Four years ago, in the small, unassuming town of Tappahannock, one of the largest human beings to ever walk the earth emerged from a Virginia cornfield.
The corn was high enough to bury the average man, but this was no average man. In fact, it was no man at all. It was a child.
With each step this child took, his head dipped below the stalks, only to rise a moment later—like a sea creature bobbing above and below the ocean's surface. Those nearby watched the short journey unfold.
The figure eventually emerged not to surprise but rather astonishment. As the apparition thundered closer, John Fulks' eyes tried to convince his brain that what he was seeing was real.
Moments later, Fulks, the head coach and athletic director at Essex High School, met Dondre Harris—a 6'10," 450-pound eighth-grader who was finally interested in playing football. After being lukewarm on the idea his entire childhood, Harris wanted to give it a try.
Even if he had a passion for the game growing up, no league would allow him to play.
"I've never seen or coached anyone like him," Fulks told Bleacher Report. "That's one of the biggest human beings you will ever see."
I have to warn you: This is not the typical recruiting tale. This is not a story about a 5-star recruit who realized his freakish potential in his freakish frame and watched a waterfall of Division I offers follow as a result. The programs with trophy cases the size of luxury yachts and the celebrity coaches with master sales pitches did not receive parts in this particular script.
This is a story about a young man whose unfathomable size is both a blessing and a curse; a tremendous advantage and a tremendous obstacle; his best friend and his biggest enemy.
Dondre Harris has no true scouting report. His Rivals profile is a blank canvas—an imageless, wordless dead end with no information to process. It's as if someone started crafting it but simply forgot to finish. Or perhaps he or she didn't care to.
His football journey may have started the day he emerged from the corn, although his national arrival came on September 19 of last year. This was the day MaxPreps posted a piece on a mystery high school goliath located just outside of Richmond.
Included in the piece were a handful of images of the senior lineman that looked altered. There was Harris, a towering skyscraper among two-story homes, a sequoia among cozy neighborhood oak trees, a man among children, colliding with regular-sized humans whose helmets barely reached his chest.
The story was enough to prompt curious football minds to demand more.
"Within 48 to 72 hours, I probably had four or five schools call to get information," Fulks said. "A few Division I teams called. Local ones wanted film, and a lot of Division II, Division III and NAIA schools reached out. Before that, I'll be honest, his film didn't really wow them."
Harris, despite the story his body told, had to work to make varsity on his high school football team. The lack of quality film was the direct result of a young man whose body and mind were operating on drastically different wavelengths. For a while, he was operating with an anchor.
"He was 6'10", 450 pounds as an eighth-grader, and he could not squat with the bar when he started," Fulks said. "The earlier years, he was growing so fast, he was just underdeveloped physically."
Essex tried Harris at offensive line, although he didn't have the foot speed to stay with defensive linemen. The coaches then moved him to defensive tackle, a place where his build could exist and even thrive as he developed. Slowly, there were breakthroughs.
Even without a true understanding of the position, Harris withstood and handled what would normally be classified as large high school linemen. It didn't happen always, but there was progress. Perhaps more significantly, Harris found his love of football with the switch to defense.
"He is an immovable force," Fulks said. "There's nobody that can drive-block him out of the way too easily. If he stays low, he's very hard to move."
His coaches saw Harris make gradual strides. The college coaches tasked with recruiting him, however, didn't flock to Essex. Even with the publicity generated from the article, interest tapered off. Concerns over his foot speed stopped many from following up beyond a simple phone call to acquire film or a conversation with his coach.
"After a while," Harris said, "they just started losing interest."
The season progressed and closed without a commitment of any kind from the biggest player in the nation. As other seniors picked hats up off tables to magnificent eruptions and commitments were made on live television, Harris searched for a new home.
As he explored all football options, he found peace in a small, contraption-packed building 30 minutes away. At least three times each week, Harris would make the drive to King George, Virginia—the home of B.I.O. Crossfit.
It's a place people visit to tear down their bodies so they can be rebuilt even stronger. It is a place of glorious, organized physical torture—a cult built on reps, six-packs, pain and vigor. It is not a place 7-foot, 400-pound linemen usually congregate on purpose.
"Yeah, I'm the biggest one there," Harris said, plowing through the obvious. "It was hard at first, but after a while you start to get used to it."
He's not in it for the washboard abs or the personal bests. He's not there for tremendous gains in mass. With a group of familiar faces from unique backgrounds, Harris discovered Crossfit to improve his foot speed and shed weight. In doing so, he found a family that pushes him.
Harris also played for Essex's basketball team, another way for him to target the foot speed he hopes to improve. Over time, the 450-pound child has morphed into a 375-pound senior.
He has grown two inches and lost 75 pounds. He's still unfathomably large, although he's inching closer to his goal.
"I want to see 300 pounds," he said. "The goal is to reach it before my first semester." It is an ambitious goal, but Harris believes it is attainable.
As his body got smaller, his core stronger and his feet quicker, interest from colleges slowly began to trickle in. It didn't arrive with a thunderous roar. It didn't include household names and logos. It didn't matter.
Harris hasn't made visits or expressed interest in schools such as Alabama or Ohio State the past few months; he hasn't heard Nick Saban's best sales pitch or had to tell a slew of millionaires that he wasn't interested.
He's instead checked out schools like Virginia-Wise Highland, a Division II program not far from home. And Shenandoah University, a Division III school. And Emory & Henry. And Lackawanna, a JUCO program based in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
After weighing a variety of pitches from a handful of programs you've never heard of, the Harris family received a call from Fairmont State, a Division II program in West Virginia. Days later, they drove more than five hours to visit. Not long after, he committed to the program.
"It was really satisfying, especially when I went up there and visited with the coach. He told me they really wanted me," Harris said. "I felt like Fairmont was the best one for me."
There was no televised hat ceremony. There were no cameras present. There wasn't even a full scholarship on the table. With family and friends by his side, Harris committed at a small, private commitment party on April 20, more than two months after national signing day.
The coaching staff made it abundantly clear that Harris could factor greatly in future plans. It's now up to them to figure out how to use him best.
"A lot of strength coaches in college would just love to have a chance to develop him further," Fulks said. "They have a 7-foot young man to go along with some size. You kind of wish you had another year developing him. I feel like we could have probably done a little better in the weight room the past few years."
The coaches have asked Harris to do what he's already been doing: work on his foot speed and keep practicing. His soon-to-be-former coach will soon say goodbye to a player who will have no sequel.
And yet, the sheer magnitude of the man won't be what stays with Fulks; it will be how Harris carried the weight of it all.
He carried the actual mass remarkably well. Fulks marveled at the way Harris moved off the field, how he glided in and out of the car to the point where he forgot whom he was sitting beside. At team functions, 150-pound teammates would out-eat him.
But it was his attitude that stood out most—the way Harris quietly went about his business. Although he finally developed the mean streak on the field that his coaches craved, Harris was quiet and well-liked without his helmet on. He was shy, a gentle giant.
"That's just Dondre. Everyone in the building likes him because of his personality and his demeanor," Fulks said of the young man who was only recently named prom king. "No one ever has a bad thing to say about Dondre. He's a hard worker in the classroom, and he's such a nice young man. I think people will love to work with him."
With each impression made, with each horrified stare from a lineman assigned to block him, with each pound shed in a small Virginia building, with each moment of potential breakthrough and even each setback, one thing never wavered.
"My main focus is school," Harris said. "I'm going to get my education. That comes before everything."
It is in our nature, particularly in the strange and extreme world of collegiate recruiting, to seek out the next big thing. The quest for more can be obsessive and intoxicating.
As it turns out, however, the biggest of bodies—the prospect holy grail—was not at all concerned with typical rituals or the unreasonable expectations attached to him the moment he found Essex.
"He's just happy," Fulks said. "And his mother is happy that he's going to school in the fall."
The football aspect is still a tremendous mystery. It's a riddle that may not be solvable beyond reserved expectations. Harris still has his sights set on the NFL; he's also fully aware of how much work still needs to be done to see those wishes through.
He's not ready for Division I competition, and competing at the Division II level will likely be a tremendous uphill climb, especially out of the gate. But while operating in a world that celebrates size and speed to an unreasonable extent, Harris has managed to pave his own path, despite his starting point.
The child who emerged from the cornfield has worked himself into a man, and ironically, all while shedding size. And yes, he plays football. Not because he's obligated by his gifts or because we demand he puts his frame to the appropriate use—above all, he enjoys it.
He reports to his first college camp in August.
Adam Kramer is a National College Football Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.