Just trying to make a name for himself
With nothing but a bed and a bagful of clothes, a man can stare at a ceiling at night and ponder just about everything. Sometimes, LaRon Harris wondered if he'd ever make a name for himself. And he wondered what name that would be.
"That's what you stand on, your name," Harris' mentor, Earl Lester Jr., used to say. "People remember you by your name and first impressions. You just have to make the best of both of them."
It is late March, a long time removed from the day he left Tennessee for his last shot at football at Northwestern Oklahoma State, and Harris is trying to stand on his own. The gigantic kid who yearned to get noticed by the NFL scouts has rabid message-boarders typing "LATE-ROUND STEAL" and "Draft LaRon Harris now!"The hulking nose tackle with the once-wandering work ethic is leaner and works out twice a day. Harris is finally in control, it seems, and then he pulls out his driver's license and eyes a name he doesn't know. It says LaRon Moore. Five years ago in Memphis, Harris went to get his drivers license and realized the name on his birth certificate had been changed. He figured his father, a man he's never known, did it to carry on his name. Or was it bureaucratic red tape?
The gritty Hyde Park neighborhood in North Memphis was all Harris knew as a kid, and when gunfire sounded, he followed his mama's orders to jump on the floor.He was always bigger than others. Different. The kids wouldn't play with him at first, he says, because he was too light skinned. But he wanted people to like him. For entertainment in Hyde Park, they'd line up the mattresses from the trash and jump on them. Harris taught himself how to do a back flip, which was shocking then for a huge 6-year-old who looked as if he was 10. Now at 22, weighing upward of 350 pounds, it's salivating to NFL gurus. The intangibles were never a problem for Harris. He was a high school All-American, a can't-miss prospect, a big-time recruit when he signed a letter of intent to play at Tennessee. His potential was, and still is, untapped. At a recent workout in Connecticut, Harris ran a 1.74 in the 10-yard shuttle, did 33 bench-press reps, then hurled his monstrous body into a back flip.
"He has amazing ability," his agent, Joe Linta, said. "But he's an unrefined talent. If this kid had stayed at Tennessee, we would probably be talking about him as a first-day lock."
Mention Tennessee, and Harris is brutally honest about his mistakes. He was young, he was cocky, he was playing in front of 100,000 people. Harris didn't think he was getting enough playing time and skipped class. Eventually, he flunked out of Knoxville.
"I was just being rebellious," Harris said. "Just being dumb. I was looking for a reason why I wasn't playing a whole lot, and nobody could explain that to me. I decided I wasn't going to do things their way anymore."
His last option was Northwestern Oklahoma, an NAIA school in Alva, Okla. With one year of eligibility left -- and no credentials -- he flew to Oklahoma City, then sat in a car for three hours while trees and fields whizzed by his passenger window.
Alva has a Wal-Mart and a McDonald's, so it's not in the middle of nowhere. It just felt like it to Harris. His new best friend was a teammate who owned a television.
If that day at the DMV in Memphis stripped a boy of his identity, an autumn in Alva wiped away his humility. Lester, his defensive line coach in high school, heard it in their phone conversations.
"When he was at Tennessee, he kept trying to blame someone else for what he was going through," Lester said. "I'd tell him, 'LaRon, you're your own person. You make your own decisions. No one told you not to go to class, not to go to the weight room.' Now he saw every mistake he made in the past. He's doing everything he can now not to go back to where he was."
There is nothing unique about LaRon Harris' draft bio. He never made an all-conference team in college, never brought a scout to Alva. When he arrived at Velocity Sports in Trumbull, Conn., a few months ago, he couldn't weigh in because the scale went up to 350 pounds.
"I'm sure he was a biscuit away from 365," Linta said. "Somebody needed to give him a wake-up call. You can be good, but you can't be good and fat."
Linta has made a living off of second-day draft picks and diamonds in the rough, but Harris, on the surface, seemed like somewhat of a gamble. His college stats credit him with just six unassisted tackles in 2006 and half of a sack. The Rangers voluntarily forfeited their league title recently because of an academically ineligible player.
But Linta, who landed 12-time Pro Bowl guard Will Shields after playing a game of pickup basketball with him, saw something beyond the back flips and baggage.
"I had the faith in him to take the project on," he said. "This kid is way more work than [2006 first-rounder] Kamerion Wimbley was. It's a labor of love, and you care about the kid and you really feel good about this kid getting his chance."
Harris was scheduled for a workout Sunday with an undisclosed team. Linta said another team has promised, worst-case scenario, that Harris will get invited to its minicamp.
"Why wouldn't they?" he said. "What have you got to lose? It's like buying a lottery ticket for a buck. If it works, you've got a guy who's going to play nose guard for 10 years."
And if it doesn't? Nobody close to Harris wants to talk about that now. Lester fears that without football, Harris would end up like him, working two jobs and struggling to support his family. Others wonder if he would have gotten caught up with some bad elements in Hyde Park.
Harris called his agent Friday and happily reported that he was down to 340 on his doctor's scale. They know he has much more to do before the NFL draft at the end of April. But he's initiating the workouts himself, motivated by the draft deadline, his family, and some new supporters.
"If it wasn't for the back flip, I probably wouldn't get any attention," he said. "I didn't think it would cause the buzz that it has, but I'm glad I know how to do it."
The price of a name, at least in the state of Tennessee, is $161.50
That's how much it costs for a name change in chancery court. When Harris found out about the switch in high school, and what it would take to get his name back, the price was too expensive. It still is. But he vows to officially become LaRon Harris again once he signs his first contract -- if he signs a contract -- and then maybe he'll find peace.
How did he suddenly become LaRon Moore? Cassandra L. Brown, the local registrar at the office of vital records for Memphis and Shelby County, said it happened back in the early 1990s, when juvenile court ordered the birth certificate change after LaRon's mother took his father to court for child support.
In the confusion, LaRon spent his childhood thinking his last name was Harris, his mother's maiden name, then assuming it was his father who changed it.
He hasn't seen his dad since he was about 2, and has no memories of him. Harris' mom, Diane Jones, never realized the void LaRon felt until he went to Tennessee and ran into problems with grades and playing time.
"He never knew a whole lot about his father," she said. "I knew he was from up North somewhere, and he kind of disappeared. I wasn't expecting him to disappear, you know.
"[LaRon] never really talked about it. I guess he just held it in."
To hear Harris speak, he never really needed a father. When his shoes were worn and dirty on his gigantic feet, his mother washed them and changed the laces. When he sat up at night in Oklahoma, wondering about the future, he ate Ramen noodles and crackers and sustained himself with dreams of the NFL.
Maybe Linta, for now, has filled in as a surrogate father. He drives him to workouts and jokes about an upcoming endorsement deal with "Lean Cuisine." He's offered to pony up the money for Harris' name change, but there are weight-lifting sessions and weigh-ins to jam their calendar for the next month.
"A kid like him has one chance on his pro day," Linta said. "If he performs the way he's capable of, the film speaks for itself and he will get drafted. If he has issues..."I've really taken to this kid. The other night, he was sitting at the kitchen table and my kids were teaching him magic tricks. I really look at the kid and see how he interacts. Every time he walks in, he hugs my wife and high-fives the kids. You root for him."
Elizabeth Merrill is a writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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