Damien Harris needs no introduction. Alabama’s star running back is also the football program’s media workhorse whether in the interview room, in front of a television camera or on social media. There are few secrets from his statistics (542 rushing yards this season and 2,736 for his career) to his political views.
But there is one person who knows Damien Harris better than anyone else. His mother, Lynn Harris, has seen the entire career and, with just three home games remaining for the Alabama senior, she’s taking the long view.
“To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want Damien to play football,” she said. “When he was 6, he played basketball in a little rec league and his coach, Mike Goggins, asked me if Damien could play football the next year and I said, ‘No, football is awful. Horrible. It’s a dangerous sport.’ But Mike kept asking and I finally let him talk me into it. And I was scared to death.
“A lot of the kids had started when they were 5 years old in a flag football league in Richmond, so they had a couple of years to adjust. Not Damien. They put him right out there. I was scared to bits and pieces. First, I was scared that my child would get hurt. And I was scared that someone else’s child was going to be the one that hurt my child and I was going to have to fight that other child’s parents in the stands.”
Lynn said she progressed out of that degree of concern but still took a long time to reach a comfort level with Damien’s football career.
“Mike Goggins and I butted heads a lot of times over different things, but Damien loved it,” she said.
Even though it was a Pop Warner League, Goggins’ team gave Damien Harris his first taste of being a standout on a star-filled team. The quarterback on Goggins’ young team was current Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The Stidham family moved away after a few years, but Harris stayed in Madison County, his legend growing through junior high.
When Damien was in eighth grade, the mother made a decision to send him out of Richmond, enrolling him at Madison Southern High School in nearby Berea.
“Same county, different district,” Lynn said, adding that she wanted Damien to attend the smaller school for “a number of different reasons,” not simply football.
“He changed schools in the eighth grade so he didn’t have to go through all the transfer process later, but it was the right decision.”
On the football field, even at a small school in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, far from the football hotbeds of Florida and Texas and a few hours from Ohio, Damien was gaining recognition. One person remained skeptical – his mother.
“In the ninth and 10th grade, everyone around me knew it but I just didn’t see it,” she said. “Of course he was special in my mind, but I was just hoping he could get an academic scholarship or a football scholarship to Eastern (Kentucky, located in Richmond) or Western (Kentucky). Even UK (University of Kentucky, some 40 miles up the road in Lexington) seemed like a longshot to me.
“But after his sophomore year, all of a sudden, the letters started coming. They were coming from all over the country. It was still amazing to me. I said, ‘They want Damien out of little-bitty Richmond or really even little-bittier Berea?’ It was so surreal. It didn’t feel like reality at all. I look back on it and it’s still strange. How was my son receiving this kind of attention? It made me speechless.”
With letters pouring in from Ohio State, Notre Dame and nearly every other football-playing power, Damien was intrigued by a team he had watched on television as it won the BCS National Championship Game in 2011 and 2012.
“He was always interested in Alabama,” Lynn Harris said. “When he heard from them, he told me he wanted to go on a visit. I was like ‘ohhhh-kay.’ I mean, this was the championship school. But I decided that with all the schools that were recruiting him, if he wanted to swing for the fences, why not? If he wants to go for a visit, then I said ‘Let’s go.’”
According to Lynn, both she and her son immediately felt that Alabama was the right place.
“That’s all it took,” she said. “Just one visit.”
There was, however, the matter of the home state school. Kentucky made Damien Harris its No. 1 recruiting priority for its 2015 class, and the entire state knew it. What’s more, Harris liked UK – his Crimson Tide teammates say he still cheers loudly for Wildcat basketball. So, for a time, the Wildcat staff – and many UK fans in Richmond and Berea – thought the state’s most decorated prep star in more than a decade would stay at home.
“Chad Scott (the former UK assistant) recruited him about as hard as you can recruit anybody,” former Alabama defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley, who at the time was on head coach Mark Stoops’ staff at Kentucky, told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “There was a time we thought we were going to get him. At the end of the day, I get why he came to Alabama. But he was at Kentucky every week. We did about all we could do to get him. … That would have been a program-changer, I think, for Mark, if he would have kept him at home. But that was a tall task.”
It was also a stressful time for Lynn Harris.
“For me, I wasn’t really on social media at the time,” she said. “I stayed home a lot. When I did go out, people were mostly positive. They’d say, ‘We’ll support Damien wherever he goes.’ But when he made the decision, there were a lot of mean, hateful things said. They were hurtful. He was 17 years old and there were grown people saying things like that to him when their opinion about his future didn’t matter. They just wanted him at the school they pulled for.
“It wasn’t the (UK) coaches. When he comes home, he will still go visit Coach Stoops. He likes Kentucky. But he loves Alabama.”
Although she was happy with the decision, Lynn – who had raised Damien as a single mother for most of his life – was understandably hesitant to see him go.
“I had made up my mind that I was going to move to Tuscaloosa with him. It had been just me and him for so long. My first daughter was not born until Damien was 15. Before that, it was just us. But I had a conversion with (longtime UA running backs coach Burton) Burns and he gave me some advice. He said, ‘I know you are used to being with him, but let him have this first year away from home. Let him grow.’ And I am so glad that I had that conversation. It not only helped Damien. It helped me, too.”
The freshman year, which included the huge leap from a small high school in Berea to the nation’s dominant college program required an adjustment period – including the patience to wait behind Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. But Harris blossomed in his sophomore and junior years, so much so that he had to make the choice between his senior season and the NFL last January.
For many, Damien’s decision to come back for a fourth year was a surprise. Mothers, however, knew more than most.
“For the most part, I left it up to him,” she said. “He was 21. That’s not quite a full-grown adult, but it is old enough to make your own decisions. I could only advise. But it was really a no-brainer for Damien.
“You see, he just loves school. Ever since kindergarten, he would get up in the morning with enthusiasm and say, ‘Mama, let’s go to school.’ He’s always enjoyed it. He’s a social butterfly. He loves being around all the people.
“He might come back to school next year if he could,” she added with a laugh.
Alabama fans wouldn’t mind that at all. Neither would Lynn Harris.
“He loves Alabama. And I love it, too.”
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