“I told him to remember when you’re walking on, you can’t be shortsighted. This is a long-term process. They’re going to give every scholarship guy an opportunity before you, they’re gonna overlook you, you’re gonna feel neglected. But it’s about doing the little things correctly; it’s about keep on keeping on, and preserving through the adversity and showing the commitment.”
This is great advice from one of the Gator nation’s most beloved and respected players, Chris Doering.
But for the kid receiving Doering’s experienced words of wisdom, ouch.
Already caught in that scary limbo between high school and college, Case Harrison was heading into testy waters as a walk-on for the Florida Gators football team. At that point, who wouldn’t need all the help they could get?
And Harrison did luck out. He was fortunate enough to spend an afternoon with his childhood idol and Gator great, Chris Doering.
Good thing fortune favors the bold, because that afternoon spent together was filled with Doering further painting a, sometimes less than pretty, picture of the adversity Harrison was facing as a fellow walk-on.
The Same, But Different
Both Gainesville, Florida natives, they grew up loving their hometown Florida Gators and idolizing those they wished to one day emulate; both earned spots as walk-ons with the Gators and then advanced to scholarship players down the road.
In his time, Doering (1992-1995) went on to set an SEC touchdown record and find himself in the University of Florida Athletics Hall of Fame.
When Doering first donned the Gator uniform, he had plans to be the next Cris Collinsworth.
When Harrison first ran out of the tunnel into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in 2013, he had a goal of being the next Chris Doering.
He’s one step closer now, after being awarded a scholarship to begin his redshirt sophomore year.
When he looks back on his last football season in high school, Harrison can’t help but laugh, realizing how far away he was from him dream.
Trying to make a little extra cash as a teenager, he thought at the time that a $4 drink route would be the closest he’d get to pay dirt on Florida Field.
“I was doing a little drink route with a $4 coke I was the guy yelling at people ‘$4 a coke’”, Harrison recalled.
“Actually so I was doing that until I got called by Coach White and was able to go down and be in the recruiting section for the rest of the home games that year.”
Coach White, former Gator receivers coach, had seen Harrison while recruiting his teammate at GHS (and now Florida) Chris Thompson.
“Coach White called me…and told me he wanted me to be a Gator and it was a no brainer. I love to play football and regardless of being a walk on or a on scholarship, coming to play for the University of Florida was always a dream for me and I just couldn’t pass that up.”
That call from Coach White is what led Doering to call Case Harrison, reaching out to someone he knew he could help
Harrison took Doering’s words to heart, realizing that the path he was stepping onto going to be a long one.
And it was. Two years in the span of a lifetime is a just a drop in the bucket. But two years on the borrowed time of college can seem to drag on forever.
Then, the day came.
More than a Footnote
Admittedly one of the best parts of the offseason is watching coach’s reward walk on players with scholarships. There’s usually some sort of speech or surprise followed by a team wide mobbing of the lucky guy(s).
The case with the Florida Gators was no different.
Head coach Jim McElwain called six guys up to the front of the group after a recent Saturday practice-Case Harrison, Dakota Wilson, Roger Dixon, Bair Diamond, Stephen Stipe and Garrett Stephens.
Then McElwain changed their lives and told them they were now scholarship players at the University of Florida. This, McElwain says, is one of the more special moments a coach can experience.
“You wish all of them had it because they put a lot of time in to help the Gators and these six guys in particular, they’ve been in the program multiple years and do what’s right. They truly care about the program, cares about helping the players get better, and they all do a great job in the classroom.
To see, not so much the excitement on their faces but the excitement of their teammates who recognize the work they’ve put in, that’s truly a special moment.”
He’s right; the teammates almost got more excited than the players as general and expected chaos ensued according to Harrison.
“They all mobbed us and took us up… I had almost the whole team come over and congratulate me and I mean they seemed more happy for me than I was for me and it just shows that love and care that they all have and it’s really not the separation of walk-ons and scholarship guys. We all are one team and I know at some schools, they treat you like a scrub or some kind of lower tier guy, and this team is not like that at all. Like I said, they were happier for me than I was for me so that was nice… that moment, I don’t think I could feel that feeling ever again. Probably one of the happiest moments in my life.”
Probably one of the happiest moments of my life.
What a telling statement.
We see the videos on ESPN and Twitter all the time. Teams mobbing a guy when he finds out he’s been awarded a scholarship.
And you can tell that for every player, it really does seem to be one of the happiest moments of their lives.
It’s not just because of that singular moment though. It’s because of all of the moments that lead to it.
It’s not just because of the congratulatory messages from teammates at that one time. It’s because of all of the messages of encouragement along the way.
It’s not just because of the smile Case Harrison had in that moment either. It’s because of all of the sweat and curses and moments that smile was the furthest thing from his mind. They all lead to that moment.
“I just, it feels like everything I’ve worked for in my life came up to that point and I was finally able to grasp that…You think about that in the back of your head as a walk on, you think that maybe one day you’ll be able to get there but you never really think that you will. So once you do it’s kind of in awe that you did and it’s great,” says Harrison.
That’s the true beauty in the story of a walk on gaining a scholarship. Not in the few seconds we see on a viral video.
And that’s the story Case Harrison wanted to tell.
(Under)Valued and (Under)Appreciated
As Case is describing what it’s like to be on scholarship with the Florida Gators football team, he makes the comment “it’s crazy to me to receive a scholarship to play football.”
He’s surrounded a majority of the time though by guys who’s only goal is just that. Without a scholarship and a chance at the NFL, football would just be something to watch on weekends while lamenting about the time they almost won state as a junior.
So why is it crazy for Harrison?
You strive to be great, you strive to get that scholarship and you never think it’s attainable.
“Just growing up, you play football because you love the sport and just never thought that I would get to this spot…You strive to be great, you strive to get that scholarship and you never think it’s attainable. But I worked hard and I guess I showed the coaches that I was willing and deserved one so it was pretty sweet.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy though.
As stated earlier, Doering explained, “you’re going to feel neglected” and have to acknowledge that while a walk on, you have to watch those with scholarships get the first opportunities. Sometimes the label can be discouraging.
Doering adds, “A lot of it has to do with your own insecurities. For myself I always felt like I wasn’t on the inner circle, I wasn’t accepted the same way. People didn’t look at me the same as everybody else. When they wrote about me in the paper it was walk on Chris Doering, even after I was given a scholarship it was former walk on Chris Doering, and it was kind of a label that you couldn’t shed.”
To do so takes twice the amount of work, something that Doering has seen in Case, especially as the redshirt sophomore made a position change from wide receiver to running back this past spring.
“What Case has done is even more impressive than anything I had done to earn a scholarship,” admits Doering.
“This is a guy that unselfishly moved to a position that he hadn’t played before and really showed that he was committed to helping the team any way he could. I saw him out there in the spring, running like he had been at that position forever and being awarded a scholarship for that is really impressive to me. It’s a true example of what it means to be a teammate and being unselfish.”
This attitude isn’t surprising in the least to Harrison’s high school football coach, James Thomson.
“Oh I knew he could do it,” Thomson states factually.
“He was a kid that was so smart and so hardworking. He was relentless in his work ethic. There was no way he was gonna fail at anything he did…Case will do whatever you ask him to do and he’ll do it at an elite level.”
Thomson and staff got to see this first hand at Gainesville High School as the Hurricane’s made a run to the state championship.
“When I first met Case he was a quarterback and he transitioned into an H-back receiver for us and that transition, we didn’t know how it was gonna work or if it was gonna work or not, and he worked at it every day so he changed from a quarterback to an H-back and then we made a state run with him being a very intricate part of it. He was an unbelievable player.”
After seeing Harrison work tirelessly at that position change in high school meant Thomson isn’t surprised in the least to see him excel at his newest position change either.
What can’t be stated enough though, as both Thomson and Doering point out, is that Harrison received this scholarship in the midst of the transition, something Harrison is aware of and thankful for.
“It feels like they trusted me in the spring to make that move. And I moved and now I received a scholarship for being a running back and it just shows they trusted me in that and have seen my progress and it feels great.”
“This move that they asked him to make in the spring paid dividends from a scholarship point of view,” points out Doering.
“We’ll see if it’s a position he sticks at on the field but I do know the intensity with which he approaches this opportunity. It’s only what a four or five year point in your life so you’ve got to attack it with great urgency and I definitely see that in him.”
Thomson saw that intensity in high school as well where as a senior Harrison was named first team all-area and had best performances on two occasions when he collected six catches for 113 yards with one touchdown and also five catches for 170 yards with three touchdowns.
Thomson can’t help but chuckle when he recalls those old games.
“At the time, we sat there and he was probably 170 pounds or 160 and we had him taking out D-ends from Lake City and Columbia who were probably 230-240, so I think that he got that fearlessness, that mentality that he was gonna get the job done [there]. And to see him go to the SEC and be able to play that position now is unbelievable. Makes me so proud.”
Doering concurs, pointing out that this was rewarded for what coaches saw as Harrison’s potential at the SEC level.
“That was the thing to me that was so rewarding. You know a lot of people are given scholarships coming out of high school based on what they did at that level, but for me and now for Case, the scholarships were rewarded for what you did at the Florida level and I think that’s kind of the coolest thing that in a way, not that we earned it more than anybody else did, but there’s plenty of guys that come out of high school that are can’t miss 4 or 5 star prospects that never live up to potential. So that was always important to me that I was rewarded for what was done in college and now Case is kind of being rewarded for what his efforts have been in the first couple of years there.”
Moving on Up
Being a hometown boy, it didn’t take long for news of Case’s accomplishment to spread. “I’ve got so many text and so many calls, just congratulating me,” says Harrison.
“It’s almost like they all wanted me to succeed and it’s just very good that the community that surrounds Gainesville and the Gainesville area was supportive of me and striving to be great.
In fact he says his parents seemed to sense it before they even knew.
“I called them right after practice and somehow my dad already had the feeling because he put it on speaker for he and my mom, they were sitting together but they were just happy for me, very excited. My grandfather who played here got choked up that I was now following his footsteps as a scholarship player here. He didn’t say anything for the first 30 seconds. But then he just told me how proud he was of me and how great it was that I was following in his footsteps and becoming a scholarship athlete at the University of Florida.”
Another person to reach out was Chris Doering himself, who made sure Case knew that this was truly only the beginning.
“I text him the other day, this is great, a scholarship is great but it’s just one in a number of other stuff to take. There are some people that would rest on these laurels but you have to remember that the true goal is getting to play and continue to be a big part of what’s happening on the team.”
As of now, Case hasn’t recorded any statistics with the Florida Gators football team. He has been recognized though with the Most Valuable Defensive Scout Team Award and as the Special Teams Scout Team Player of the Week. Building on that shouldn’t be a problem says Thomson, who coached Harrison along with other D-1 talent like current Gators receiver Chris Thompson and Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb.
“You watch our games, high school coaches, if you broke our film down, you had to stop Case. You had to stop Case. And we had Chris Thompson outside and our backfield was Ralph Webb. And if you were breaking us down, and all that talent that went out there and all this Division 1 talent, Case was the guy you had to stop with us. That was your number one priority. Case would move around and you didn’t really know where he was gonna be. I’m telling you he was such a big part of that and I don’t think he got enough credit in high school.”
In college now though, and with the confidence from the coaches, Harrison has a chance to get that credit and he plans on returning it back to the team that believed in him.
“It just feels great to be able to get out there and show the team that I can provide and help the team win and I think I can take a step forward and just continue to get better. I need to keep working, keep at it and help this team win.”
In high school, Case once said that if he could have a career like Chris Doering did then he’d be perfectly happy.
Gainesville native joins the Florida Gators football team as a walk on, gains a scholarship and then shatters all expectations.
According to Doering, that kid who sat across from him at lunch a couple of years ago has a chance to be all of that and more.
“For somebody to look at me in that same light is humbling and flattering and that to me is better than anything in terms of statistics. The idea that somebody looks up to you in that way and you provide motivation, it’s an amazing compliment. I think that clearly he can be the next Chris Doering and even better. He’s proven much more versatility at that position change. He’s probably a better athlete than I was too. I could not emphasis enough to him that this is just one in a number of further steps that he’s gotta take to get where he wants to be so I celebrate with him.”
And now, Case hopes to pass it on.
“Its great to be able to go back to GHS and see kids that you saw grow up and your friends little brother, to be able to go back and mentor them,” says Harrison.
It’s 3.8 miles from Florida Field where the Gators play to Citizens Field where the Gainesville High Hurricanes, Case’s alma mater, play so luckily he doesn’t have to go far.
More so, as Case Harrison strives to make his place amongst this Florida Gators football team, now backed by the confidence of a scholarship, he’ll serve as up close example of all hard work can do for the next kid just down the road with a football and a dream.