Alabama football running back Najee Harris a leader in #WeWantToPlay movement

Brett Hudson
The Tuscaloosa News

TUSCALOOSA — Najee Harris and Trevor Lawrence have lived drastically different existences, one a running back from California in the SEC and the other a quarterback from Georgia in the ACC. They’ve only been on the same field once, and, both being on offense, never had to go toe-to-toe with each other.

Through a mutual acquaintance, they got in touch – and combined with several other prominent college football players for what they felt was an important cause.

Harris, a University of Alabama running back, was on the ground floor of the #WeWantToPlay movement, a way for college football players to speak out against conference administrations moving to cancel fall sports in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Before they cancel the season, I feel like we all agreed saying they shouldn’t make that decision before they hear what the players are saying,” Harris said. “We started the 'We Want To Play' thing basically to tell the people who’s making the decisions that us athletes want to play to create value for ourselves.

“Age and time still moves on, you can’t take that back. We can run back the season but you can’t take back time and age. For a running back, age plays such a factor in the next step if you want to go to the NFL, they look at age so much.”

Taking a bold, public stance is not the norm for Harris.

Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) against Tennessee at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday October 19, 2019.

Harris is not particularly fond of public speaking, and when he does it is a cautious exercise. In media interviews, he often asks for questions to be repeated to ensure he understands them; pauses for thought before or during answers are not uncommon. Harris quickly identified this was not a time for him to have his guard up.

“I am a pretty closed-in guy, but there’s so much uncertainty going around, now I’m not in a position to be quiet,” Harris said. “I have to speak up for others who can’t speak.

“We work hard for this. For them to say we’re not going to play is heartbreaking.”

Harris told ESPN he would be willing to sign a waiver and agree to no litigation against UA should he contract the virus. He also told ESPN he joined a group of players who concluded as long as all players are being held to the same testing guidelines, they want to play.

That feeling has been echoed by those who were not a part of that call.

“We just wanted people to hear our voice because at the end of the day, the players are the ones playing,” UA quarterback Mac Jones said. “We feel safe, we feel comfortable. Obviously there’s a lot of unknowns, but we just wanted to get our voices out there.”

Of course, Harris has more to gain from a 2020 season than most. He chose to come back to UA for a senior season despite running for 1,224 yards and showing skill as a pass catcher in 2019, setting UA’s single-season records for receiving touchdowns by a running back (seven).

The complications of the pandemic have given Harris no regret of that decision, and Harris has not joined the small group of college football players considering opting out of the season.

“Not once, I haven’t thought about opting out,” Harris said. “Now there’s concerns for me. We start camp in a minute and I’m not trying to go into camp not knowing if there’s going to be a season or not, but it’s just so many uncertainties, it is what it is, we just have to work with it. That was really the only concern I have. Opting out has never crossed my mind.”