It was the summer of 2006, and a group of my high school football teammates attended a football camp at Penn State University. This is where I first crossed paths with Erik Harris (outside of competing against each other on the field), a student-athlete from New Oxford High School in Pennsylvania.
While I attended the camp with a group of teammates, Erik came on his own, so we ended up hanging out quite often and getting to know him. Whether it was participating in drills, stopping by the pool in between sessions, or eating at the commons before and after practice, we made sure to include him in as much of it as possible. Erik was an extremely likable guy, and he came across very genuine. I think everyone knows the type of person who you just meet, but somehow it feels like you have known them for much longer – that was Erik at that camp.
Physically, it was clear early on that Erik had a natural ability to compete and play at a high level. It’s not every day that you come across someone with such natural ability and an incredible work ethic, but that’s Erik.
His play was so great that he caught the eye of one of Penn State’s football coaches at the time, Mike McQueary. Mike was crazy about him – he had Erik demonstrate drills, he verbally praised him more than any other defensive back at the camp, and he called Erik out in front of the entire camp to do 1-on-1 drills to shut down the best wide receivers.
It was a huge deal for a camp attendee to receive such a spotlight. It meant that Erik had a high chance of being recruited by Penn State and eventually receive an offer.
But, I’ll never forget a conversation we had while eating lunch one day at the commons. It was towards the middle of the camp, and Erik told us about a talk he had with Mike. Mike pulled him aside and asked him about his 40 yard dash time. Erik responded with something to the tune of “4.6”. Mike seemed less than satisfied with this response, Erik said.
During the ensuing days at camp, it was clear Mike’s interest in Erik completely dropped off. He no longer pursued Erik the way he had leading up to that discussion. From our perspective, it was a terrible thing to witness, because we knew a 40 time isn’t everything. There are plenty of tremendous athletes who can’t touch a 4.6 40 time, yet still have really great careers.
It was clear Erik was one of the most gifted athletes at the camp, and deserved to receive an offer. But for some reason, the coaches decided that his 4.6 40 time meant he could not play at Penn State, and would not receive an offer.
Given Erik's highly competitive nature, you just knew being overlooked only added more fuel to his fire.
The ensuing year, interest to play at Division I schools on a big stage dramatically decreased. In the end, Erik would eventually attend California University of Pennsylvania, a division 2 school.
Settling for a Division 2 offer was not the first time Erik had to battle through adversity over the course of his life. He was one of five children, and grew up in a single parent household with no father figure. He was used to living with a chip on his shoulder, and that chip certainly carried over to the field. Erik continued to demonstrate his abilities when, in 2010, he was named First Team All-Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (All-PSAC). He followed up those accolades with a second team selection in 2011.
Only 1.6% of ALL college football players make it to the NFL. For Erik, a division 2 player, those prospects became much less. By most people's standards, it would be foolish of him to even THINK of a career in the NFL.
But Erik isn't most people.
After graduating from college, Erik didn't receive any invitations to NFL tryouts and was not drafted. He started working as a "corn mixer" at the Utz Chip Factory.
The drive to continue playing football at a higher level was still very much there - it just wasn’t yet his time.
“You see what life can be if you don’t make the most of your opportunities,” said Erik during an interview special about his life path (see full video here: https://www.raiders.com/video/safety-erik-harris-untraditional-road-to-the-nfl). This realization came from Erik after some self-reflection of his current situation - extraordinary athletic talent being used to stir corn at the local chip factory.
One year after starting work at Utz, Erik decided to go back to school, continue training for a football career, and took a part-time job working the night shift at UPS.
The goal? “To give this thing one more run.”
That next year, Erik paid $80 to drive up to Buffalo, New York for a tryout with a Canadian Football League (CFL) team, the Hamilton Tiger Cats.
Erik would make the team and be a part of the team from 2013-2015. Eventually, he was able to make such an impact in the CFL that his name reached the front office of the New Orleans Saints. The Saints invited Erik to try out in February of 2016.
That same day, they offered him a position on the team. He had finally reached his goal of making an NFL roster, but his journey was only just beginning.
The first year with the Saints, Erik tore his left ACL and meniscus, requiring season ending surgery.
But what was his mindset? “Another opportunity to grow as an individual.”
Once again, Erik would overcome all odds and battle back from the surgery. Eventually, he worked his way back on to the field and earned substantial time playing on special teams and defense.
This comeback would eventually lead to another NFL opportunity with the Oakland Raiders.
After playing most of 2017 on special teams, Erik earned more snaps as a safety in 2018, which led the Raiders to sign him to a 2 year, $6.5 million extension (not bad for a corn mixer)!
And then there was last Thursday...
….29 years removed from his father abandoning his family,
….13 years removed from being told you are too slow to play at Penn State,
….12 years removed from being told you are not good enough to play at the division 1 level,
….7 years removed from being undrafted,
….6 years removed from working at the chip factory,
….5 years removed from working night shift at the UPS store, and
….3 years removed from a potential career-ending injury.
Erik Harris not only started for the Oakland Raiders, but had two interceptions and a touchdown.
It goes without saying, but there is are a lot of lessons one can take away from this story and apply to our daily lives. I personally love the fact that he took all of the failure, hardships, and adversity, and turned them into opportunities.
In the face of adversity time and time again, he just kept putting one foot in front of the next. With his relentless pursuit of his dreams, Erik held on to hope when most people would just shut it down. He refused to let society dictate his future, becoming an inspiration to many.
I challenge you to take this story and apply it to your life. Some 29 years from now, I look forward to hearing your story :)
About the Author
Evan Lewis is a nationwide leader in Neuro Therapy and founded the Baltimore area's only specialist Neuro Therapy facility.
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