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Anthony Harris: Virginia's loyal leader

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Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2014 6:00 am | Updated: 6:05 am, Sun Aug 24, 2014.

On Fridays, Delerita Harris went to the football stadium. On Sundays, she went to church.

But Nov. 16, 2009, was a Monday, requiring the Richmond Public Schools employee to work her custodian shift at Elkhardt Middle.

“We were having a program and I needed to be there,” she said.

Her son, Anthony Harris, was the star player for nearby L.C. Bird High School, a do-everything junior who was already gaining interest from the country’s top college programs. His obligation that evening was to be with his undefeated Skyhawks as they hosted Midlothian in the last game of the regular season.

Harris family representation in the stands came in the form of Charita, Delerita’s oldest child and big sister to Anthony.

Keeping a watchful eye for two, Charita spotted trouble in the first quarter.

“Mom,” she said in a phone call to Delerita, “Anthony’s on the field. He went down. I think he got hurt. I don’t see him getting back up.”

Delerita, a dedicated Christian and regular at Richmond First Baptist Church’s 11 a.m. services, hung up the phone and went into prayer.

Her makeshift chapel was Elkhardt’s Room 124, an empty classroom where she could have an all-important conversation.

“Lord,” she started, “is it broke?”

Physically, the answer came to her upon arrival at the hospital. Anthony was on a stretcher, one leg being treated, but both thumbs pushed to the ceiling.

“Mom,” Anthony told her, “I’m OK.”

She bought it.

Despite her son fracturing his left tibia and throwing certain risk into the near-future, Delerita had faith Anthony would be back.

Virginia’s senior All-American safety always comes back.

Hoops to football to injury

Anthony Harris didn’t play football his freshman year at L.C. Bird, opting for a sole focus on varsity basketball instead.

But David Bedwell didn’t need Harris to try on a pair of cleats to be convinced.

Bird’s football coach was going to offer Harris a fall sport.

“I was begging him to come,” Bedwell said. “I told him, ‘Hey Ant, I think you’d be really good. Six-foot-2 DBs, they make a lot of money in the NFL. 6-2 guys that play basketball, there’s a ton of those guys running around.’”

Harris obliged, and then made good on Bedwell’s inklings in his first scrimmage.

“He took away half the field,” Bedwell said. “People didn’t even throw at him. I think the very first pass that was thrown at him was a pick-six. From that point on, I’m like, ‘Man, this kid can really play. This is a great thing.’”

Delerita put her only son in football and basketball before he reached 10 years old.

Like Bedwell, she witnessed something extra special on the gridiron.

“Seeing Anthony as a little boy, I always knew that his passion was football,” she said. “He was just as good at one as he was at the other, but I always felt, in the future, he would lean toward football because he had a passion for that.”

That desire was only ramped up in high school.

Bedwell made Harris his quarterback as a junior for a reason as simple as “he was the best leader.”

With that came intense attention to detail. Harris, who still had his defensive responsibilities, stayed after practice to get in extra reps with both of his position coaches.

When he went in the film room as a quarterback, he didn’t just study his personal style or that of the opposing defense. He analyzed every angle of the tape with his entire offensive line.

“There’s five or six positions depending on what you play, whether you use the tight end or not,” Bedwell said. “So each play has to be rewound at least that many times to go over every position and it’s usually three or four times for each kid. So he got to see every play 15-20 times to see every little thing that went on.

“He enjoyed that. He wanted to know why something was happening.”

That all led to a banner season of 1,800 yards on offense and eight interceptions on defense.

But it ended prematurely Nov. 16.

“It was really early in the game, the first quarter,” Bedwell recalled. “We were driving. We were actually down on the goal line and we had a pass play called. Basically, Ant dropped back and nothing was open and he took off with it ...”

And, well, “I got horse-collar tackled,” Harris said. “ ... I missed the whole basketball season. It was a long recovery process.”

One that Virginia didn’t mind sticking around for.

Commitment

Anthony Harris is a co-captain, an unquestioned leader of a UVa defense that brings back nine starters and accepts the burden of carrying the team this season while the inexperienced offense searches for its identity.

He’s coming off a 2013 in which he led the nation in interceptions. This year, he’s on every preseason award watch list from Walter Camp to Bednarik to Nagurski.

First-year Virginia safeties coach Mike Archer compares Harris to Brent Alexander, a 13-year journeyman NFL free safety who played for Archer in Pittsburgh and retired as a New York Giant in 2005 after 28 career interceptions.

“There’s guys in the NFL that don’t enjoy practice, that don’t enjoy coming in for meetings,” Archer said. “Brent Alexander wasn’t that kind of guy. He was really fun to coach and I was only with him for two and a half years.

“But Anthony’s just like that. The first time you meet him you see that. When he introduced himself the first time and we talked, it was very apparent to me that he liked to prepare, he liked to watch film. He liked to do the nitty-gritty stuff.”

Second-year UVa defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said Harris grabbed the concepts of his sometimes complicated system quicker than anyone.

Cavaliers coach Mike London calls Harris a “phenomenal young man.”

While Harris dealt with his injury in 2009, a few big-name programs took themselves out of the running for his future services.

“[Before the injury], I had schools like Ohio State, Tennessee wanting me to come to camps,” Harris said. “Other schools just kind of like slowed down on just recruiting, coming into the school, different stuff like that. It was kind of a falling off of communication between schools.”

But Virginia remained loyal.

“I’m always a big believer in people don’t know about how much you know until they know about how much you care,” London said. “That’s an off-the-field thing that can relate to an on-the-field tenet. I believe in their opportunities to become educated men here at the University of Virginia, but I also believe in their abilities to be successful on the field.

“Anthony stuck with it.”

Said Harris: “Coach London was there through the whole process. He asked what the initial injury was. He kept an update on my condition, how I was doing and, right away, he told me that my scholarship would still be on the table.”

On June 26, 2010, Harris accepted, giving his verbal pledge to the Cavaliers. And then, as if to flaunt his healed leg at the doubters, he made all-state for a second straight season.

“It motivated me to go out there and show that I can get back healthy and be the same player that I was before the injury,” Harris said.

For Delerita, it was all reassurance.

“I trusted God was going to heal him and he was going to come back stronger than what he was before this incident happened,” she said. “So I felt that whenever God worked it out, it worked out that way because Coach London, he never did give up on him.

“I feel like that’s where God had his destiny to be.”

And to stay — for a full four years.

Returning the favor

Delerita Harris knew her son was returning for his senior season at UVa because “I raised him to be faithful in what you started. What you stick with, you be faithful.”

As his basketball stock rose on the AAU circuit, a young Harris was an apparent commodity for several teams.

But he stayed with his original squad, original coach for all eight years.

“Teams were calling, coming after him, wanted him to switch AAU teams,” Delerita remembered. “I even had a man call me on my job, begging me to let Anthony come with him.

“I was like, ‘No, he started with him, he’ll finish with him.’”

After his highlight-reel of a junior season, Harris had thoughts of early entry to the NFL Draft, even filing paperwork for the league’s advisory board. (He said he received a late third round grade.)

But leaving would cause a delay in obtaining his sociology degree — a Mom no-no (“I always told him from a little boy, always let your education be the ticket in your pocket.”) — as well as a tough spot for the man who stood with him just four years earlier.

Like the AAU coach, it would go against Harris’ upbringing to not finish what he started with Mike London.

After a 2-10 season, London’s job is on the line. He needs his best player.

“I want to show that loyalty back in return,” Harris said.

Delerita is confident it’s all going to work out.

“If God tells me, my faith is strong enough to believe it,” she said. “I got crazy faith.”

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