One of nine children, Mr. Harris grew up in Ft. Dix, New Jersey. "I had good parents, but no books," he explained. "My father was from Mississippi and couldn't read or write very well, and my mother was from Italy. Luckily we went to a good school." Though he and his brothers spent much of their time playing sports in the neighborhood and at school, the entire family was shocked when his older brother, Mario, was offered a scholarship to play football in college. "We never heard the word 'college.' I had no clue you could do that," he recalled. Mr. Harris quickly got over his surprise, though, when he was recruited soon after his brother.
"Football was my least-loved sport," he explained. "I wanted to play basketball. Sometimes we look at things quickly because we think we know them, but you've gotta experience as much as possible and experiment with different things to find your true talents. You might find you're a literary genius even if you think you don't like to read. Don't limit yourself; take it all in. You might really be surprised by what you find."
Recalling his plans to graduate from Penn State and see the world with his hotel administration degree, he encouraged the boys to travel, try new foods, and to get out of their comfort zones. "Experience things outside of what you know. There's so much world out there, outside of your neighborhood!" he said.
Once in the NFL, Mr. Harris realized that preparation and perseverance would be some of his biggest assets. Even as he sat on the bench during his first games, he worked harder than ever off the field and kept at it. He was ready to prove himself when opportunities arose. He stressed to the boys to never give up on themselves. "Everyone faces challenges, but what's important is how you handle them and get through them," he said.
Mr. Harris had already exceeded the time allowed by his schedule, but once he got started he just kept going, and we were so thankful for the time he gave to us. He left the boys with some words of advice about their health and encouraged them to pay attention to what they eat and to exercise every day. His last bit of wisdom came from his former coach, Joe Paterno: "Always go to the ball. Go to where the action is and figure out if there's something you can do. What can you do to prepare for your future? It doesn't just happen; you have to work at it."
A huge thank you to Mr. Harris and Mr. Ratner for this memorable afternoon. What a great experience for everyone involved. Thank you to all of you, too, for your support of The Ginn Academy.