BEREA, Ky.— About 15 minutes after announcing that he would attend the University of Alabama, five-star running back Damien Harris received congratulations from friends as he walked around Madison Southern High School’s gym.
Harris’ mother, Esther, was still wiping tears from her cheeks. Harris’ classmates were quietly filing back to their fifth-period classes, because life—and school—must go on. Then a Madison Southern basketball coach approached Harris. He basically told him it was too bad he had not picked Kentucky, but that he was still happy for him and proud of him.
“Do you want the UK hat?” Harris replied, referring to the Wildcats cap that had sat on a table with Alabama and Ohio State hats as he made his announcement. “I can get you the UK hat.”
The coach shyly waved off the offer, and Harris persisted.
“No, I’ll get my mom to give you the hat.”
It was a simple moment, but it was also a snapshot of the often unspoken pressures Harris has faced in recent months, as well as his deep desire to please those around him.
Damien Harris is arguably the best high school running back in the nation and one of this state’s top prospects in decades. And as his pursuit intensified and UK remained at the top of his list, it gave hope to a community and a fan base that has struggled to remain hopeful over the years.
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And the weight from those expectations can become a burden, particularly for a player like Harris, who is so focused on not letting others down.
“I know he has a big heart and he pays attention to what others think and what others feel, and I knew it was gonna be difficult for him,” said Harris’ mother, Esther. “But at the same time, I told him, ‘You have to do what’s best for you. Everyone else who’s saying to do this or do that, they’re not gonna be the ones living this life. It’s gonna be you.’ ”
Sure, Alabama fans would have been disappointed if Harris had selected UK. But for Harris, Crimson Tide supporters are more of a faceless group, hundreds of miles away. Wildcats fans are here, going to school with Harris and seeing Harris at the mall and wherever else.
I went to a McDonald’s in Berea to write this column, and a man and a woman were placing an order at the counter, and the woman was wearing a UK hat. She told the man she had heard that Harris had selected Alabama, and she frowned and slumped her shoulders.
Harris knew the disappointment in Kentucky would be palpable, and that was probably the most difficult part about his decision. Very few of us know what it’s like to be a high school senior and have to consider the possibility of disappointing a good part of your home state.
“I know it’s definitely hard letting down the fans and everybody,” said UK freshman Matt Elam, the Elizabethtown native who picked the Cats over the Crimson Tide last year, and who attended Harris’ announcement on Friday. “I know there are a lot of Kentucky fans here, so it had to be kind of hard.”
But it would have been a mistake for Harris to choose the Wildcats because he felt obligated to. He made a choice for himself, and that’s important. Those who are upset with him now will eventually get over it, or at least they should get over it.
Friday’s announcement was filled with plenty of pomp and circumstance, with the school band playing, hundreds of students watching and a long highlight video rolling. I figured the choice would be slightly more muted if he picked the Crimson Tide, so I started to think the Wildcats had a chance.
Then I began to wonder what the reaction would be if he passed on Kentucky. A good number of students were wearing UK gear. Obviously so many people wanted him to stay here, to stay home.
There was applause when Harris revealed his choice, but it was hardly the eruption that would have followed a UK pick. Then, it seemed like the crowd realized that this was Harris’ moment. This was his time. And so the applause continued, and got a little louder, and then it turned into a standing ovation. And that’s exactly what Damien Harris deserved.