Back in Michigan Stadium one last time, Drake Harris is almost where he was supposed to be

Thursday, September 6, 2018 - 10:50pm

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Amelia Cacchione/Daily
 

Drake Harris will run through the Michigan Stadium tunnel Saturday. His band will play the fight song, and his team will take the field.

Since arriving in Ann Arbor five years ago, it will be the last time Harris will play in front of the Wolverine faithful.

That’s because he transferred to Western Michigan this past year.

Harris was supposed to be a lot of things: a basketball star, the leading receiver in Michigan high school history, the next great Michigan receiver. But after twists and turns, some bad luck and a few injuries, Harris’ new home is with the team that will be on the opposing sideline from the one he last called home.

Drake Harris is a Bronco now.

That’s not how it was supposed to be.

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Everyone thought Harris would end up a basketball player.

He started playing in third grade, at Hoop City in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. That’s where Harris first met Drew Zuidema, his best friend and a four-year basketball player at Spring Arbor University.

At that age, talent is rough and hard to identify. But as Harris grew up, he got bigger, and his pure athleticism became apparent. First he joined the Grand Rapids Storm in the AAU and then moved on to the Chicago MeanStreets of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League. It’s the same program that produced Derrick Rose, Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis.

“I mean, I remember going to games and watching him go up against D’Angelo Russell, you name it, Stanley Johnson, and he killed them.” Zuidema said. “If we’re gonna be honest, he was night and day better than like all those dudes.”

With that success, football took a clear backseat, and with good reason. By the time Harris began his freshman year at Grand Rapids Christian High School, he already had a scholarship offer from Indiana and had built a strong relationship with Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo.

But Grand Rapids Christian football coach Don Fellows saw the impact Harris, a tall, lanky, athletic freak, could make on the football field. Harris had played football before, with the Seidman Boys and Girls Club in Grand Rapids when he was younger, but Zuidema says Harris sustained a few injuries playing the sport back then, and he shied away from it.

With the help of Harris’ father Mike, though, and even some coercing from Izzo, who likes two-sport athletes, Fellows convinced the young receiver to transition back to the football field. Harris played on the freshman team that season, then moved up to varsity his sophomore year. That’s when things started to shift, as Harris went for over 1,000 yards receiving with 12 touchdowns.

But just as his football career was starting to ramp up, Harris committed to play basketball at Michigan State that summer, in 2012.

“If Drake had to do it over again, he’d probably tell you that Coach Izzo was the coach that he trusts most out of this whole thing,” Fellows said. “And Coach has been really good to Drake since then, so that’s a compliment to him. But I think Drake committed to Michigan State early to get the pressure off of him.”

The next season, Harris set the world on fire. He went for 2,015 yards, an Michigan High School Athletic Association record, and 25 touchdowns, the second-best mark in MHSAA history. In the state championship game, Harris accumulated 243 yards and two touchdowns against Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. The guy who matched up with Harris that game? Eventual Michigan State legend Jalen Watts-Jackson.

From there, the offers came streaming in. Zuidema says Harris would get texts from football coaches across the country — sometimes 15 in a day — and it put the pressure right back on.

“We’d be at home playing video games or something, because he basically lived with me in high school,” Zuidema said. “I mean, you name it, whatever college coach in the country was blowing his phone up. I mean, I remember teams like Tennessee and SEC coaches texting him like 10 or 15 times a day. He struggled with that a lot, because it was so many teams that hitting him up at that point, he didn’t know what to do, because it’s hard to respond to every single one, acting like you’re kind of interested.”

In March of 2013, Harris decommitted from the Spartans.

Just over a month later, Harris went on a visit to Michigan’s spring game in 2013. Zuidema, a Michigan State fan himself, came with him.  

“They laid out the red carpet,” Zuidema said. “They did everything. Even I walked away from it, like, that’s pretty damn good. … He wanted to be close to home too. He wanted his family and friends to watch him.”

A day after that visit, Harris committed to the Wolverines and coach Brady Hoke.

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Local stardom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when things go wrong.

Before Harris’ senior season even began, he suffered a hamstring injury, and he never played a game.

In just two seasons, he finished with the fourth-most career yards (3,133) and the eighth-most career touchdowns (37) in MHSAA history.

With that, rumors swirled. People wondered if Harris was really sitting out with an injury or if there was something else at foot, but Harris kept a cool head.

“I hear people say he got in trouble,” Mike said. “And I’m like, ‘News to me! I’m his dad! I’m a cop! People can come up with the craziest stuff, you know, and the craziest thing is if you’re good at something, people want you to fail. It’s sad that some people are like that. It is. He had to battle through all that, and, like I said, I think it made him stronger today.”

Added Zuidema: “People would come up to me, and I’d be like, ‘Dude, I’m his best friend. He never did anything.’ … I think that was the local, I mean, people just talking. People didn’t like him, because you couldn’t really stop him, obviously. He had that hamstring injury, and it was legit, and he could never really rattle that. And I’ve never had a hamstring (injury), but he said it was the most painful thing ever and it kept coming back to him.”

The season passed, but the hamstring injuries persisted. Harris left for Ann Arbor, joining a roster that was already packed with talent, still trying to return from his setback. Harris redshirted the 2014 season.

That year, the Wolverines went 5-7, and at season’s end, Hoke was out and Jim Harbaugh came in.

A new wrench was thrown into Harris’ plans.

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Harris and Harbaugh seemed, at first, to be a great match.

Before the season began, Harris generated buzz. Next to the likes of Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, who ended up starting the season, Harris looked to be emerging as a strong option in Harbaugh’s offense.

However, when the Wolverines opened their season with a loss to Utah, Harris didn’t catch a pass. It was a preview of the career to come.

“I would be at mostly every home game with his parents, I mean, my dad would go, and we were so frustrated,” Zuidema said. “I mean that’s what it is. It’s the B1G. It’s D-I. Harbaugh comes in. He has his studs come in, and Drake would try every day in practice. He would send me videos like the last two years of Jabrill Peppers and (Jourdan) Lewis on him, just killing them.

“… He always respects Harbaugh and all that stuff, it’s just that transition was tough for him.”

Harris, the four-star recruit, one of the most prolific receivers in the history of Michigan high school football, played just 26 games in his Michigan career, finishing with nine catches for 60 yards and zero touchdowns.

Mixed along the way were rumors of injuries and position changes. Harris was a long way removed from the days of dominating future NBA all-stars on the EYBL circuit.

“I think that the system that Michigan runs isn’t necessarily a system for Drake,” Fellows said. “I’ve always been amazed that people don’t take vertical shots with Drake, and the last couple years I have been watching them — obviously I’m not judging Coach Harbaugh — it just doesn’t seem like there were that many opportunities in their system to utilize him. So I think it wasn’t necessarily a personality conflict or anything like that, I’m just not sure that Drake fit their system, per se.”

Showing his mental fortitude again, though, Harris stuck it out. He earned his degree in marketing and sales, then transferred back to the west side, to join Western Michigan.

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Now Harris is a Bronco.

Fellows helped with the that recruitment, as he knows Western Michigan defensive coordinator Lou Esposito.

Mike says his son trusts Broncos coach Tim Lester like he trusted Hoke when he first committed.

According to Zuidema, Harris had offers from all over the country again, but he wanted to stay close to home.

“It was all up to Drake,” Mike said. “He’s old enough now to make his own choices, but you’ve gotta live with the choices. So we don’t have any regrets. Now, personally, with some of the things that happened to the kid, oh yeah, we’re a little upset about, but I’ll just keep that to myself. Because we know, Drake Harris is a great kid with great character. And my thing is, character-wise, he’s gonna stand out regardless when he’s done playing football above anything else. So my biggest thing with everything is he made the choices he made.

“And you know what? He got a great degree at a great university at Michigan. But, athletically, we just felt he never got the opportunities he should have, and you know hey it is what it is.”

In his opening game, a Western Michigan loss to Syracuse, 55-42, Harris got eight targets, hauling in one of them for 12 yards.

For some receivers, that would be disappointing. For Harris, it’s a welcome change to get those targets, to just get the chance to make a play again.

Saturday, he’ll get another chance, this time against the Wolverines. He’ll meet up at pregame with his old teammates and then match up against them.

“Drake is super polished on knowing what to say, because he’s been dealing with this for eight, nine years,” Fellows said. “So he’s saying the right things, ‘This will be exciting for my teammates, this and that.’ But I know deep down, you know, if he gets the opportunity to make a lot of plays, I think it’s just human nature to be able to prove people wrong, I think Drake is excited about that opportunity.

“But you’ll never catch him saying anything, nor has he said anything to me. I’m speaking for him. I think he’d relish the opportunity to be super successful in that situation.”

From all accounts, Harris still wants a chance at the NFL. Saturday will be his best opportunity to show that he’s capable.

Zuidema and Mike will be watching from the stands. Harbaugh will be watching from the sideline. The world will be watching from their television sets.

Harris still has a chance to achieve the goals he always wanted.

It’s almost like normal.

But this isn’t quite how it was supposed to be.