“Undrafted to Unstoppable” Chris Harris

Photo: David Zalubowski/AP

Joan Niesen, Sports Illustrated (http://www.si.com/nfl/2015/08/27/chris-harris-denver-broncos-2015-nfl-season)

During the Broncos’ 24–13 loss, Hilton finished with a team-high 72 yards, and Harris, covering Reggie Wayne and Donte Moncrief, didn’t allow a touchdown. That capped his perfect season—Harris was one of three corners to play more than 500 snaps in coverage and not allow a score—but it mattered little. After the game, the cornerback told the Denver Post that he felt like the Broncos’ season had been “a waste of time.”

Four and a half years ago, Kansas’s best cornerback didn’t get an invitation to the NFL Combine. Or to the Senior Bowl, or the East-West Shrine Game. Four years before that, the best player on Bixby (Oklahoma) High School’s 2006 team had exactly one offer to play in college, at a school that at the time had enjoyed a single winning season since joining the Big 12 in 1996. And two years before that, Chris Harris was a basketball player, plain and simple.

Four and a half years ago, Kansas’s best cornerback didn’t get an invitation to the NFL Combine. Or to the Senior Bowl, or the East-West Shrine Game. Four years before that, the best player on Bixby (Oklahoma) High School’s 2006 team had exactly one offer to play in college, at a school that at the time had enjoyed a single winning season since joining the Big 12 in 1996. And two years before that, Chris Harris was a basketball player, plain and simple.

On Dec. 15, 2005, Harris and his teammates held their walkthrough before the Oklahoma Class 5A football championship. The cornerback had just had a breakout season, but he seemed distracted. “I can’t wait for tomorrow night to be over,” Bixby’s defensive coordinator at the time, D.J. Howell, recalls Harris telling him. “Because then I can get back to basketball.”

The coach was accustomed to such comments from Harris, who quit football once in middle school and pondered doing so again before his junior year of high school. The game had always come second, until the spring of 2006. By that time, Harris had offers to play basketball at Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Tulsa, but Howell thought he could drum up interest from football programs, especially those visiting to take a look at Bixby’s standout defensive end, Jared Glover. Howell wouldn’t let up, telling Harris he had a chance to be something special. One day, it clicked. “I’m a football player, aren’t I?” Harris asked his coach, and Howell sighed with relief. “Yes, you are.”

From that moment, Harris honed in on football, developing the kind of technique only year-round attention to the game can grow. He’d always been the smartest player on the field, but in his senior year, he learned the little things: the footwork, the field placement, what to look for at the snap. Meanwhile, Howell lobbied to visiting recruiters, but only Kansas’s Bill Young bit. The Jayhawks would be Harris’s only offer, and off to Lawrence he went.

Over his final three seasons, Kansas went 16–21. Mark Mangino was fired after 2009, and when Turner Gill took over, Harris moved to safety. With an eye already on the NFL, the senior thought the switch couldn’t hurt; instead, he figured, it would show teams his versatility. However, February 2011 came and went without a combine invite, and Harris put all his stock in Pro Day, which about 10 scouts attended. He got good feedback, but even then, he suspected he’d go undrafted.

“(The video showed) what he had to go through, what he had to come back from, the way he went after it, the tenacity that he approached it with, and the performance he’s had,” Del Rio said last winter. “It’s been a special year for him in a lot of different ways.”

That’s solely a product of Harris’s work ethic. It’s funny; talk to anyone—teammate, coach, opponent—about the cornerback, and the word “talent” rarely, if ever, comes up. It’s not that Harris doesn’t have it, but rather that he goes so far beyond it. “He’s got tremendous quickness, which you have to have to be as great as he is,” Phillips said. “And he’s got speed. But he’s such a great competitor. He doesn’t want anybody to catch anything on him, even in walk-through. … It didn’t take very long to see. You toss a ball to somebody else, and he’ll knock it down.”

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