Tuesday, April 30, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Former Devil signs with Chiefs

Leader sports editor

For top-level high-school athletes who worry they have to pick just the right college in order to maximize their chances of going pro, stop worrying.

Former Jacksonville Red Devil star safety Demetrius Harris proves you don’t even have to be playing the right sport. If you’ve got the talent, people will take notice.

Harris, who spent the last four years playing college basketball because his football dreams were, or so he thought, shot down by a low ACT score, just signed a three-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League.

Harris’ journey to the NFL was far from typical. When the Chiefs’ new general manager John Dorsey reached out to him while he was on spring break from classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Harris admitted he was shocked.

“I always felt like I was a more natural football player than basketball,” said Harris, who is 6-foot-6 and weighs 237 pounds. “But I couldn’t believe the NFL was looking at me. I didn’t know they knew about me.”

Dorsey found out about Harris two years ago while a scout for the Green Bay Packers. Someone gave him a tip while at an Arkansas high school all-star game about a player who fell through the cracks a couple years before and who was playing college basketball in the Green Bay area.

“I put him on my Franklin day calendar to explore this guy two years down the road,” Dorsey told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week. “That’s what I did and there he is.”

The Chiefs see Harris as a potential tight end. Harris is fine with that, but he thinks he has the speed to be a slot receiver if necessary.

Dorsey sent Chiefs’ scout Ryan Kessenich to Milwaukee to evaluate a personal workout and interview Harris on April 5, giving him one week to prepare.

“I’d been on spring break, basketball was over and I hadn’t worked out in more than two weeks,” Harris told The Leader on Monday; shortly after signing the NFL contract. “I did a lot of work that week to get ready.”

Harris dazzled in everything but strength drills. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds, the second fastest of all tight ends this year. He displayed a 36 1/2 vertical leap and did a 10-2 broad jump, which were both in the upper ranks of his projected position.

His shuttle runs and cone drills were equally impressive. The NFL’s standard strength test is number of reps of a 225-pound bench press.

This year’s average for tight end prospects was 19. Harris only did it twice, but he’s had little weight training his entire career.

“I never lifted weights at all until I got to Milwaukee,” Harris said. “The training is different for football and basketball. I have no doubt when I get into a real football training regimen I’ll get a lot stronger.”

The NFL agrees. The shortcoming in strength is one of the easier things to remedy. That’s why the Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and super bowl champion Baltimore Ravens all wanted private workouts with Harris. Scouts or coaches from nine other teams came to his pro-day workout on April 13.

His high-school defensive coordinator, Rick Russell, who is now head coach at Jacksonville, isn’t surprised to hear about Harris’ opportunity.

“We’ve always felt like he had that kind of talent,” Russell said. “So that’s not surprising at all. We were only surprised from the standpoint that he left it behind and went and played basketball. He was an amazing safety. Coach Burrows (JHS secondary coach Larry Burrows) just about cried when he graduated. We have a rope that we’d give to the defensive player who was at the top of the defensive chart after each game. Demetrius pretty much just kept it in his locker.”

Harris had 149 tackles and four interceptions his senior year on defense. He also had 748 yards receiving and four touchdowns on offense.

“That was the other thing about him that was so impressive,” Russell said. “He never left the field. But I bet if you asked him he’d say he loves hitting people more than he loves catching touchdown passes.”

Harris laughed when the question was passed along, but admitted that Russell was right.

“I did love playing safety more than anything,” Harris said. “I would have played football in junior college, but the only school that wanted me wanted to make me a defensive end, and I didn’t want to play that. So I just went on and signed with the basketball school.”

Harris signed with Mineral Area Community College in Missouri. Even after two years away from football, there were still football teams that came calling when his two years of JUCO hoops was up.

“I had everybody looking at me,” Harris said. “University of Arkansas, Arkansas State, Texas Tech, Tennessee. I just thought since I’ve been playing basketball, I’d just stick with that.”

He broke into the starting lineup his first year at Milwaukee, and started 28 of 32 games his senior season. He averaged nine points and five rebounds per game in his career at UMW.

He knew there was little chance of a pro basketball career, so he decided to focus on finishing his Bachelor of Science degree in information technology and begin looking for a job. Then came the spring break surprise. Now his focus is on getting ready for May 9, the day he reports to Kansas City for off-season training.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Harris said. “I really feel like if I had played football in college and been working on those skills and strengths, I’d be one of the higher draft picks. So now my goal is to make something out of this. I want to be successful and make some noise, become a key player in this league.”