’ll never understand it,” he says. “I think about it all the time. It’s just one of those things. They didn’t think I was good enough, I guess. But it all stays with me.”

Was he slow, small or just flat-out bad? “You’ll have to ask them, man. Shoot, all I know is I’m in the NFL now.”

Harris started every game at Kansas, including one season opposite current Broncos running mate Talib, and left with the second-most tackles in Jayhawk history. But just like in high school, another snub was right around the corner. “I figured my performances would be good enough to have an opportunity to go the combine or some of the All-Star games, but they weren’t. So it was a tough situation for me. I really had to have faith in myself to make it. I mean I was definitely upset, sick even. Especially as we’d had guys go the previous years and they’d had similar resumes to me, so I figured I had a chance. But we didn’t have much success my senior year and I think that’s what really killed me.”

So Harris stayed in Lawrence and turned attention to earning his degree, continuing to work out ahead of the Jayhawk pro day. As the 2011 NFL Draft approached, he believed he’d done enough to get picked. “I had coaches telling me I was going in, like, the fifth round. So I was pretty hopeful of being taken. I just had to wait.”

And wait.

And wait.

Fifty-three defensive backs were taken in that draft and 254 players were drafted overall. By the time the Texans picked Rice defensive end Cheta Ozougwu to close the seventh round, Harris was still waiting for a moment that would never come. “I had all my family over, we had a big cookout just watching, pick after pick,’’ he said. “Everybody’s definitely down. Man, you’re hoping, but I was just waiting for the last day and when it came and went and I didn’t get drafted… it was tough. I just kept watching guys I didn’t think had my resume getting taken. It sucked. And it made me angry. How could I not be chosen? I felt bad for myself. I wallowed. And my family didn’t really know what to do. They didn’t know whether to stand up, sit down, move around, leave, stay, whatever. They don’t know. I just remember all those names and none of them were mine.”

His faith diminishing by the minute – and hindered by a four and a half month lockout as the NFL argued over the parameters of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement – Harris was unable to sign with anyone. In limbo, he decided to get a job. “I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to do something else’. So I was looking around the internships, something like that, whatever I could. I was thinking if I don’t make it in football, I’ve got to get a proper gig.”

But just as the wind of Harris’ life looked set to blow him away from football, he got a call from the Broncos.

“They told me that now the lockout was over, that they could sign players and they were bringing me in,” he remembers. “First and only call I got. The only team that offered me. I got the last and lowest signing bonus of the 18 guys they signed, $2,000. I went out and bought a PS4 and saved the rest. But it didn’t matter. I had a foot in the door.” His next battle was making a team who brought 12 corners to camp, including future Hall-of-Famer Champ Bailey and veterans like Tony Carter, Andre Goodman and Jonathan Wilhite. So was Harris worried?

Not a bit. It was just another step on the way to greatness.

“Every day I was number 12 when they put up the depth chart, no matter how I practiced. Always the 12th guy,” says Harris. “So I knew I had to make it on special teams. I focused on that unit every day. Every day. And that’s how I got a roster spot. Thing is, I knew I had the talent and I was already a hard worker. I just had to get that opportunity.

“But I also knew I couldn’t make mistakes, that I had to be smart and not make mental errors. It’s the life of a free agent. You know, if you make one, they can think to themselves, ‘Oh. That’s why he went undrafted. Okay. We’re fine. We did our jobs’. And that’s the stigma you don’t hear much about. It’s not just that everyone thinks you’re a fringe player. It’s that, in this weird way, everyone wants you to be one.”

Name. Pedigree. Reputation. They’re hard to overcome.

“When you’re undrafted,” he continues, “you don’t have that same margin for error as everyone else. You have to go above and beyond. And then above and beyond that. I play with a chip on my shoulder because of the snubs. Every single play from my first until my last is an opportunity to prove wrong everyone who didn’t recognise my talent.”

He still remembers that first play as if it were yesterday: October 2, 2011 and the 1-2 Broncos were on the road in Lambeau Field getting blown out by the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Then head coach John Fox turned to defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and uttered 10 words that changed Harris’ life forever: “Just throw him in and see what he can do.”

“So I run on the field and man, first play Aaron Rodgers came right at me. I was covering Greg Jennings and I was able to get a tackle for a loss. After that they kept me on the field. It was incredible but it felt so natural to me. But going against Rodgers. That was a fun day.”

Harris finished the season with 65 tackles, six pass breakups and a pick, making first-team All-Rookie. Since then it’s only been arrow up: first-team All Pro in 2016, three Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl ring and a five-year, $42million dollar contract that is suddenly offering incredible value to the Broncos. If he’s not the best pure cover corner in football then there’s very few better. A season ago he didn’t give up a single touchdown or a play over 22 yards. If he were a baseball pitcher he’d have pitched a shutout.

For an entire season.

Harris is polite, often funny and hugely amiable. He’s a fun interviewee but, despite everything, you still sense an underlying frustration when he thinks of how he has been slighted at all three levels of his career. It’s what drove him on that hardcourt in high school and on the fields of the Big 12 and what turned a phonecall from the Broncos into a brilliant career that’s somehow only getting better.

“Occasionally I think about how sick I felt on draft day,” he admits. “I watch it every year and see those guys in the green room, in the suits, and I just remember how I sat with my family watching guy after guy get taken…. I watched the whole thing. I stayed right there and stared at the names at the bottom of the screen, pick after pick, and none of them were mine. So I feel for the guys who go through that now, but I tell people all the time, I’m proof it ain’t the end of the story, no matter what anybody says.”

As for those 17 names that help drive him on? Lost to the wilderness of what might have been. Names like Brandon Bing, Derek Domino and Curt Porter, all deemed better signings than a guy who, when he calls time on his career, may sit somewhere between the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Very Good. Not bad for the boy from small-town Oklahoma.

Two summers ago, back in said hometown, the most famous son of Bixby was given one of the highest honours possible by its mayor. On Riverview Road between 151st Street and 161st Street South you’ll now find Chris Harris Jr. Road.

Given the journey he’s taken to the NFL, that somehow feels apt.

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