By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
It was the timing of two, unrelated telephone calls that changed the course of Damon Harrison’s life forever.
In 2008, the current New York Giants’ starting defensive tackle, was at a crossroads. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had been devastating for him and his family. Then, a knee injury suffered in high school playing basketball, and his subsequent weight gain, had caused him to be overlooked when college scouts came calling at Lake Charles Boston High School in Louisiana. So, Harrison set about sending emails to numerous colleges and received one offer – a scholarship to Northwest Mississippi Community College. But, as it turned out, he wasn’t quite ready. Once he realized football wasn’t going to work out, he dropped out and returned home where a temporary employment agency placed him in a job working overnights in a Walmart stocking shelves.
Contemplating his next steps, he considered trying to return to basketball, but the opportunities there had disappeared. So, he filled out job applications and began trying to save enough money to get his own apartment and prepared to enroll at McNeese State University where he would try to walk onto the football team. Then the phone rang.
It was Steven Miller, who had coached Harrison at Northwest Mississippi and had just been hired by William Penn University in Iowa as the defensive line coach. He offered Harrison a scholarship.
“I said how soon can I come?” Harrison recalled. “At that point I thought maybe I wasn’t cut out for [football]. Then two or three minutes later Walmart called to offer me a full-time job. At Walmart I was making some pretty good money. It seemed like a no-brainer. I would just do the 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. job. If they had called first, I would have accepted.”
But Harrison wasn’t going to let what might be his last opportunity slip through his fingers. He packed his bags and headed for Iowa, which offered more than a few surprises.
“It was a culture shock out of this world,” the Louisiana native said. “I had never seen snow before. I had never been that cold. All I had was a letterman jacket and shorts. I might have stayed in my dorm room for three weeks straight. I was getting ready to drop out because it was so cold.”
In addition to the difference in the weather, was the difference in the racial makeup of the school and the area, and that took an adjustment as well.
“My entire schooling, elementary, middle, high, I had been in predominantly black schools. William Penn was all white; you could count the black people on one hand. But, the coaches did a good job explaining to us that the people were the same. They’re not doing anything purposely. A lot of them had not seen a black person in real life.”
Harrison added winter clothes to his wardrobe and adjusted to life in Iowa. As the 2012 NFL Draft approached, projections for Harrison were all over the map – everywhere from the fourth round to being a tryout player.
“I was pretty sure I was going in the sixth or seventh round,” Harrison said. “Teams were calling me and telling me I was high on their Draft board, but it never happened. When it didn’t happen, I turned my phone off and went out to eat [with some friends]. Then I laid in the back in the car and thought, ‘Is this happening again?’ I did all this work. Just like high school I didn’t get a scholarship offer, and now I’m not going to get a chance at the NFL.”
Harrison had so little knowledge about the NFL that he had no idea about rookie free agency. When he finally turned his phone back on he discovered his agent had been trying to reach him with offers from more than a dozen teams. The agent felt the New York Jets would be the best fit for Harrison. Harrison wasn’t so sure.
“I grew up a Patriots fan, I hated the Jets,” Harrison laughed. “My friend’s dad was Vincent Brisby and he played for the Patriots. (Interestingly, Brisby, a wide receiver, played the final year of his career with the Jets in 2000.) I hated the Jets because my loyalty was with the Patriots.”
But that changed. Fast. Harrison put his head down and soaked up everything he could from the veterans who surrounded him, as well as from head coach Rex Ryan and his staff. As preseason cuts came and went, Harrison still had his playbook and went off to practice on the final cut-down day. But no one had given him the official word until he happened to run into Ryan.
“I made it through practice and after practice I was waiting for the bus and Rex Ryan was heading home and he said, ‘Were you surprised that you made the team?’ But, I still didn’t know if he meant the practice squad. Then my agent told me I made the 53-man roster.”
In his rookie year in 2012, Harrison played in just five games. The following three seasons with the Jets he started all 16 games. And in March 2016, the former Walmart stock boy, at that point an NFL veteran free agent, signed five-year, $46,500,000 contract with the Giants.
“I’m a very confident person and I knew if I was given the opportunity to play I could be a good player,” Harrison said. “It takes a lot to be considered one of the better players at your position in the league. It was a proud moment, finally getting the recognition. I know the type of effort I put into it. I don’t get up at 6:00 a.m. in the offseason to just be considered a good player. I do it to become the best. Am I the best? No. But, I’m confident in my abilities and what I do. When it’s all said and done, I want my story to be an undrafted guy who overcame a lot to be in that position.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.