The Harsh Realities of Life in the NFL
No matter how fast he runs or how hard he hits, Nic Harris can't make his phone ring.
Fate put his life's starting line miles behind most; he willed himself to not only catch up with, but breeze past the pack. Even so, he can't will a text message into existence.
Harris, a linebacker, ran swiftly to the top of a mountain most could never hope to scale: an NFL depth chart. Once he got to the peak, a knee injury sent him tumbling down the other side. Harris climbed his way back to the summit, only for his other knee to betray him. Both times, a coaching change greased the slope for his climb back up.
Can Harris again claw his way back onto an NFL roster? Can he even get a workout?
Welcome to the NFL, veteran.
Theater of Dreams
Every April, the league kicks off an hours-long, prime-time-television parade of hugs and smiles under the Radio City Music Hall lights. Over three days, hundreds of rookies are welcomed into the NFL, each one with limitless potential. For all of them, being drafted means their life's dream is fulfilled.
Harris' life couldn't have started much further from New York City.
Born in Alexandria, La., to two teenagers who couldn't raise him, Harris grew up without even the most basic comfort and security a child can have: parents.
The eldest of nine children, Harris spent his childhood bouncing between family members, homes and schools. Through it all, his grandparents tried their best to guide him to adulthood.
"My grandmother, Hattie Harris, she instilled in me the morals and values of life," Harris told me.
By keeping Nic in and around church, Hattie Harris both strengthened Nic's support network, and made sure he kept himself humble.
When Nic reached Alexandria Senior High, he finally found a place he belonged: On the football field.
Per the official Alexandria Senior High athletics site, Harris then stood 6'2" and weighed 210 pounds. With that size and his natural speed—his 40-yard dash reportedly timed in the 4.5 range, per Rivals.com—it's no wonder Harris was a dominant, playmaking free safety.
Over his high-school career, Harris set school records with 21 interceptions and nine interceptions returned for touchdowns, according to SoonerSports.com. His senior season, Harris was named first-team All-Central Louisiana, first-team All-State and a unanimous All-State Defensive MVP.
Rivals.com listed Harris as a 4-star recruit, the No. 5 safety in the nation and the No. 94 player overall.
Let's think about how special this is.
A Diamond in the Rough...er Diamonds
Research by Yahoo! Sports' Matt Hinton shows Rivals.com assigned 3-star (or better) rankings to an average of 1,481 recruits in each of the past five seasons. Of those, an average of 355 were 4-star recruits like Harris, and an average of just 32 were 5-star recruits.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,046,967 students played high school football during the 2004-05 season. Assuming one-fourth of those players were seniors, and given that roughly 3,000 Division I-A scholarships are available in any recent year, only one in 87 players in Harris' senior class even received a D-I offer. Harris was in Rivals' top 100 of those 3,000.
How many of the top college prospects go on to succeed in the NFL?
Based on a study of all drafts from 1983-2003, DraftMetrics.com calculated that 62 percent of players drafted play at least three years in the NFL, 47 percent play at least five years, 30 percent become three-year starters, and 21 percent become five-year starters.
Here's how the NFL talent funnel looks for a single class, starting from all D-I scholarships (no chart could contain the full 250,000 without funky logarithmic scales):
From the beginning, Harris' talent seemed to tab him as one of the lucky few destined to make it.
Harris was in high demand; he received offers from power programs around the country like Michigan, Oklahoma and Nebraska. I asked Harris how he knew Oklahoma was the right program for him.
"I didn't know," he told me. "I picked LSU, but at the time they didn't have a coach. Coach Saban had left the team to coach the Dolphins."
He was swayed, he told me, by the "family atmosphere" engendered by Lloyd Carr and Bo Schembechler at Michigan.
His real family, though, needed him. Hattie, the grandmother who'd raised him, was diagnosed with a terminal illness; if Nic attended Michigan, he'd likely only be able to visit home once a year. He knew he needed to stay closer to home.
"I actually decided on signing day," Harris said, "to go to the University of Oklahoma."
Oklahoma turned out to be a great fit.
Harris saw time as a true freshman; he was a fixture on special teams and even started at free safety against Kansas State and Texas.
In his junior season, per SoonerSports.com, Harris played nickel corner and free safety, leading the team with four interceptions, coming in fourth in tackles and registering 2.5 sacks. Harris was named second-team All-Big 12 in just his second season.
His senior year, Harris took another step forward, being named first-team All-Big 12 by the coaches and second-team All-Big 12 by the Associated Press. Harris was also named third-team All-American.
Off the field, Harris was no less outstanding. He was nominated for the FWAA Courage and Ronnie Lott Awards, named a semifinalist for the Wooden Citizenship Cup and was a two-time president of Bridge Builders, a student community-service organization.
According to Hinton, even in the ridiculously small and talented set of 4-star recruits, only one in 12 are named All-American, as Harris was. Furthermore, research by Braden Gall of AthlonSports.com shows only about one in 10 4-stars are eventually drafted, as Harris was.
Yet, when the Buffalo Bills called his name in the fifth round, Harris' reaction wasn't one of unbridled joy.
"Going into it being told you're one of the best at your position, one of the top five at your position, it's confusing when you see guys go before you've never heard of," Harris told me. "You don't understand what teams want."
Why wouldn't NFL teams want Harris, with his 6'2" frame then filled out to 234 pounds? Why did so many teams pass so many times on so tantalizing a safety prospect? Why wasn't Harris one of the 4.3 percent of 4-star recruits, according to Gall, who go on to get drafted in the first round?
"My situation," said Harris, "is that I was a 'tweener.' They didn't know if I was a safety or a linebacker, and there's no hybrid position." Harris corrected himself. "Well, then there was no hybrid position; now there is, with the different tight-end usage."
In 2009, though, the Joker tight end wasn't sweeping the football world quite yet, and the Bills had a much thinner depth chart at outside linebacker than safety. The Bills put Harris on the weak side, and he made the switch with aplomb.
In fact, Harris led the Bills in preseason tackles, catching the eye of Sports Illustrated's Peter King. King named Harris one of "10 rookies who've impressed" him; a glance at the other nine reveals elite company.
"It was awesome," Harris told me. "It was like, 'I'm finally here.'"
Harris not only made an impact on special teams, as King predicted, but by Week 10, Harris was starting at weak-side linebacker.
"I felt like I was doing everything positive that I possibly could," said Harris, "on the field as well as off the field. Speaking to kids, and playing my heart out on Sunday."
In Week 16, though, Harris injured his knee, and his storybook career came unbound.
"Then," Harris told me, "you find out the harsh reality of the NFL."
A Dream Deferred
"They fired the coaching staff," Harris said, "and I was injured at the time. You really don't know what the future holds; you think your on-the-field resume speaks for itself, but a whole new coaching staff comes in and you're not part of what they recruited."
Not only did the firing of Perry Fewell make for a new sheriff in town, but Chan Gailey brought in defensive coordinator George Edwards to implement a 3-4 base alignment. Between George Wilson and Jairus Byrd, the Bills were set at safety, and 3-4 outside linebacker requires a different skill set than 4-3 weak-side linebacker.
Worse yet, the knee wasn't healing fast enough.
"Initially, we wanted to aggressively rehab it, but it didn't get better. So, we had to go and have the surgery," he told me. "Well, the team, they're looking at the timeline."
After a failed rehab attempt, then complicated microfracture surgery, Harris' knee wasn't ready when Gailey wanted to evaluate him.
"Me being the player," said Harris, "the only thing I could take care of was to make sure I'm rehabbing to exact specifications, and make sure I'm ready for the next season. Because in my understanding, I was getting ready to be a starting linebacker for the Buffalo Bills. Well, it didn't work out like that."
The Bills placed Harris on the reserve/failed-physical list, and eventually terminated his contract.
A Second Chance
The next season, opportunity knocked twice. The Carolina Panthers suffered a rash of injuries at linebacker, and Harris got a call.
"From my understanding," Harris said, "they'd wanted to draft me, but they told me I went 'higher than they expected.' But they ended up giving me a call, and I stepped in immediately. I took advantage of the opportunity."
That's an understatement. By Week 8, Harris had again forced his way into an NFL starting lineup. Harris racked up 37 tackles, nine assists and 1.5 sacks in 10 games and four starts for the Panthers in 2010.
Then, it happened again.
It all happened again.
"They fired the coaching staff," Harris said. "Another coaching staff came in and I was back in the same situation a year later. A lot of people don't understand. They think you're a bum, or that you can't play. But in two years, I've been through four coaching staffs."
Harris then found out his other knee would require microfracture surgery.
"It's easier [the second time]," Harris said, "because you know the rehab process, but it's harder because, you're here again. You can't train the way that you want to train; you're looking at these guys who are getting bigger, faster stronger all season, whereas you're rehabbing. There's a difference between rehabbing and actually being able to train."
While Harris healed and got back into playing shape, the NFL and Players Association engaged in a nasty legal tug of war that nearly cost the league its 2011 season. Meanwhile, Harris got back on the field with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the short-lived UFL.
Harris joined a linebacking corps that featured another once-heralded prospect trying to recover his NFL dream, taken from him through no fault of his own. Instead of injuries or shifting schemes, though, Brian Banks served five years in prison for a horrible crime he didn't commit.
"Brian is actually a great friend of mine," said Harris. "Apart from just spending time with him in the meeting room, and sitting back and having a good time, he's a great individual. I think anything he has coming to him he deserves, and any opportunity he has he deserves."
A Third Chance?
Two microfracture surgeries, four coaching staffs, four defensive systems and a stint in the UFL later, Harris is still a tantalizing prospect. Now carrying 250 pounds on his 6'3" frame, Harris is still just 26 years old, barely older than some of the linebacker prospects taken in the 2013 draft.
If there's any doubt he can still move at an NFL level, he's posted a recent workout video:
Still, Harris is struggling to get teams to see him as the proven producer he is, and rookies as they are—not as boundless bundles of upside.
"All I'm getting is, 'We're not looking for a veteran linebacker right now,'" Harris said. "Well, how 'veteran' am I when I only have two years in the NFL?"
Harris always excelled in school, both in high school and college. As a well-educated young man with a vibrant off-field life (Harris told LasVegasBlackImage.com he's currently acting and modeling), I asked Harris why he's still trying to keep his football career alive.
"Because it's what I love," he said. "I think God gave me the ability to play this game, and—excuse my French—I don't want to piss down God's leg by not harnessing that."
Harris is pulling out all the stops in his effort to get back to where it always seemed he was fated to go.
"I'm going for broke, you know? To be able to do something that I love. To excel, not for the immediate gratification, but to be a great player, help your team, to be a part of something," Harris explained.
If Harris doesn't get a camp invite this summer and make a roster, he likely never will. The harsh reality of the NFL is that teams would rather take a flier on a player who might be the next Nic Harris, than make an investment in Nic Harris.
Ty Schalter is a National NFL Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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