St. Vincent coach Herzog knew early on that Najee Harris was special
The eyes are drawn, as by a charismatic magnet. No encouragement is needed, not even a simple You-Gotta-Look. A look begins. Quite often this will lead to a gaping mouth, as the mouth drops. To see is to believe, but it is not to believe. Nobody moves like that, so free, so easy, so powerful. The person is human, but people swear to see a different species.
Then again, not everyone has “IT,” and we’re not talking about a Stephen King character. And that day in February 2014, Trent Herzog saw “IT” for the first time. Herzog, St. Vincent’s football coach, was and still is a college scout, locating gems to provide information to college football programs.
Herzog had heard of that kid from Antioch, Najee Harris, a freshman in high school there. That kid Najee, Herzog was told, was someone special. Herzog took the praise with a grain of salt. Lots of people gush. More than once the gush turns into a dry heave.
It was a 7v7 transit camp at Los Medanos College. Supposedly a nice display to see how teenage athletes can walk and chew gum at the same time catching a soccer ball.
Quicker than you can say “Run like a prison break,” Herzog began to stare at him. Harris was 6 feet tall and 195 pounds. He was 15 years old. When he moved, Harris did so effortlessly or jerkily. Like the skill of a pickpocket, his movement was fluid, unhurried … and then, poof, he was gone.
“I don’t know how to describe what ‘IT’ is,” Herzog said, “but Najee had” IT. “
Before that day was over, Herzog found himself thinking about the impossible, imagining Harris 25 years later, and it didn’t strike him as ridiculous to think that this 15-year-old he was seeing …
“Will be in the (professional football) Hall of Fame,” thought Herzog, “if he stays healthy.” He’s a 10, 12 year old running back in the NFL. I just saw the next Adrian Peterson.
Harris was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday as the 24th player selected. First selected running back, Harris was frankly a success before the draft. And it wasn’t because he was a star at the NFL College Football Factory in Alabama.
Herzog wanted to know more about the child, to see if his head was firmly attached to his body, full of something besides ego. Herzog wasn’t about to recommend a bubble brain to colleges.
Harris, his mother, and four siblings had been homeless for several years. They had bounced from town to town in Northern California. There was no fixed address. At one time, the Harris family lived in a car.
When drugs and gangs merge with life on the streets, survival is success. The simple concept of a good life is moonlight for those who find dinner in a dumpster. Despair is your pillow, anger is your cover, suspicion is your tent.
So Herzog started to ask questions, to dig deeper. He became close to Harris. Herzog found someone who could escape not only tacklers, but crime as well. If the following might be surprising to read, it was the same for Herzog to hear.
“Najee always had a smile on her face,” Herzog said. “Each game he gave 110 percent. He worked out three, four times a day, just to keep out of trouble.
Of course, the cynical analysis at this point would be to assume that Herzog has to say such a thing against his friend, especially when his friend was just picked in the first round of the NFL Draft. But NFL teams have long given up on the idea of a risky choice. The stakes are too high, and Ryan Leaf’s historic extinction will always be a bad smell on any NFL Draft Day.
The running back who has “IT” works with a huge asset and a huge concern at war with each other.
Unlike any other position on the football field, the gifted running back offers more certainty to a scout because the skills are so easily displayed and recognized. The evasion ability, the ability to block, the ability to get in between tackles on a fourth and a first, it’s as obvious as the name on the back of the football shirt. This is the bright side.
The wrong side?
“A running back is the most abused position in sport,” Herzog said. “If an offense is running 60 games, the back picks up the blitz, or runs with the ball, or catches it.”
All with a start-up at full speed. No wonder of anyone who manages football, the running back has the shortest lifespan in the NFL, 2.66 years according to a Wall Street Journal study. This is why, more often than not, so few ball carriers are taken in the first round.
None of that sharp analysis matters unless the running back has “IT,” the nondescript but instantly recognizable quality that the TV camera loves. The naked eye – forgive the contradiction here – doesn’t lie.
Harris has the same management style as Adrian Peterson, the ability to squeeze into a defense. Everyone is going fast. Everyone rushes, grabs, falls. Everyone is nervous, frantic. Everyone rushes in like they have a plane to catch.
And then there’s Najee Harris, with his speed of 4.41 in the 40, now 6-foot-2, 236 pounds, slippery, if it’s possible, someone that size can slip.
“I saw a lot of guys who went into the NFL,” said Herzog, 10 years as a varsity scout, 28 years as a soccer coach. “Nothing comes close to Najee. His talent is given by God.
Which is why Herzog will never forget the first time he saw this gift. We never forget “IT”, even if “IT” defies all common description. Must see it. Words will understate the impression, such as saying that a Navy SEAL is a good swimmer.
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