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February 6, 2013For Charles Harris, his sporting life began playing basketball in his backyard in Kansas City, imitating Michael Jordan's final shot in the Flu Game of 1997, as the light faded outside.
For Charles Harris, his football life began in earnest early during his junior year, a goal brought on by an insult and laughter and a desire to prove everyone wrong.
For Charles Harris, his college career will begin at Missouri in June.
And, for Charles Harris, it will be an opportunity to show his family how much he loves them.
Harris is a self-taught man, at least in the realm of sports. With money and transportation issues growing up, Harris said he didn't start playing organized sports until right around high school. Instead, he would re-enact famous plays in both basketball and football, many times alone, outside his house. A boy and a ball, imitating scenes of yore and thinking to himself that maybe -- just maybe -- he would be making scenes of his own in the future.
"We weren't the wealthiest family, so it was tough," Harris said.
Basketball became his go-to sport, and when he enrolled at Lincoln Prep in Kansas City for high school, it became his favorite. Of course, there were also outside forces pushing him to football because of his athleticism.
One of the those driving forces was Lincoln Prep football coach Lee Allen.
"Freshman year, Coach Allen was my math teacher," Harris said. "First quarter, I got an A, and he asked me to play football. I went out for a week, and I didn't like it. Didn't like the hitting or the tackling. So, for the second quarter, I got a B. Then, the third quarter, I had a C.
"In my mind, it was because of football."
Now, Harris laughs that he would have thought that. All along, Allen kept asking Harris to play football. Harris would simply respond, "Naw, I'm a basketball player."
Football wasn't a thought during his sophomore year, but early in his junior year, with football season already starting, Harris went to talk to his teacher. At the time, Allen was with most of the football team, and he asked Harris why he was there. Someone else asked if it was because he wanted to play football.
Another unknown voice shouted out, "Naw, he's scared," Harris recalls. Laughter erupted, and Harris walked out, feeling angry and embarrassed. Instead of brushing it off, he took a different path.
"I can't have people thinking that," Harris said. "I told Coach I was going to play football. He said, 'About time.'"
After the gridiron re-start, Harris said football came easy to him.
"I didn't feel any hits," Harris said. "I didn't get tired. After that little instance of humiliation, I loved it. On the football field, I felt so calm. I just loved it."
It provided a stark contrast to his home life. Harris' father, William, is a truck driver, and Harris calls him a "workaholic."
"Sometimes, he'll be on the road and can't come home at night," Harris said.
His mother, Deborah Clark, suffers from multiple sclerosis and now uses a wheelchair to get around. Neither parent, Harris said, is able to get to many of his games.
"I obviously don't blame them," Harris said. "My dad works a lot, but he was always doing that for his family. He didn't understand that I may be able to get a college scholarship, and was trying to make sure I could go to college. I don't know if he realized that wouldn't be an issue until this week."
This week has been chaotic for Harris. After compiling over 100 tackles and 19 sacks in 2011 and 2012, Harris largely received interest from FCS and Division II schools. After his senior year, he believed he would go to Missouri Western, but one of his basketball coaches told him to "keep his options open."
"He heard Missouri might be interested," Harris said.
Harris said he didn't really believe that. Despite being 6-foot-4 and 220-pounds, he didn't think many FBS schools knew about him. That changed last week when Missouri assistant Andy Hill invited him for a visit to Columbia. Even then, however, Harris was skeptical. He didn't immediately schedule the visit.
On Saturday morning, though, Harris woke up and thought he should at least see what Missouri has to offer. He asked his father if he could go, and with permission, he made a last-second trip east.
"I walked through the door in their facilities," Harris said. "I thought, 'Yeah, this is it." This was it."
On Monday, an offer came through by phone to Allen at Lincoln Prep. Allen called his player in, getting ready to tell Harris that he should act on the offer quickly.
"Before he even finished talking, I yelled, 'Yes!'," Harris said.
"I don't know if it took me off guard," Allen said. "I always felt like he was a good athlete. We just needed a school to take a chance, and Missouri was that school."
It capped off a high school career full of chances -- of taking a chance on football (twice), of taking a chance on a visit to Missouri, of taking a chance on trusting a scholarship would arrive.
Ultimately, though, this next step is for his family, Harris said.
"I got to tell my dad not to worry," Harris laughed. "I've got college covered. And watching your mother degrade, go from walking to limping to now in a wheelchair, I told her I'd be thinking of her. I could have run with the wrong crowd, things like that.
"Now I want to make them proud. I want to be the first person in my family to graduate from college."
Harris prepares to enroll at Missouri to study biology. He hopes to be a doctor someday. In the meantime, he'll begin at defensive end for the Tigers, an unheralded, under-the-radar recruit that brought scoffs and surprise from fans when his signing was announced.
Now, it's time to take a chance on Charles Harris.