Harris takes offbeat path to overnight success

Originally Published: September 8, 2004
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

It wasn't exactly a Joe Namath prediction, but Kay-Jay Harris knew he was poised to do something huge. As he was getting his ankles taped, the loquacious West Virginia tailback turned to one of the Mountaineer wideouts and said "I'm about to break a record today."

Pretty heady stuff considering the 235-pound senior had never had a 100-yard game for WVU or considering that he wasn't even going to start the game against East Carolina. Still, Harris, a former junior college standout and one-time Texas Rangers farmhand, has a sense for these types of things.

Jay Harris
Kay-Jay Harris plans on playing despite a tweaked hamstring.
Sure enough, Harris not only entered the game on the third play but also blasted his way to 223 rushing yards by halftime, a new Mountaineer one-half record. His 168-yard effort in the second quarter broke the 133-yard mark set by Garrett Ford Sr. against Pittsburgh in 1965. By the time Harris was pulled from the game with 11-minutes left in the game, he had run for a Big East Conference record 337 yards (breaking Edgerrin James' mark), and scored four touchdowns in a 56-23 WVU rout.

It's been a long, curious road to overnight stardom for the 26-year-old Harris. In high school, he won four state long jump titles. In the minors, he batted leadoff and once ranked second in the Appalachian League in stolen bases.

Dejected by his slow progress up the Rangers' chain, Harris would flip on the TV and watch former high school buddies (Seattle Seahawks WR) Darrell Jackson and (Buccaneers QB) Shaun King playing in the NFL.

"That should be me," Harris would think. "I know I can play with them."

After a two-year stint at Garden City (Kan.) CC, Harris toyed with the idea of jumping into the NFL draft before signing on with West Virginia. In his first year at WVU, the biggest buzz the RB drew was for something that happened off the field. Harris saved a drowning man when he was back in Florida on spring break.

Despite predictions about a potential 1,000-yard season, Harris spent the 2003 season as Quincy Wilson's understudy. Few around Morgantown have doubted his tools, but he still hadn't stepped up. That is, until last Saturday, when he jumped into the Heisman race, and showed he might be there to stay, especially since the Mountaineers figure to be a dark-horse player in the national title picture.

"That was the Kay-Jay we've been waiting on," said West Virginia offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, the man who recruited Harris. "That's the Kay-Jay we knew was there. That's what he can do."

Harris, a bruiser with legit 4.4 speed, says he's just getting started. "I had to have a break out game like that so people won't forget about me," he said through laughter Monday night, adding that he's enjoying the spotlight he's drawn from the big game.

Better still, the Tampa-native's next game is virtually a home game as the Mountaineers visit Orlando to play Central Florida.

"I'm so excited about it, I'll probably have 200 people there, but I know I gotta stay focused. Some people are already talking about the Heisman, and that's cool, but I can't get ahead of myself."

Harris knows that if he comes close to duplicating his performance against ECU, his school won't need to do any hyping for his Heisman candidacy, it will take off on its' own anyhow.

Random Notes

  • Don't be surprised if the Minnesota Golden Gophers emerge as a top 10 team this year. The Gophers dominated a very good Toledo team last weekend, showing they are much more than just a two-back attack. Coach Glen Mason clearly has done a tremendous job building the program.

    The ironic thing is some recruiting touts make a big deal about how Minny has lost many of the top in-state prospects to Pittsburgh (Larry Fitzgerald); Notre Dame (Ryan Harris, Mark LeVoir, Rashon Powers-Neal) and recently Nebraska (Lydon Murtha). But truth is, the Gophers have more than made up for that by working Ohio. Just look at what Mason (a former Buckeye) and assistant Mitch Browning have done in Columbus recently, landing standout FB Justin Valentine, WR Ernie Wheelwright (who snagged two TD passes this weekend); RB Gary Russell (79 yards); shutdown CB Trumaine Banks and reserve QB Mike Maciejowski. And that doesn't include other Ohioans like star strong safety Justin Farley and NT Anthony Montgomery (Cleveland); QB Bryan Cupito (Cincinnati) and WR Jared Ellerson (Copley) who are the backbone of what could be a Big Ten title contender.

  • Speaking of the Buckeyes, good debut for new OSU defensive coordinator Mark Snyder against his old boss Mark Dantonio and Cincinnati's fine QB Gino Guidugli. Snyder, a former Glen Mason assistant, showed a lot of Cover-2 in the first half against the Bearcats, something Guidugli saw very little of in his film prep for OSU. Then in the Red Zone, Snyder switched it up to man coverage and the result was holding Cincy to three first-half points. Snyder says he was pleased with what his guys did on Saturday, but tempered that by saying he doesn't have too much time feeling good, Marshall (his alma mater) is coming up and QB Stan Hill is pretty good too.

  • Most startling event of the opening weekend? Not LSU almost losing at home to Oregon State or Notre Dame losing at BYU or Utah dominated A&M. Try football newby Florida Atlantic going to Hawaii and beating the Warriors. FAU, in case you don't know, is Howard Schnellenberger's latest projection and just more proof that the old guy may sometimes sound crazy but he does indeed know exactly what he's doing. Schnelly appears to have found a star in tight end Anthony Crissinger-Hill, who caught 15 passes for 183 yards and 2 TDs against Hawaii.

    Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment is out in bookstores. He can be reached at bruce.feldman@espn3.com.

  • ALSO SEE