Nov. 15, 2007
By Bucky Berlin
Sitting down on the couch, La’Donte Harris notices the football game playing on the television screen in the center of the room. The Patriots are pummeling some poor team as Tom Brady throws another touchdown pass. The commentators are not bothering to talk about that game anymore, taking the time to instead discuss an upcoming matchup between the Patriots and Colts.
It is in that moment that one might conjure up some parallels between Donte, as he’s better known, and some of the great names in football.
“Donte was like a coach on the field for us; he was making a lot of calls for us,” said the wideout’s former high school coach, Danny Kimble, Sr. “I’d trust Donte just like I probably did one of my assistant coaches. He was just that in tune with the game.”
La’Donte Manning, anyone?
“He’s a student of the game…he studies it,” added Kimble. “He’s just a football mind.”
OK…how about, La’Donte Belichick?
“I call him Coach Harris,” said Tiger Assistant Head Coach and Wide Receivers Coach Dabo Swinney. “He doesn’t miss anything. His work ethic is tremendous and his toughness is off the charts. I’ve never coached a tougher kid.”
While he has yet to make a full name for himself as a football coach, he is well on his way. Known for being a coach among players, he credits the fact that he is the only senior wideout on the squad.
“I’ve become a smarter player now that I’ve been here a long time,” said Harris. “I’m more like a coach to the younger guys since I played as a true freshman. I feel like I have matured, and I’m trying to learn the game more so it can better me for when I get out there and try to become a coach.”
It is not hard to imagine that the coaching genes brew in Harris’ hometown of Gadsden, AL. Legendary Clemson Head Coach Danny Ford graduated from Gadsden High School in 1966.
“I’m hoping that I can keep him here next year as a student assistant,” said Swinney. “I’d hire him in a heartbeat. He’s been like my assistant coach the past couple of years.”
With a profession in coaching seemingly lined up, do not be too quick to overlook this athlete’s performance on the field. Or was it the court?
Seemingly ironic, Harris admits that his mother always wanted him to play football, while his father wanted him to instead focus on basketball.
“I didn’t really care, I just wanted to play something,” admitted Harris. “They used to fuss and fight about what they wanted me to play. I said `I’ll just play both, then, and whatever one takes me the furthest, then I’ll just continue on with that’.”
One afternoon early in his childhood, he remembers playing in the frontyard when his uncle stopped by. With Harris’ father at work, his uncle took him to join the Mountain Ram Pee Wee Football League. The rest is history.
The way that Kimble describes his former athlete’s shiftiness makes one wonder if Harris played on the same field with anyone else. After following Harris’ pee wee and middle school careers with great interest, Kimble was quick to involve him on the high school squad.
He had “it,” playing practically every position on the field, from wideout and running back on offense to cornerback and safety on defense. When the starting quarterback was injured his senior year, Harris took the reigns of the offense from under center.
“If he’s on the field, you’ve got to get the ball to him,” said Kimble. “If you threw a swing pass to Donte, it’s just like giving him a handoff out of the backfield, because he’s going to make people miss in space. He did everything for us. He’s a guy that, if he’s on your team, he has to be on the field somewhere.”
In Litchfield High School’s offense over a four-year span, one can credit Harris for 50 touchdowns (23 receiving, 17 rushing, five passing, five returns). The team reached the third and fourth round of the playoffs in the majority of his years. He led the basketball team to the state playoffs three years as well, noting that he even “ran a couple of bases” for the baseball team.
Despite Harris’ athletic accomplishments midway through high school, Harris had not really considered playing football in college. It was not until Coach Kimble called Harris to his office one day during his junior year that he realized schools were scouting him. It was that day that he understood that he needed to start thinking about his future.
“I’ve been around and been through the game long enough to know talent when I see it, and I knew that Donte could play somewhere,” commented Kimble.
Kimble recalls when Darrell Harris told him that his son was going to be the next big thing. The younger Harris made a believer out of him.
“I remember one game against one of our area teams…it was a game that had playoff implications,” reflected Kimble. “Donte returned a punt against that team, and I think everybody on their team put a hand on Donte. When we looked at the film, at least nine or 10 players had a chance to tackle him, and nobody did.”
Scoring a touchdown on that punt return, Harris led Litchfield High to the win and the playoffs. Coach Kimble will never forget that play.
History repeated itself when Swinney traveled to his home state of Alabama to recruit him in 2003. The echoes about this kid down at Litchfield High drew Swinney to a practice one day. The connection between the new Tiger coach and Harris was immediate…the offer barely had time to settle on the table before it was snatched up. Harris was so impressed with Swinney and Clemson that, without visiting another college, he committed to Clemson.
“I committed to Clemson after my junior year,” said Harris. “I wanted to play receiver coming out of high school. I thought it would be a good program to go to since the offense was balanced and Clemson used a lot of receivers. When I came up on an unofficial visit, Coach Swinney took us around the campus. My dad liked it because it’s a small town.”
The low-key lifestyle around Tigertown pulled Harris and his father in right away.
“You can’t get in too much trouble, because it isn’t a big city,” added Harris. “I really didn’t want to be in a big city anyway.”
Harris’ mother approved the decision, even though she had not previously heard about Clemson. “Donte…he’s one of these kids that, if there is something that he wants, he’s going to go after it. He’s very determined.”
Mrs. Harris does remember a school that her son would talk about all the time growing up…Florida State. The schools would have something in common…their coaches were related by blood.
“When Coach (Tommy) Bowden came to the house, he said `Well, you got the next best thing to it’,” recalled Joanne Harris.
Harris’ versatility was just one of the things that Coach Swinney liked about him. With a high school career that consisted of 1,817 rushing yards, 1,433 receiving yards, 576 passing yards, and 794 return yards, he seemed the ideal fit for Swinney’s squad.
“He was extremely intelligent and played with an unbelievable toughness,” remembered Swinney. “Every week you’d turn the film on, and he wasn’t great at anything, he was just good at everything.”
Coming into a season after losing marquee wideouts Derrick Hamilton and Kevin Youngblood, Swinney was in desperate need of some help.
“At that time, I was looking for a player that I could build a corps around as far as having a guy that could be dependable, show up everyday, and have a coach among the players…that’s what he’s been,” said Swinney. “Obviously, we have some guys that are stronger and faster, but Donte brings a tremendous toughness to our group.”
It was his dynamic football mind and natural athletic ability that allowed Harris to take the field as a true freshman. Swinney will be quick to admit that there have not been many wideouts that he has trusted to take the field as quickly as Harris.
“I know I can count on him, I know that I can depend on him, and it is a comforting feeling knowing that you’ve got a guy like that,” added Swinney. “He has a ton of respect from his teammates…they all look up to him. He has really created a nice niche for himself.”
Swinney was sure to note how active Harris has been in the community while at Clemson, appointed to represent the team by Coach Bowden on several occasions. His coaches will go to all lengths to describe how invaluable he has been to the teams he has played on. He is credited for being an unselfish leader, making a regular impact on special teams and in blocking schemes.
On the field for 137 snaps in 11 games as a freshman, Harris has consistently continued that trend his entire college career. He notched his first collegiate touchdown in 2005, a 16-yard pass from Will Proctor against Temple. He was on the receiving end of another player’s first career touchdown, getting into the endzone from 42 yards out after hauling in a pass from Willy Korn earlier this season.
Harris refers back to the way his parents raised him to explain how he made it to where he is now. Having both parents at home was something that only he and one other of his friends shared. Something about that, Harris thinks, might explain why he and that particular friend were two of the few that made it to college.
“I looked up to my dad a lot,” smiled Harris. “A lot of my friends didn’t have their fathers growing up, so I was blessed to have both of my parents.”
“I told Donte that if he wasn’t my son, I’d be jealous,” said Darrell. “I think the whole time that Donte has been playing organized sports, I think I’ve missed just one game, and that was because I was needed at work. But we never missed anything that Donte ever did. We were always there to support him regardless. He was a good son to have.”
The message from Harris to their son was simple…it was always a good game.
“He always told me he was proud of me no matter what,” stated Harris of his father. “He said, `you can quit football and come home today, I’m still proud of you,’ and that was real encouraging. `I don’t care if you ever play football again, I’m proud of you’.”
His mother used to joke with her son that if things did not work out, the military was always next door. Apparently, that was enough to keep him focused. Independent, respectful, and patient, he did not complain growing up. Even in high school, he always seemed like the leader. Noticeably unselfish, he always took up for his teammates.
Harris brought that same attitude to Clemson.
“I have learned a lot here,” reflected Harris on his college experience. “I’ve learned that football is not the only answer to success.”
After first coming to Clemson with nothing but grandeur and reaching the NFL on his mind, Harris quickly realized how precious it all was. While it was football that had gotten him here, getting an education was the priority. He knew how quickly it could all disappear, just as anyone around football knows how players are always one play away from a career-ending injury.
“Injury without education is nothing,” said Harris. “I’m thinking outside the box.”
He will miss running down the Hill the most; though, there are not many Clemson football players that do not. He’ll always remember his first catch at Texas A&M his freshman season.
“We lost pretty bad,” laughed Harris. “Even though we lost, Coach Swinney came up to me and said `great catch…it’s your first catch’.”
The catch earned himself a spot on Swinney’s wall, as do other wideouts with their first catch, forever immortalized in the moment. He is glad to be on that wall.
Away from football, Harris prefers a laid-back lifestyle. “I’m pretty much a loner…I’ll just hang with my girlfriend most of the time. I like to just hang out. I don’t really like to go to parties or anything.”
Having self-diagnosed superstitious football habits, Harris is lucky to have attracted a girlfriend that has stuck with him for three years.
“If I had on a t-shirt that I played a good game in, I’m going to wear that t-shirt again,” admitted Harris. “If I had gray underwear on, I’ll wear it again. If we lose, I probably won’t wear that stuff, I’ll try something else.”
Where superstition does not provide answers, Harris looks to those closest to him for support.
“My girlfriend motivates me, keeps me looking towards the future,” noted Harris.
If things just aren’t going well, his parents are always just a phone call away, too.
So, what does the future hold for Harris? A career in coaching seems the obvious answer. His mother would love to see him keep playing football, and he just may see what opportunities arise. Football is second-nature.
“If I’m not playing sports, I’d love to stay around it. I’m going to take coaching as far as I can go.”
Nothing too fast for the simpleton he is, though. After graduating in May with a degree in sport management, Harris intends to “play it smooth,” with no rush to get out in the “real world,” having just turned 21.
“I’m still young…still a baby,” smiled Harris.
Always taking what he has and making the most of it, Harris will go forward, never forgetting where he has come from and the people that have always loved him.
“Donte is a special kid, a special guy,” Kimble said. “He has a great family. I’m proud for him and I wish him the best in whatever he decides to do.”
Bucky Berlin, a senior from Jamestown, NC, is a sportswriter for Clemson’s student newspaper, The Tiger.
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