Harris Needed A Little Help From His Friends

The final steps of the Steve Harris marathon are in sight and the finish line is the Stephen C. O’Connell Center stage where a diploma from the University of Florida awaits. There will be plenty of cheers when he completes the journey Saturday afternoon with a degree in recreational programming. Family and friends galore will be in the audience and each of them helped him get to this moment.

Steven Harris won’t be the first in his family to earn a college degree, but he will be the first ever to earn one from a major university. The fact that he’s still at the University of Florida is somewhat of an accomplishment because there have certainly been enough pitfalls and potholes along the way. The accomplishment is magnified by this golden opportunity for the head start in life that only a college degree can give you.

Steve Harris, college graduate, is more than a simple testament to the hard work and determination that it takes to finish what you start. It is a statement that great things can be accomplished if the people surrounding you care enough to pick you up when you’re down and refuse to let you fail.

Steve Harris, college graduate, is affirmation that you can get by with a little help from your friends.

It is also affirmation to Urban Meyer’s belief that when you get all your priorities in order, good things happen. Harris had struggles in that department dating back to the previous coaching regime. When Urban Meyer became the Florida football coach he inherited Steve Harris and three years worth of baggage.

Harris played solid football in 2005, Meyer’s first year on the job, and he did a lot of things right off the field, but in the early spring of 2006, he took some gigantic steps backward in the right living department. He was suspended from the team because his priorities were way out of whack.

The suspension had nothing to do with football and yet it had everything to do with football. Football was taken away from him so he could see the reality of his own personal situation and he had a choice: either conform, grow up and do the things that a responsible young adult does or continue down a path that leads to self-destruction.

In Urban Meyer-think, players that play their best on the field are the players that have their priorities in life right off the field. Anytime Meyer speaks before a gathering of alumni, boosters and friends, you know that at some point he’s going to talk about the direct correlation between living life the right way off the field; going to class and making progress toward a college degree; practicing hard every day and playing well in games. Opponents laugh and claim that Meyer wants a team full of Boy Scouts. Meyer’s 60-12 coaching record says you can do just fine with teams full of them.

When Steve Harris let things get the best of him, Meyer grabbed him by life’s lapels and shook him until he got the message. His suspension from football was indefinite and the only way Harris could get back in Meyer’s good graces was to prove to the coaching staff, his teammates and most of all, to himself that he could get a grip on life.

During the time he was away from the team, Harris was forced to check in with the coaching staff on a regular basis. The visits with Meyer were the toughest because Urban isn’t exactly a sympathizer in these situations. Meyer always responded with tough love, emphasis on getting life’s priorities in the right order. Football didn’t rank anywhere near the top of the list.

Give some credit here to Steve Harris. He could have taken the easy way out which is what another Florida defensive lineman did back in early November. Rather than follow the rules and get his life in order, Marcus Thomas quit on himself and his team. Steve Harris never did that. He stuck it out through the tough times and did every single thing that was required of him.

“Coach Meyer saved me,” said Harris. “He brought me back and allowed me to play this year. He got on me about classes and told me that if not anything else, all he wanted was me to graduate.”

Teammates sensed the predicament Harris was in. They knew the challenges that he faced and they rallied around him. As long as he didn’t quit on himself, they weren’t going to quit on him either. They became encouragers, giving him the self-confidence to pull himself through the tough times.

During his suspension, Harris learned something about his friends and he learned something about himself. From his friends he learned about love and loyalty and from himself, he learned the value of sticking it out when the going gets tough.

“My family, my whole family on the football team … all of them were behind me, always getting on me and making me go to class,” said Harris. “They’ve been behind me 100 percent and helping me …everybody.”

Meyer saw the effort that Harris put into his life and in his school work. At the end of summer school, all Harris needed was to complete an internship in the fall and he could graduate. In August, Meyer re-instated the senior from Miami.

Harris spent most of the season as a backup on Florida’s outstanding defensive line but when Thomas got booted off the team when he couldn’t comply with the rules set in place after drug-related offenses Harris got the chance to step his game up. Moved one spot over on the line to the nose tackle position that Thomas used to occupy, Harris began to thrive. In the Florida State game he came up big. Against Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference championship game, he came up bigger as the Gators held the Razorbacks a full 100 yards under their per game average.

It is ironic that Thomas, who refused to pay the price and quit on both himself and his teammates, was replaced by Harris, who proved to himself, his teammates and to Urban Meyer that quit wasn’t part of his vocabulary. Now Harris will have a chance to step up his game on college football’s biggest stage, against Ohio State in the BCS national championship game in Glendale, Arizona on January 8.

His goals are simple.

“I just want to go out there and play my best game,” he said, knowing that if he does his part and every player on the team gives that same maximum effort, that the Gators have a chance to dream the impossible dream and win a national championship.

Back in the spring and summer when he was not a part of the team, he couldn’t have imagined playing for a national championship. Now he has a chance to earn a championship ring to go with the college degree that he’ll receive Saturday.

“The confidence of winning the SEC, playing for the national championship and graduating tomorrow … you can’t ask for more than that,” he said.

But first things first. The national championship will have to wait until the Gators square off with Ohio State in Arizona and whether or not the Gators win that game Steve Harris has already graded out champion. He will have proof in his hands Saturday when he walks across the O’Connell Center stage holding that diploma. Friends and family will let out a cheer for a job well done and a life turned around in a positive direction.

“I might do a little dance,” Harris said. “I’m just happy. I really don’t know what I’ll do.”

Legend has it that the first marathon was run by a Greek herald named Pheiddipides, who ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens on a blazing hot day to announce victory over the mighty Persian army. Pheiddipides never got the chance to celebrate with family and friends because he collapsed and died the moment he reached Athens. His journey was over.

Steve Harris completes one marathon Saturday. He will take some time to celebrate with family and friends, and he’ll certainly say thanks to his teammates and to Urban Meyer. There will be other marathons that Harris will run in his lifetime but the next time he faces tough challenges, he’ll only have to remember his Florida teammates and Meyer for the inspiration to fight through the problem.

You see, you can get by with a little help from your friends.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.