The odds of becoming an NFL player are somewhere close to winning the lottery and getting struck by lightning. And those odds get even slimmer if you don’t take a more conventional route.
The overwhelming majority of players who are able to make even a short career in the NFL took the same path. It starts in high school. They become a high school all-star, get recruited by a university on a scholarship, become a college star player, and get drafted by the NFL.
Then there’s how Erik Harris made his way to the NFL.
During minicamp, Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, unprompted and seemingly out of the blue, heaped praise on Harris – a 6-2, 215-pound safety – for his play this offseason.
“The guy that’s really been stunning for us is Erik Harris,” Gruden said on the first day of minicamp in June.
The very next day after Gruden said those words, Harris had a gorgeous and athletic interception in practice. He caught the ball just a few feet from where I was standing on the sideline, close enough that I could hear him say “That’s mine” before picking it off.
It was as if this was the kind of play he was used to making. Like we were watching your typical high school and college all-star safety, walking that thin line between obscurity and stardom at the NFL level. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“Coming out of high school I wasn’t a huge recruit,” Harris told me in a phone interview. “I actually got more scholarship offers for track and field than I did for football.
“I decided to go to Division II. I was a preferred walk-on at Division II (California PA), so I led the team in special teams tackles my freshman year and that spring I earned a $1500 scholarship, worked my way up each year, I got more and more scholarships.”
Harris carried that dreaded ‘tweener’ stigma. He was a safety/linebacker. In football, and especially in the NFL, if they can’t type cast you, they won’t. Add in that he was a tweener special teamer at a Division II school, and he was simply not going to show up on an NFL radar.
“I got zero invites, not even to a rookie minicamp,” Harris continued. “Since I didn’t have any invites I went back home and I got a job at a potato chip factory, Utz potato chips, I was a corn flower mixer and I was working in probably 110 degrees, I was working above 600 degree ovens.”
This is where the NFL dream ends for countless unheard of football players, the vast majority of whom never become professional football players, let alone reach the NFL level. And we’re talking about players who appear to have far greater prospects than Division II walk-on special teamer.
This is the moment you realize just how much of becoming an NFL player is in your heart and in your head.
Harris didn’t much care for working in the conditions in that potato chip factory. I can tell you from personal experience, having gotten a job in a dried potato plant for a short time just out of high school how much that kind of job will help you find your ambitions.
Another thing Harris and I have in common is being raised by a single mother. Watching her struggle and take care of several kids on one meager income instills a pretty strong work ethic in a person. Erik wasn’t about to let his football career end in a potato chip factory.
“Just growing up with a single mom and always seeing her fight and never giving up and she has six kids, I have four younger brothers, my sister is the oldest, so always seeing her, even when it was down to picking a college, she was like ‘Erik, it can’t end like this. It just can’t. You have too much potential, it just can’t end like this’.”
Though his mother and father split up when he was very young, he grew to have a better relationship with his father as he got older. It was wise words from his father that stuck with him through this process.
“‘Son, somebody’s watching you. Somebody’s always watching you.’” Harris said, quoting his father. “I always kept that. I felt like somebody was always watching me, somebody was going to notice me eventually.”
The first step in getting noticed was to go back to school and finish his degree. Even that would require a grueling schedule.
“I went back to school,” Harris continued. “I finished up my degree and I was working part time as a supervisor at UPS, so I would go to work at 9:00 at night, I would get off about 5:00 in the morning, go home and sleep for a few hours, wake up, go to my classes, go to the gym, and then all I’d eat all day was a dozen eggs right before I went to work. That’s like college living, you know.”
Next step was figuring out how to get back to football. That opportunity came from the Canadian Football League.
“A free agent tryout came up in Buffalo New York for the Hamilton Tiger Cats, so I drove three hours up there and paid $80 and they called me two days later. . . and offered me a contract.”
Even in the CFL, he wasn’t a superstar. Over his three-year contract, he was never a full time starter on defense. He was still a special teams player. But there was one game that was positively Brett Favre-esque.
“My dad passed away three years ago now,” said Harris. “I dedicated a game to him up in Canada. . . I was like ‘I’m just going to go out there and have fun and play this game for him. At the time I was not a starter on defense, but injuries happened and they actually had a trick play in for me . . . at halftime I was the leading receiver; I had a 55-yard touchdown. Set some CFL history because somebody got hurt so I played some defense, so I had a sack, a tackle for loss, I had an interception, and offensive touchdown, and a special teams tackle. I was the only person in CFL history to do that.”
This is the point where you are probably thinking it was that game that raised his star at the CFL level or that an NFL scout took notice and called him up to the ‘big leagues’. Nope. His shot would come based on good old fashioned hard work and the word of mouth that comes with grinding.
“[M]y friend Delvin Breaux -- who I played with up there for two years -- he signed with the Saints, puts a word in for me when my time comes up -- I was a year after him -- . . . I get a workout with the Saints and I’ve been in the league since.”
That was two years ago. But just when he thought his future was in his hands, disaster struck. Just four games into the season, he suffered a torn ACL and was placed on injured reserve. The Saints had him back in camp the following year, but waived him prior to the season.
Yet again, this is a moment that might have been the end of the NFL dream for many. But not for Harris. He was unemployed for just four days before the Raiders signed him to help out on special teams just prior to the start of the season.
His late addition could be why so many Raiders fans had no idea who he was. Many are just hearing his name for the fist time. Others may have first noticed him when he represented the Raiders on the 2017 Pro Bowl ballot. He did lead the team in special teams tackles (5) last season. Or perhaps your first notice came with Gruden mentioning him this offseason – a moment Harris said had never happened to him before.
Gruden is the type of coach who legitimately gives every player a shot to prove their worth, regardless of where they are drafted or how much they are paid.
“I’m doing my research on this guy,” Gruden said of Harris. “Who is this cat? This guy has played really good football for us. I don’t care what [draft] round they are coming from. This kid is really rising to the top right now.”
Those words from Gruden figured to be as much of a message for Harris as they were for 2017 second round pick Obi Melifonwu, who is buried on the depth chart while being slow to recover from injuries. Harris finds comfort in Gruden’s stance that draft position and paycheck are not what earns you a place on his roster.
The safety position is far from set for the Raiders. What the 28-year-old Harris sees in Gruden and the Raiders new staff is opportunity to shake off the special teams label and try to see time on the field on defense. Not long ago he was just thankful to keep his NFL dream alive. Now he wants more.
“It’s a chip that I carry to be honest,” Harris said of the special teamer label. “When I was with the Saints, I came into OTA’s and I was like in the perfect position. Nothing really was expected of me. I was just out there playing football, having fun. They had drafted a second round pick Vonn Bell, they had Jairus Bird they had paid really well. They were the guys and like coach Payton said, I was a surprise. . .
“Playing with Oakland last year I felt like I had a role on special teams, obviously that’s what they brought me in there for, that’s how I felt. I was just really happy to be playing football again. It was like ‘Yes, I’m playing football’ after a big knee injury like that. But I’m feeling again like I have something to prove. It’s more than just special teams, you know? People don’t realize I can play defense.”
Last season, with his late arrival, he never had the chance to prove he could play defense. This year, he has a full offseason under his belt with a new staff that is giving everyone a clean slate.
In minicamp he saw significant time at safety. Thursday he will report to training camp with the rest of the Raiders players as they take the next step toward the 2018 season. Harris is feeling like he has a legitimate shot to prove himself with this team. The heat from those 600 degree drums replaced by a self-made fire to find a role on this team and continue his NFL dream.