Had Damarcus Harrison been able to begin his two-year Mormon mission this fall as he originally planned, the 6-foot-5 rising sophomore almost certainly would have resumed his basketball career at BYU when he returned.
Once the church decided last week he needed to delay his mission a full year, however, it threw his life into chaos.
He couldn't return for his sophomore season at BYU because the coaching staff had used his scholarship already. He couldn't pay his own way for the 2012-13 school year because it was too expensive for his parents. And this late in the summer, he didn't think he'd be able to find another Division I school with a vacant scholarship and a willingness to take him even though he could potentially sit out the next three years.
"I was scared," Harrison said. "I didn't know what to do. I thought I was going to be working a job 40 hours a week the whole year and going to technical college until I could leave on my mission."
What saved Harrison from putting school and basketball on hold for a year was an unlikely opportunity at one of the first schools he called.
Clemson, the runner-up to BYU in Harrison's recruitment the previous year, had an unused scholarship and playing time available at wing due to the broken leg top freshman Jaron Blossomgame sustained in April and the likely season-ending torn Achilles tendon Devin Coleman suffered in July. Furthermore, Clemson was close enough to Harrison's Greenwood, S.C., home that he could continue preparing for his mission with a bishop he already knew.
It took Clemson coach Brad Brownell a day or two to warm to the idea of adding Harrison, but he decided the rewards outweighed the risks.
Even though Harrison will need an NCAA waiver to play next season and will definitely sit out the following two years, Brownell believes he can bolster next year's injury-depleted backcourt and blossom further in the future. Brownell recruited Harrison doggedly during high school and followed him from afar last season when he averaged 3.2 points and 1.0 boards off the bench at BYU.
"Knowing the family and knowing Damarcus, that was a big part of me going ahead and giving him a scholarship without knowing if he's going to play or not," Brownell said. "He's an athletic wing player with a good skill set who can play multiple positions. I've followed him enough to know that he fits what we do."
It's difficult to project whether the NCAA will grant Harrison a waiver to play immediately since neither Brownell nor the family is aware of any precedent one way or the other. Both have reason to be optimistic, however, since the NCAA has given waivers this offseason to kids whose petitions seemingly had less merit than Harrison's.
Harrison never would have guessed he'd be in this situation at this time a year ago since until recently he had no interest in going on a two-year church mission. The former top 100 recruit figured it would be too disruptive to his education and basketball career for it to be worthwhile.
What changed Harrison's outlook was a series of conversations last winter with his older brother Derek, who was doing his mission in Chicago at the time. Derek encouraged his younger brother not to pass up the chance to spend two years helping those in need and growing spiritually because of it.
"He said it helps you grow as a person," Harrison said. "You do service for other people and you bring joy to them. By helping other people, you help yourself. You're away from home and you're probably going to be rejected a lot, but you build character in the process."
Harrison initially planned to leave on his mission this summer, but his LDS Church bishop in South Carolina decided not to submit the paperwork until January because he felt the 20-year-old needed another year to grow and mature before he was ready. The bishop also asked that Harrison remain close to home so they could work together to prepare for his mission.
Even after it became clear that Harrison's separation from BYU would likely be permanent rather than temporary, Cougars coach Dave Rose remained supportive. He gave Harrison his release and offered to help in any way possible to ease the transition.
The gesture from BYU is meaningful because Rose spent as much time recruiting Harrison as any other player in his tenure. Harrison played sparingly as a freshman at BYU, but his best game was his second-to-last, a come-from-behind 78-72 NCAA tournament win over Iona in which the freshman scored a career-high 12 points on 4-for-6 shooting.
"We appreciate the hard work and dedication Damarcus gave to our program this past season," Rose said in a news release. "Damarcus is great young man from a wonderful family. We wish them the very best with this new opportunity."
Both Harrison and his parents, Derek and Wanda, are grateful for BYU's support and pleased to have found such a good fit so close to home. They're hopeful the NCAA will grant Harrison the opportunity to play right away so he doesn't have to sit out for three straight years.
"We were shocked Clemson had a scholarship available and that they needed him because of the circumstances going on with their team," Wanda said. "It's an unusual situation, but it's a blessing. I'm happy as a mother that he's going to be close to home. I thought at first it wouldn't matter, but it will be kind of nice."