Harris takes offbeat path to overnight success
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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