Nose tackle Harrison took circuitous path to possible starting role in NFL
By DARRYL SLATER The Star-Ledger
NEW YORK —
The Jeep Cherokee cut through falling snow and rolled past cornfields, nearing the end of a 600-mile trip from Senatobia, Miss., to Oskaloosa, Iowa.
Here on the fringes of college football, Damon Harrison looked out the Jeep’s window, admiring snow for the first time in his life. He and five large teammates from Northwest Mississippi Community College were jammed in with their bags, as coach Steven Miller drove them on a recruiting visit to his new school, William Penn University.
The players were unprepared for this adventure. They scraped the windows with their debit cards, so they could absorb the scene. When they climbed out of the Jeep at William Penn, several slipped and fell in the snow, including Harrison. He knew so little about this next step in his life that he initially thought Miller would drive to William and Mary, which is in Virginia, and not William Penn, an NAIA school 60 miles from Des Moines.
“I didn’t know, and at the time, I really didn’t care,” Harrison said.
Only one thing mattered to Harrison: Miller promised him a football scholarship. Never mind football, let alone the NFL. Harrison just wanted a degree. Back home in Lake Charles, La., he was the first person in his family to even graduate high school, in 2007.
After an aborted stint at Northwest Mississippi that fall, he stocked shelves at Walmart — a preview of the drudgery required to pay tuition without a scholarship. Then Miller, who recruited him to Northwest Mississippi, called just before the 2008 spring semester began. He offered Harrison a spot at William Penn.
Five years later, Harrison, 24, might start for the Jets in Sunday’s season opener against Tampa Bay. Nose tackle Kenrick Ellis is rehabilitating a back injury, and Harrison is next in line at one of the 3-4 defense’s most important, yet thankless positions, because the nose must handle two offensive linemen. Harrison welcomes this sort of drudgery.
He joined the Jets as an undrafted free agent last season. He played in five games, with no starts, and made zero tackles. Ellis’s injury let Harrison start two preseason games, and he demonstrated agility to complement his size (6-4, 350 pounds). Against the Giants, he made seven tackles, all solo — an uncommonly high number for a nose tackle.
“I don’t think I’ve heard of that since Ted Washington,” said Jets coach Rex Ryan, referring to the three-time All-Pro nose tackle who played from 1991 to 2007.
Flattering and premature comparisons aside, Harrison maintains a fear that comes with being an undrafted player — that constant feeling of “if I mess up too bad, I could be gone,” he said. He isn’t going anywhere for now. The Jets need him. Though his fear hasn’t totally dissipated, he is more comfortable. The Giants game, he said, “was really the first time in a long time that I wasn’t scared to mess up.”
Harrison stared at computer screen and started typing. He was in his high school’s library, because he didn’t have a computer at home. He lived in a house project apartment with his mother and two siblings. His mom worked two jobs to keep the family afloat.
Harrison wrote a dozen emails to college football coaches, “pleading” with them for an opportunity, he said. Two replied. Harrison responded and heard back from one, Miller, an assistant coach. He liked Harrison’s size, 6-2 and 250 pounds, and that he played point guard on his high school basketball team. But Miller wanted to see more football footage.
“Where’s your junior film?” he asked Harrison.
Harrison explained he played one year of football, as a senior. Miller still offered one of Northwest Mississippi’s eight spots for out-of-state players. Then Miller took another job before the season, and Northwest Mississippi’s staff had a chance to land a major conference lineman who hadn’t academically qualified. Harrison, a project who didn’t know a thing about gap assignments, was bumped off the roster for his first season.
“I wasn’t what they thought I was going to be, whatever that meant,” Harrison said.
Miller stayed in touch with Harrison and told him about William Penn, after he got an assistant job there. Harrison didn’t bother researching the school. Miller drove the 1,200-mile, Iowa-Mississippi-Iowa round trip, and like that, Harrison was in a new world — and on his butt in the snow.
“I wanted to go home immediately,” he said.
Miller made him comfortable. He brought Harrison to the store to supply his dorm room. At Harrison’s request, he drove to Mississippi and moved Harrison’s girlfriend to Iowa, where they lived in a house with their two infant children, now ages 4 and 5. When Harrison’s mom wanted to attend a game, Miller had his brother, a truck driver, meet her halfway and bring her to Iowa.
“I knew he didn’t have much to go back to, and I wanted to make sure things worked out for him,” Miller said.
Harrison’s transformation to an NFL nose tackle began in William Penn’s dining hall. He rarely missed a meal. His dinners were one-hour marathons. He weighed 250 pounds when he arrived at school and 300 by the start of his freshman year. He started his senior year at 360 and played at 335.
But he didn’t move like a fat slob when he played basketball every day at noon. One day, when Harrison was pushing 360, Iowa’s star defensive end, Adrian Clayborn, stopped by the gym. A 280-pound man who would be drafted 20th overall in 2011, Clayborn opened eyes by dunking. Harrison one-upped him with a 360-degree slam. The gym went nuts.
Area scouts from NFL teams heard about him. First, a Tampa Bay scout showed up, then others, eventually one or two a week during Harrison’s senior year. By this time, Harrison had already spurned interest from larger schools, including California. Miller gave him a home in Iowa, and he wanted to stay.
After Harrison’s pro day, he emailed every general manager who attended, to thank them. Nobody drafted him, but shortly after the Jets signed him, he visited Miller’s office and kept saying, “I’m going to make the best of this.”
Now, Harrison’s circuitous path moves toward Sunday, and maybe a starting spot for a team that must lean on its defense. How long this will last, he can’t be sure. He is three classes short of a physical education degree. Even though he is no longer with his girlfriend, he can support their three kids, the youngest born 10 months ago.
But the Jeep ride remains so fresh that Harrison can still see the snow falling, and Miller driving the vehicle, packed to the roof, with only his side-view mirror for visibility. Harrison sat by his locker Monday and recounted it all. A few feet away, offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson listened.