When he was as a little boy he would fling himself off the wooden pew inside Goodloe’s Chapel Baptist Church — sucking on the two middle fingers on his left hand — and search for a hand to shake. He’d start with the pastor, then press palms with the deacons all along the way to nearly everyone in the church. Eventually, every week, he’d find himself in front of the same lady. She didn’t like children, but the little boy stopped in front of her every Sunday, smiled at her, and put his hand on her knee.

For nearly two years she ignored him as she was wont to do with children. But that never deterred him. One day he broke her. She smiled back, scooped him on her lap and the two had a conversation, the first of many. When Damien Harris now goes back to his church in Richmond, Kentucky, she can’t wait to see him. When he’s not there, she frequently asks Harris’ mom, Lynn, how her favorite boy is.

“He’s always had that ability to overcome anything that might prevent people from being friends,” Lynn Harris said. “He’s always been able to be friendly with people.”

That’s the essence of Damien Harris, star junior running back for No. 1 ranked Alabama. He is true to himself even when met rudeness or obstinance.

The same guy that quietly led the team in rushing a season ago is the same guy who blocked a punt against Florida State in the season opener, and scored a rushing touchdown in the Crimson Tide’s first two games of the season. With not a lot of fanfare, and often overlooked for the newer or shinier toy in Alabama’s loaded offensive toy chest, all Harris does is make plays.

Yet, spend any time with the thoughtful 20-year-old and you’ll quickly learn his success on the football field doesn’t make the man. The skill that brought him from eastern Kentucky to Tuscaloosa, the same artistry that made him the top-ranked prep running back in the nation is only a part of his identity.

Football doesn’t define Damien Harris. His thoughtfulness, personality and character do.

True to who he is

In a political climate that might be currently best described as toxic, or at least divisive, Harris isn’t afraid to voice his opinion. As you’d expect, those thoughts aren’t always welcomed and he’s oftentimes been met with “just run the football” responses during his three years at UA. That negativity doesn’t stop him from wading into the waters.

Just before the start of the season, Harris tweeted one of his opinions and was again met with a response that basically boiled down to “stick to sports.”

Sticking to sports is never an option for Harris. Football is what he currently does, but it’s not who he is.

“Football does not define me sir, it is just a platform to help me achieve my dreams both on and off the field,” Harris recently tweeted in response.

That retort may not seem all that extraordinary, but it is in the context of Harris’ peer group.

Football players on Alabama’s roster are the best of the best. Many, if not all of them, have been the best player on every team they’ve ever been on until they join the Crimson Tide. They’ve been seen and treated as special nearly all their lives. With that perspective it might be easy to have a warped sense of reality, to begin to define yourself as a football player.

We knew he was special

Harris certainly fits that bill of being treated as special. His coaching staff at Madison Southern High School realized quickly that he was the best player they had during his first scrimmage his freshman year.

“Our varsity guys weren’t the best, and we were really scrambling to find players at certain positions,” Harris’ running backs coach Byron Smoot said. “We thought lets give this freshman a chance. Damien got in the game. The first pitch we gave him he takes it about 75 yards for a touchdown. We start looking at each other. It was like watching college football where you see the defense have angles on individuals and the individual will just burst and accelerate past them. That’s really the first time we looked at each other like this kid is special. We knew then we had to start re-thinking our offensive strategy and how we were going to develop him.”

As his career progressed it became more and more obvious Harris’ talent would give him a bevy of college choices. For the longest time, his mom couldn’t wrap her head around it.

She was one of the main reasons Harris chose Madison Southern over Madison Central, where he was originally zoned. The family didn’t like the direction of the program at Madison Central. Lynn Harris actually thought of uprooting the family to Lexington to give her son more opportunities at being successful and getting noticed. However, she couldn’t afford it. Instead they took a leap of faith and went to Madison Southern under the direction of first-year coach Jon Clark. It worked out for both parties.

Even as her son was becoming a star, Lynn never let herself believe it was true.

“Where we’re from the chances of ending up at a University of Alabama are probably slim to none,” she said. “I never thought it would get to where he is right now. I thought he might be good enough to play for (Eastern Kentucky). The University of Alabama? I’m still in shock. He’s a junior, and I’m still in shock.

“Sometimes I have to say, ‘That’s really my son.’ It’s like I have to pinch myself sometimes.”

When the scholarship offers came pouring in, it was Harris’ ability to stay true to who he was that gave him the confidence to leave his home state and go to Alabama. There was pressure to go to Kentucky. Programs used Alabama’s running back depth against it. “Why go to Alabama? You’ll never be the man there. You’ll never get all the carries there.”

Those ideas may have planted insecurities in other recruits’ mind, but the headstrong Harris never saw it the same way.

“Whenever I chose Alabama, I didn’t really think about that,” Harris said. “People say, ‘If you’re going to play you’re going to play.’ It doesn’t matter who’s there, who you have to compete with, it’s just if you’re ready to play, if you’re capable of playing, you’re going to play. So I wasn’t really worried about that.

“But now being here I see it as more of an advantage than a disadvantage. A lot of people think it takes away from how many carries you get or how many yards you potentially get or how much attention you get from being the premier guy at a program like Alabama, but I think that it helps you in the long run because it’s a long a season. Over the course of 14, 15 games throughout the course of a long season, it’s nice to have guys come in and split reps with you and split time with you. It keeps you from getting banged up. It keeps you from being tired and worn down throughout the year. I kind of think that’s one of the advantages of having a lot of guys.”

Groupthink has never been a trap for Harris. He’s a freethinker. Even when it’s not convenient for him to be one.

Once during a high school basketball game between Harris’ school Madison Southern and Madison Central, Harris decided to sit with his cousin, who attended Madison Central. Basketball isn’t taken lightly in Kentucky, especially considering the two schools’ rivalry, and the star running back’s act of sitting with his cousin in the other school’s section caused somewhat of a stir at his high school. Silly as that might sound, it’s true. But those who knew Harris best didn’t think twice of it.

“It wasn’t that he was cheering against Southern, he was just real close with his cousin Nick, and so he sat with Nick and talked and they played around, and I think some people really got upset by it,” Smoot said. “When you start thinking about who Damien is and know who Damien is there was no ill will about doing that. He just went over there and it was a chance that he got to spend some time with his cousin and he did.”

If you’re cool with me, I’m cool with you

That independence is something he applies throughout every aspect of his life. He moves through social circles with ease, able to become fast friends with freshman quarterback Mac Jones, whom he playfully calls his son, or senior inside linebacker Rashaan Evans. Socioeconomic status nor race influences his decision to befriend another person.

When he first arrived at Alabama, it wasn’t uncommon to find him at a traditionally white fraternity house for a party, Lynn said. But when it came time to find a fraternity of his own, he surprised his mom by pledging Omega Psi Phi.

“He didn’t talk to me very much during that time because he wanted to be grown about this and go through it,” Lynn Harris said. “It’s difficult. It’s a difficult process. They have to go through a lot. They have a lot of demands placed on them. Once he came through it, he was a different person. His maturity had gone up some. His mindset was different. The way he looked at things was different. He learned a lot. They taught him a lot. He takes great pride in that fraternity, and I’m proud of him for it.”

 It’s a source of pride for Harris. He’s often seen in his fraternity shirt and when he scored his first touchdown of the season against Florida State he threw the hooks up, which is a signature hand gesture that originated from Omega Psi Phi.

“Being a part of Omega Psi Phi fraternity is something I hold dearly to me just as much as football, just as much as life outside of football,” Harris said. “There’s so many connections within the fraternity just like with football. There’s a lot of similarities between fraternities and football. They’re both a bond of brotherhood, people that you meet and you’ll carry on friendships for the rest of your life.”

To those that know him, it’s not surprising he moves around so effortlessly from one social circle to the next. It all goes back to his personal motto. “If you’re cool with me, then I’m cool with you.” Harris is just as comfortable around white people as he is black. It’s how he was raised, and it’s who he is.

“When he enrolled at Southern I think there were four maybe five black kids there,” Lynn Harris said. “It was also a school known for racial tension as well. I told him, ‘We’ll tackle it head on, we’ll be a united front and we’ll handle it.’ He trusted me and we rode with it. Where we’re from is predominantly white, but Damien, he’s never been one to look at necessarily race. Even as a freshman and sophomore at Alabama, he’s had literally Keaton Anderson, Ritchie Petitbon, Hale Hentges, he hung out with all of them. That’s his group. That’s one of his main group of friends. Then he turns around and pledges Omega Psi Phi, and he has that group of friends. And he goes back and forth hanging with everybody. He’s a social butterfly. He likes to have a good time and surround himself with good people.”

Definition of success

The standard definition of success for an Alabama football player would most likely be an NFL career. That’s just reality for the best college football program in the nation. Harris sees it different thought. If he makes it to the NFL and earns millions, well, that’s great. But he also has another definition by which he’ll measure success.

“Making it to the NFL and earning lots of money would be great and all that, but it would be unrealistic to make that my only goal,” he said. “One thing that I’ve always joked around about. I’ve been to the Bahamas twice now. I went once for spring break my freshman year and I went once this past July. I always tell myself If I get to the point in my life where I can go to the Bahamas whenever I want then I’ll consider myself successful.”

Harris knows the sport he loves is fleeting, that it’ll encompass only a small portion of his life. That perspective shapes his current reality and why he’s never let himself buy into the fact that he’s any different from anyone else just because he’s good at a sport.

“Football is going to end one day,” Harris said. “Everybody says that, but I don’t think everyone truly grasps the concept. Sometimes I think people that watch football they think that’s all that our lives consist of, which right now it consumes a good amount of your attention, your focus, what you do every day. That’s true. But in the grand scheme of life you play football for maybe 20 years of your life if you’re a great player. That’s if you make it for a couple of years in the league which doesn’t happen very often. That’s another 50-60 years of life that you still have to live. It’s kind of like, once football is over then what?

“Football’s a great game. Sports are great for people. But that’s not your whole life. There’s a lot to look forward to after that.”

Reach Aaron Suttles at aaron@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0229.

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