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Four years after giving up football to pursue hoops, Demetrius Harris may yet reach the NFL

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Demetrius Harris (screen grab via YouTube)

To Demetrius Harris, the voice message sounded suspiciously like a practical joke.

A man whose voice the Wisconsin-Milwaukee power forward didn't recognize dialed his cell phone in late March and introduced himself as a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs. The scout asked Harris to contact him as soon as possible if the 6-foot-6, 237-pound senior had any interest in trading his high tops for football cleats.

"I had no idea this was coming," Harris recalled. "I listened to the message like five times. I was like, 'I can't believe it. I don't think this is real.'"

It's understandable Harris initially assumed he was the victim of a prank because that explanation seemed more reasonable than an NFL team showing interest in him. Harris was once an all-state receiver and safety as a senior at Jacksonville High School, but the Arkansas native had scarcely even played touch football with his buddies since giving up the sport four years ago to pursue basketball in college.

Skeptical yet intrigued, Harris called the scout back later that day. He learned Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey became aware of his football past as a scout for the Green Bay Packers and made a note in his calendar two years earlier to remind himself not to forget about the promising receiver turned power forward.

Since Harris had little chance of pursuing professional basketball and was only a few months from graduating, he eagerly accepted an invitation to work out for the Chiefs in Milwaukee on April 5. That left him barely a week to prepare for the most important interview of his life, a workout in which he would have to prove to the Chiefs he had the potential to make the same transition from basketball that NFL stars Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham once did.

[Also: New Cardinals DB Tyrann Mathieu considers to raise red flags]

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That Dorsey kept track of Harris all these years after he gave up football is a testament to his unusual size, strength and athletic ability. In an era when most top athletes specialize in one sport, Harris excelled in football and basketball, often leaving mouths agape with his exploits in both of them.

Football was Harris' first love since he began playing the sport at age five. He dominated both sides of the ball as a senior at Jacksonville High, making four interceptions and 149 tackles as a safety and drawing two and three defenders as a receiver every game.

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Demetrius Harris (AP)

Basketball wasn't as natural for Harris because he only started playing his junior year, but it didn't take long for him to force his way onto the court with his shot-blocking, rebounding and ability to finish at the rim. Three weeks after he joined the team, he cracked the starting lineup at a school that has since gone on to make three state title games in the past five years.

"We had some pretty good returning post players who were hungry to get some playing time, but he was too good not to play," Jacksonville basketball coach Vic Joyner said. "All of a sudden, he was our second-leading scorer and I'm like, 'You've got to be kidding me.'"

Had Harris qualified academically to play Division I football out of high school, he likely never would have seriously pursued basketball. Instead he lost his football scholarship to Arkansas State because he didn't score high enough on the ACT, which left him scrambling to find a college to attend the summer after his senior year of high school.

Joyner connected him with a junior college coach in Missouri who previously had expressed interest, but the catch was Harris would play basketball instead of football there. Harris was comfortable with that decision at the time because of the success he had experienced in the state tournament that year when he repeatedly outplayed a handful of taller, more polished Division I prospects in the paint.

"He literally wore every one of them out and led us to a state title," Joyner said. "From that success and the way he abused those 6-10 and 6-11 guys, I think he grew to like basketball. I think he wanted to stick with it."

Harris carved out a niche as a defensive-oriented forward at Mineral Area Community College and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, starting 28 games as a senior and averaging 9.1 points and a team-high 5.3 boards. Even so, Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter could never shake the notion that Harris was more naturally suited to football than he was to hoops.

Whereas most basketball players are long and lanky, Harris' stocky, muscular 6-foot-6 frame was a better fit for the gridiron. Furthermore, Jeter remembers being awestruck watching how naturally Harris caught passes when he and his teammates played catch with a football in the head coach's backyard during the offseason.

"He was a lot different than the other guys," Jeter said. "They looked like basketball players trying to catch a football, and he looked like a football player. He's athletic enough to play basketball, but he's just a naturally gifted football player."

[Also: Eagles nab Matt Barkley early on Day 3]

Jeter, the son of former Green Bay Packers cornerback Bob Jeter, planned to ask his NFL contacts to help get Harris a tryout after he graduated this summer. That became unnecessary when the Chiefs called last month, so Jeter instead encouraged Harris to take advantage of the unexpected opportunity and helped him find a trainer to prepare him for the workout.

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Most NFL prospects spend months improving their explosiveness and lateral quickness and shaving tenths of a second off their time in the 40-yard dash leading up to their pre-draft workouts. Milwaukee-based trainer Steve Becker's job was to design a crash course to prepare Harris for his workout in less than a week.

They worked on getting out of the blocks quickly in the 40-yard dash. They worked on footwork for the agility drills. And they worked on proper technique for the vertical jump and broad jump.

When Chiefs scout Ryan Kessenich showed up at Engelmann Field on the Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus to put Harris through a workout, Harris wowed everyone with his route-running and with his performance during drills.

His 4.52-second 40-yard dash was faster than all but one tight end prospect ran at the NFL scouting combine. His vertical jump of 36½ inches and broad jump of 10 feet, 2 inches outclassed most of his peers as well. And though he only managed to bench press 225 pounds twice, that wasn't a huge surprise considering he had done minimal weightlifting during basketball season the past six months.

"It would have been pretty scary for everyone else in the draft class if he had eight or 10 weeks to work on all this stuff," Becker said. "His athleticism and skill set is very unique. If we had more time and could have put him on a weight program and worked on his explosiveness, his numbers would have been that much better. He only has upside. You can't teach that athleticism and you can't teach that jumping. That's what he has to build on."

Video of Harris' workout spread quickly in NFL circles as other teams scrambled to determine if he was worth adding to their draft boards.

Scouts from the Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles attended one of his April workout sessions. The Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys flew him out for private workouts. And on April 13, scouts or tight end coaches from nine NFL teams attended his official pro day in Milwaukee to watch him work out.

The feedback Harris has received from NFL scouts is there's a chance he'll be selected in one of the later rounds of the draft on Saturday. If not, he'll almost certainly have his pick of multiple invitations from NFL teams to sign as a free agent and try to make a roster or practice squad via training camp.

[Also: Geno Smith faces rough road in New York]

It's sometimes difficult for Harris to avoid thinking about how coveted a draft pick he could have been had he spent the past four years playing football in college instead of basketball. Usually, however, he drives those thoughts from his mind and focuses on how fortunate he is to have a chance to live his dreams in a sport he thought he gave up for good four years ago.

"I regret that I didn't play college football because I think I could have been a top receiver wherever I went and rated highly coming into the draft," Harris said. "I always wanted to play college football. I saw my friends playing on TV and that made me want to play more. At the same time, I don't regret it too much because I have this amazing opportunity."

And if Harris is able to capitalize on the opportunity, perhaps on Sundays in the fall his friends will soon be watching him.

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