If only Drake Harris had been more obstinate.
If only he had been able to convince his father that he was a basketball player through and through, and football was just something that kept him from becoming a better basketball player.
If only he had been able to do those things, his life would be so much different going forward. He would have just finished a basketball-filled summer on the AAU circuit and would be preparing for his senior year at Grand Rapids Christian, where he would be the leading candidate for the Hal Schram Mr. Basketball award after signing a national letter of intent in November to play basketball at Michigan State.
Instead it is the second week of August, and Harris is not at Christian’s football practice. But instead of playing basketball, he is at Grand Rapids Community College, taking two classes so he can graduate early and enroll at Michigan in January. He will be able to participate in spring football practice and be ready to play football at U-M next fall.
Harris, 6-feet-4, 180-pounds, is easily the No. 1 football player in the state. Even though he suffered a hamstring injury at practice Friday, making him doubtful to play in Christian’s opener Thursday against defending Division 4 state champ Grand Rapids South Christian, he still tops the charts.
For his public speaking class at GRCC, Harris has to prepare an eight-minute speech — and would rather have all four of Orchard Lake St. Mary’s defensive backs cover him on pass routes than get up and deliver it.
“I’m alright at it,” he says, “I just don’t like doing it.”
Goaded onto the gridiron
Three years ago, Harris could have said the same thing about football heading into his freshman year at Christian.
He laughs and shakes his head when asked to reflect on the change of direction his life has taken in the last 12 months. He points to the time when he entered Christian.
Mike Harris, Drake’s father, and Christian football coach Don Fellows were trying to convince the youngster to give football one more try. For the life of him, Harris couldn’t figure out why they were wasting their time. He hadn’t spent a day in high school yet and already he had a scholarship offer from Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean.
A basketball phenom since the minute he picked up a basketball — he was dunking in the seventh grade — Harris already had a healthy relationship with Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, so why waste his time playing football?
“I didn’t want to get hurt for basketball,” Harris said. “At that point I was like: ‘I don’t want to play. It’s not my sport. I’m not going to go to college and play football. I’m going to college to play basketball, so why wouldn’t I just focus on that?’ “
But Harris eventually relented and agreed — to a point. He played on the freshman team, but when Fellows asked him to move up to the varsity for the state playoffs Harris turned him down.
He had to get ready for basketball season.
A year later Harris thought he was in the clear. In his mind he had completed his obligation by playing football as a freshman and now it was full steam ahead for basketball. But neither Dad nor Fellows were about to let that happen without another battle.
“We actually got into a pretty heated argument about it,” his father recalled. “You know how kids are; he’s getting all this publicity for one sport. I told him not to throw all his eggs into one basket, do everything.”
Harris was trying not to buy that argument, but backing up his father and Fellows was … Izzo.
“He said he likes football players,” Harris said. “He likes how they play on the court and how they transfer their football game into their basketball game.”
That was all Harris had to hear, so he went out for football as a sophomore, then caught 57 passes for 1,018 yards.
That came as a surprise to him, but not his father. “I knew what was going to happen,” Mike said.
Despite his football success, Harris still thought of himself as a basketball player first and foremost. But he could no longer deny that everything that made him a basketball star was making him an even better football player.
“There’s so many intangibles that he has,” Fellows said. “One, he’s so athletically intelligent. He’s big and lanky, but he’s athletic and he’s got great hand-eye coordination with the ball. He kind of plays like he’s 5-11, but he’s 6-4.”
Just over a year ago Harris made his decision: He would play basketball and football in college and that college would be MSU.
Harris was still convinced basketball was his best sport, but every once in a while something would happen that made him shake his head.
Like the day last summer he spent at the Michigan football camp where he made two defensive backs — one from Florida and one from Ohio — look like they belonged on a junior varsity team.
“I don’t remember their names; I just remember some of the reporters telling me after that they were four- and five-star players,” he said. “I just went out and played against them. After they told me, I thought, maybe this is my thing.”
As his junior season progressed, Harris’ statistics began heading for the stratosphere. Football was getting to be more fun.
“Right before the playoffs he and I had a conversation,” Fellows said. “He said: ‘Coach, I’m not sure if I want to play basketball and football.’ I asked him which he was going to pick. He said: ‘I think I just want to play football.’ “
By the end of the state playoffs it was clear that Harris was no longer a basketball player who played football. He was a football player who also played basketball.
Last season, Harris became only the 12th high school player in the nation to surpass the 2,000-yard receiving mark in a single season when he caught 91 passes for 2,015 yards. He was amazing in the Division 3 overtime state championship victory over Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, including two spectacular fourth-down receptions that kept Christian’s final fourth-quarter drive alive and sent the game into overtime.
It was a watershed moment for Harris. Walking up the tunnel to the locker room after the game, Harris said he was still a solid commit for MSU, but deep down he knew he was kidding himself.
As the basketball season wore on, Harris began to realize that football had become his primary sport. It wasn’t that he had become a lesser basketball player; he had just blown up football-wise.
“Football just came naturally,” he said. “I never worked on football. I never worked on technique and stuff like that, but going out and just playing it felt natural where basketball I was practicing every day since I was in the third grade.”
Making a decision
As Christian entered the basketball state tournament, Harris was ready to drop the charade. He withdrew his commitment to MSU, decided he would not play basketball in college and began looking at schools again.
That decision was difficult because he knew he wasn’t going to consider MSU for football and he had to break the news to Izzo, who had been at virtually all of his AAU games the summers before his freshman and sophomore years. Then there were all of the times he drove to East Lansing to play open gym ball with MSU players.
“That was the hardest part, to tell him that I wasn’t going to play basketball anymore because he’s such a great guy and he’s always been there for me like a mentor,” Harris said. “To this day he told me if I ever need anything I can still talk to him. He was very understanding about the situation.”
Even though he grew up a U-M football fan and attended games with his dad, initially it didn’t seem that Harris would shun MSU for U-M.
“Honestly, when I de-committed from Michigan State I was more looking at colleges from outside the state — more down south or out west,” he said. “I like warm weather and those were really attractive to me. But I went down to my first visit to Michigan and I came back and it just blew me away with everything they have. It’s a family there. I bonded really well with the players that I hung out with at night so that first impression was just great on me.”
Harris returned to U-M the next two weekends before visiting two more schools — Notre Dame and Ohio State.
The day after he visited OSU, Harris was back at U-M. It was over, he would become a Wolverine.
That is why he is obsessing over an eight-minute speech as he prepares for his final high school season.
“It’s crazy,” he said, shaking his head. “To see where I came from ninth grade year to now, it’s just crazy.”