Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> JHS wide receiver’s decline is shocking

Leader sports editor

What a monumental difference a year can make in the life of a young person, especially those who are graduating high school and embarking on life without the structure, rules, authority and accountability they’ve lived with.

That difference can be positive or negative, and the negative can be illustrated no better than the recent tragedy involving former Jacksonville standout wide receiver Robert Harris, whose rapid decline that began in earnest last September at the start of his senior year, has culminated in him now sitting in jail charged with capital murder. He’s being held without bail after his arraignment on Tuesday.

Harris, still only 17, was arrested early Monday morning as the prime suspect in the shooting death of 29-year-old Michael Cook in North Little Rock.

Harris allegedly robbed Cook at gunpoint in the wee hours of Saturday morning, and then shot him near Whipporwhil Lane and Campbell Road. Cook, a father of two young boys, was found alive, but died later at the hospital. Harris was arrested around 6 a.m. Monday after two witnesses identified him as the shooter.

About this time last year, Harris was volunteering as an instructor and helper at the Jacksonville Boys and Girls Club’s annual Fun Day, which is sponsored by the Jacksonville Police Department. Alongside JPD officers, Harris was teaching kids how to play kickball and volunteering to be plunged into the cold water of a dunking booth, all for the entertainment of Jacksonville’s little ones.

He was also interviewed that day for The Leader’s annual football tab for the remarkable comeback he made from a serious injury suffered during the Red-White game before his junior year.

The injury was gruesome. Harris’ skin appeared to be the only thing keeping his right foot attached to his leg, as it protruded in a grotesque angle away from his body and dangled loosely as paramedics lifted him onto the stretcher.

It cost him his junior season, but he worked hard to get ready for his senior year, with teammates helping him get to practice and physical therapy sessions. Last summer, Harris dazzled as a wide receiver in multiple 7-on-7 camps, including a remarkable performance in the Shootout of the South, where he caught 19 touchdown passes and led the Red Devils to a fifth-place finish in the 22-team tournament that included teams from four states.

That performance launched Harris into prospect status among college coaches, but it didn’t carry over into tackle football. Once school started, something changed.

At the time, coaches, fans and media scratched their heads wondering why the talented receiver wasn’t producing like he did in the summer. He dropped passes frequently, got into scuffles on the field and played with an overall lack of focus.

Bewildered observers only needed to let the year play out. Harris was no longer focusing on football or school like he used to. The talented young man, who was always very polite and respectful in the presence of adults, was becoming a different person among his peers.

He was involved in a fracas with Little Rock McClellan after their football game last season, and really began to show his downward direction during basketball season. He didn’t play basketball, but loved being a part of the rowdy JHS student section. Only Harris went further than the rest.

The week of the rivalry game against North Pulaski, Harris took to twitter to get under the skin of one NP player who used to play for Jacksonville.

That nearly resulted in a fight after Jacksonville’s win. Harris finally did get in a fight after Jacksonville’s away game at Sylvan Hills, and that landed him his first arrest for battery.

It also ended his schooling, as he was expelled from JHS only two months from graduation.

It apparently got worse from there. Witnesses say on Saturday evening, Harris and three friends were sitting in a car when one of them, Cook, got out and walked away.

Harris followed him around a corner where he stopped Cook at gunpoint. Cook reportedly began to empty his pockets and throw the contents on the ground. Harris then, according to one witness, fired several shots and fled.

The outcry on social media is varied. The more outrageous and shortsighted involves anger at the snitches who told on Harris.

Those people show a callous and despicable lack of regard for the lost life and the people who are mourning over it.

Some of his coaches, teachers and others who know Harris are distraught over the extreme and rapid nature of his decline.

One former coach even lamented that “this is not who he really is.” It’s an understandable sentiment. It didn’t seem like that’s who Harris was to the reporter who sat down with him among the raucous and happy little kids at the Boys and Girls Club last July.

That coach’s lament has been shared by many people, including by this reporter.

Often times those we see going down a destructive path turn things around and become the good person we knew was underneath the horrible decisions they were making. But sometimes people just aren’t who we thought they were.