Harris not seeking escape from Liberty City

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

MIAMI – As Brandon Harris stares at the tiny, 600-square-feet home on 62nd Terrace in Liberty City, he doesn't simply see the boarded-up windows or its general state of disrepair. He doesn't even really see the "For sale" sign.

Instead, Harris sees his first childhood home. He remembers the days spent hustling home from elementary school to drop off his books before heading through the back alley to 62nd Street and the laundromat his grandfather Floyd McPhee owned.

He'd pass by the old men playing cards under the shade tree next to the laundromat and maybe head to the convenience store across the parking lot to get Now and Later candy. Then he and his grandfather would make the rounds through town, checking on the houses and dry cleaning stores his grandfather owned.

As Harris retraces that drive, he doesn't see a section of South Florida reputed to be one of the most crime-ridden in the region, the home of the 1980 Liberty City riots. He sees Charles Hadley Park, a giant recreation complex where he played pee-wee football and where rapper Luther Campbell provided the uniforms and equipment.

He doesn't see a place that corporate America has largely deserted. Aside from a McDonald's that stands next to the I-95 offramp and a couple of KFCs, there aren't even that many fast-food places in town. The restaurants are a smattering of family-owned businesses advertising soul food, fried fish and grits. Harris talks proudly about the MLK Restaurant, which he claims "serves the best breakfast in the state."

Harris during the NFL scouting combine.
(Michael Conroy/AP Photo)

Where the cynic sees limited potential, Harris' vision has no boundaries. Where other athletes, such as Chad Ochocinco(notes), have seen a place they can't wait to escape, Harris sees a home he wants to improve. He ignores the fact that getting here has required some luck already, such as the night two young people were shot to death and five others were wounded at a birthday and high school graduation party he attended in June 2007.

Ultimately, either as a businessman (after he gets his MBA) or as a politician, Harris is intent on making this place, which is a cradle of NFL talent, better.

The first step to making that improvement will require a detour. Later this month, Harris is expected to be one of the top cornerbacks selected in the annual NFL draft. The University of Miami product is widely projected to be a late first-round pick, likely to go somewhere after LSU's Patrick Peterson and Nebraska's Prince Amukamara.

While Harris gives up nothing to either Peterson or Amukamara, he also doesn't much care if he's a first- or fourth-rounder.

"Just give me a chance and I'll show what I can do and we'll go from there," Harris said with subdued confidence. He is the son of a high school coach, well-schooled in how to walk the line between bluster and humility.

To put it another way, Harris has ridden the bus.

Taking a different view

When Tim Harris Sr. took over as the head coach at Booker T. Washington High School in the Overtown section of Miami in 2003, he was returning home. Harris, Brandon's dad, grew up in Overtown, which neighbors Liberty City and rivals powerhouse Northwestern where Harris previously served as an assistant. He had come back after getting a chance to see another way.

Instead of being sucked into the swirling vortex of crime that has turned Overtown and Liberty City from once-proud neighborhoods to just plain 'hoods, Harris went off to play small-school football at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.

"First time I saw snow, first time I rode on a plane, first time for a lot of things," said Harris, who has returned to Booker T. after serving as a special assistant to former Miami coach Randy Shannon for three years. In the process, Harris' world got bigger and larger – experiences that stuck with him and that have been passed on.

"You go out there and try to help these kids get out so they can go out into the world and then come back to make this place better," said Harris, who coached Brandon in high school. "Maybe they get a chance to go to the league. Maybe they get a college education and come back and run a business or teach school, but they get some skills and some ideas."

One of the first things Harris did after he took over at Booker T. was take his players on a field trip.

Around the neighborhood.

One evening after school, as most residents were returning home from work, Harris put his team on a school bus and drove around Overtown. Harris simply asked his players to look around at the neighborhood, take a good view of the people and places around town from a different perspective.

Then-Vikings FB Tony Richardson(notes) and others work on Habitat for Humanity homes in Liberty City prior to Super Bowl XLI.
(Sharon Ellman/AP Photo)

"Most of them were just so used to looking at their neighborhood by walking around. It was always the same … when we rode around, they could really see what was going on. They could see that a lot people were just hangin' out, doing nothin'. They were flat-lining through life. After that, I had so many of my players come up to me and say, 'Coach, I want to do something more with my life,' " Harris Sr. said.

To this day, all the Harrises are working on doing more. Tim Harris Jr. already has his degree from Miami, where he was an All-American in track. Brandon is a semester away from earning his business degree. Harris Sr. is still working on his degree, taking classes online after raising his family and getting into coaching.

However, the positive influences in Brandon's life extend beyond family and elders. Friend Chevis Grant, who was a year ahead of Harris at Miami, has served as a source of inspiration by teaching at Booker T.

Subsequently, Harris has a bigger view of life than simply where he is going to play in the NFL and how much coin he's going to make. Like so many young men who have made it from his neighborhood (Harris will be the fourth player in a five-block section in Liberty City to get to the NFL), getting here has been a matter of survival.

Aside from the 2007 shooting during the party at the Polish American Club of Miami (the incident remains unsolved even though there were four gunmen) following his junior year of high school, Harris went to UM only two years after former defensive lineman Bryan Pata was gunned down, execution-style, outside his apartment near the school. It's another crime that remains unsolved.

"There's crime everywhere," Harris said, pragmatically. "You can't run away from it. It's always there. Even if you're trying to do the right thing, something bad can happen."

Harris knows that all too well. He was friends with Jasper Howard, a Miami native and cornerback at the University of Connecticut who was stabbed to death outside a party on the UConn campus.

"What do you think about when that happens? You give thanks that it wasn't you and you understand how fast it can all be gone," Harris said.

A matter of talent

There is a question among scouts and coaches about just how good Harris can be. He has the requisite speed (he ran a 4.43 40 at the NFL scouting combine in February) and he has a very strong build at 5-feet-11, 195 pounds. He played in primarily a bump-and-run, man cover system at Miami, making him pretty easy to translate to the next level.

"At worst, he's going to be a solid professional," said a scout with an AFC team. "I would say that his ceiling is sort of low. You're not talking about a perennial Pro Bowl player, but he's a guy who will be very effective for a long time and, the way even mediocre corners get paid in this game, a guy who will make a lot of money some day."

Harris intercepts a pass against North Carolina last season.
(Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Of course, this is the time of year when even the greatest players can get picked apart by draft analysts, so Harris has taken his share of criticism. Draft analysts like Mike Mayock of the NFL Network have consistently criticized Harris for his lack of big-play ability (Harris had only four career interceptions before leaving after his junior season), his flaws in zone coverage and the belief that he has trouble covering taller receivers.

Or as Mayock put it recently, "After Peterson and Amukamara, there is a big drop-off [at the cornerback position]."

When asked about the criticism, Harris remains composed, but his eyes focus sharply as he tries to drive home the point.

"I gave up one touchdown all season and now everybody thinks I have a problem with tall receivers," said Harris, admitting that the one score he gave up to Notre Dame's Michael Floyd in the Sun Bowl was his mistake. The problem with that score is that it came in Miami's bowl game. As the saying goes in football, you're only as good as your last game.

"That's fine if people want to say that stuff. I'll show them what I can do," Harris said. As for the lack of interceptions, Harris said the problem was that the cornerbacks rarely got a chance to look back at the quarterback at UM, limiting the chances to anticipate plays. Harris, who also has decidedly small hands, said he believes he dropped another 10 possible interceptions during his three seasons.

The obvious positives for Harris is that he's a strong tackler who has little fear of coming up in run support or fighting with a receiver.

"He's not going to fail for lack of toughness, put it that way," the scout said.

Strong background

On a warm Sunday afternoon in March, the Harris home smells of a family dinner. Harris' mother Chonita has oxtail, collard greens and potato salad cooking in the afternoon, creating a mouth-watering fragrance.

The entire Harris family is at the house, including Harris' grandmother. The living room of the working-class home is lined with trophies from the Harris boys. In an area where broken homes are a norm – according to the 2000 census, only 9.1 percent of Liberty City households featured married couples with kids – the Harris family is obviously strong.

These are people as dedicated to one another as they are to their community.

"Where I come from has its problems, but it also has huge potential. You need people to come back to the community and give something so that the next group of kids can make it," Harris said. "We've had a lot of guys make it from this area and we can have a lot more if we work at it."

That's a wonderful long-range vision, a perspective that is about more than simply one's self. At the moment, however, Harris needs to take care of his own career.

"I know that. The NFL is maybe 10 or 12 years of your life if you're lucky enough to play that long. I have more things I want to do with my life after that. But right now, I'm dedicated to football and everyone knows that," Harris said. "What people are going to get with me is a guy who is totally dedicated to football, totally focused on being great, who is going to give it all and who isn't going to get in trouble."

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