Culture shock

Najee Harris opens up on Alabama struggles, culture shock and no regrets

Landing in Birmingham on January 8, 2017 was, as Najee Harris described it, a surreal experience. Choosing that flight over Detroit ended his mysterious recruiting saga that nearly saw Jim Harbaugh take him to Michigan despite his previous commitment to the Crimson Tide.

The fact that he was recognized by fans that afternoon at the airport was almost shocking to the introverted star heading east. Football is big in the San Francisco Bay Area, but not on the fanaticism spectrum of Alabama. That Saturday marked the start of a complicated relationship between Harris, Crimson Tide fans, coaches and the entire culture that surrounded celebrity status in what was foreign land for Harris.

“That day, I should have known,” Harris says with a smile, “those fans are mad as hell.”

To say it was an adjustment was an understatement based on the free-wheeling interview Harris gave to AL.com last month as part of the Road to the Pros documentary series (see Part II below). -above). Harris clearly wanted to explain more about what goes into the experience of a top college athlete to outsiders who might not understand the complex dynamics they face.

From culture shock to tragedy and having to find patience in a powerful program, Harris’ experience in Alabama had its rough edges.

It started with moving across the country.

After spending her childhood mostly in Northern California with a stopover in Seattle, the Deep South made Harris uneasy.

“Everything was different,” Harris says. “The way they dressed, what they talked about, what they ate – everything was different. There wasn’t a single thing I could relate to about myself, even in the sport of football.

PART I: Najee Harris Childhood Story of First Touch of Football Glory

It made him feel homesick for the state of California he loved but knew he had to leave behind to build his future. The anguish was clear in Harris’ voice as he relived those confusing times a few years after finding peace with his time in Tuscaloosa.

It just took time. And there was a point where Harris said he would return home to the Bay Area on weekends whenever he had the chance.

“I was even missing flights on purpose so I wouldn’t have to go back to Alabama,” he says. “There was a moment when I told my coach that I wanted to transfer. It just wasn’t me, man. It just wasn’t me.

A few tragic shootings added to the hard times. Two friends were killed in a short time at home, and Harris had his own terrifying encounter. On a trip home to attend a friend’s funeral, Harris says he was driving down a street when he encountered a man in the middle of the street with a shotgun.

Throwing his car into reverse, he hit the car behind him before jumping up and sprinting. He was close enough to see the shot aimed at someone else in an experience that shook him. He describes his old home as a “broken place” after all the violence.

“It’s not what you think it is anymore,” Harris said, police officers told him in Antioch. “Brother, you have to get out.”

Harris leaned on Alabama staff member Evan Van Nostrand, a Navy veteran, in the face of the tragic loss of friends because he knew he could relate.

Being introverted in an unfamiliar place added to the internal struggle. Football expectations added to the stress and outside noise only irritated Harris. He spoke candidly about the frustration he felt when fans tried to pass judgment without having a full understanding of a call or play assignment.

Aversion to “fake” people is a recurring theme in conversations with Harris. And the way fans turned on the team in the rare intersection with adversity bothered Harris to the point that he sometimes avoided interactions outside the stadium after games.

“I was like, ‘You’re all here for all the good things, but when things go wrong, you’re always bashing all these names on Twitter and stuff,'” Harris said. “’You don’t know what someone is going through and they are quick to criticize someone. … If you don’t love me, I don’t lose sleep over stuff like that.

Harris remembers walking with her head down in public hoping not to be recognized, now acknowledging that people “probably thought I was an asshole”.

Having to wait his turn was another new experience for Harris, one he shares with a number of five-star rookies who arrive in a crowded depth chart in Tuscaloosa. Harris was the No. 2 overall recruit for the 2017 class, so there were high expectations upon his arrival. He made waves on his first A-Day with his first hurdle in Alabama, but he wouldn’t be as busy this fall.

A guard who rushed for more than 2,700 yards in each of his last two high school seasons got just 61 freshman carries. Ahead of him were 1,000-yard rusher Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and future first-rounder Josh Jacobs.

There were also some awkward moments with Nick Saban.

“We had a lot of differences early on, let’s just say that,” Harris says. “We started off on the wrong foot at the start. I had a lot of arguments.

This shocked Harris’ mother, Tianna Hicks.

“How do you argue with Nick Saban?” she remembers asking her son with a stunned look.

Damien Harris and Jacobs were back for Najee Harris’ second year which saw an increased workload of 117 carries for 783 yards, but he was still the third option. Playing against top competition ultimately drew Harris east despite cultural differences, but he now admits he didn’t realize it would be such a battle to see meaningful playing time.

“He took it hard because he felt like they could have given him more reps, but he understood that was part of the process,” Harris California trainer Marcus Malu said. to AL.com in 2018. “You have to go through the process and you don’t go to a small university that doesn’t have good backs. You go to the best of the best.

Harris still had his moments early on. With Alabama on a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the 2018 national title game with Georgia, it was Najee Harris on the field. He had three carries, including a 35-yard one to set up the tying touchdown and ultimately 2nd-and-26.

“For them to throw me into the fire as we were losing,” Najee Harris says, “it means Saban really trusted us as a rookie in the biggest game of the year, which made the era of Saban even bigger than she was.”

Still, Harris considers his freshman year his debut. With Damien Harris and Jacobs in the NFL, it was Najee’s show in the backfield. His litters nearly doubled from 117 as a 2nd grader to 209 as a junior. He scored 1,224 rushing yards while catching 27 passes for 304 yards while becoming a household name in college football. Harris’ hurdle and Megan Rapinoe’s pose in South Carolina became one of the iconic moments of the 2019 season.

A breakout year seemed to be his ticket to an early exit from the NFL, the expected path for running backs who came before him like Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Derrick Henry. But Harris said he felt like he “barely had his feet wet”, as a junior, so he returned for a rare 4 year despite his continued struggles to acclimate to life in Alabama. .

“Even though it was tough for me in Alabama, I could handle it,” Harris says. “It wasn’t the worst thing because other people were in even worse situations than that. … It wasn’t my place but I could handle it.

He did.

And it worked.

Harris broke a long list of Alabama records en route to a fifth-place finish at the Heisman and an undefeated national championship. He has no regrets and achieved what he wanted from his time in another world while giving his occasional detractors the national title they craved. He categorizes misguided criticism as life lessons because he knows it will come with an NFL salary and a new fan base.

There was a happy ending for Harris in Tuscaloosa. He lit up with headlong exits from the stadium in his senior year when he realized that mad dash from Tuscaloosa was coming to an end.

“Even though I say I don’t like it there,” he says, “it was the best decision for what I wanted to do in life. One hundred percent.”

Those early clashes with Saban are now a thing of the past, Harris smiles as he reflects on all the trash he talked to the seven-time national champion.

“Me and him have a really, really special relationship,” Harris says with a smile. “That’s why I love this little man.”

That era ended four years and three days after he landed in Birmingham to begin his journey with Crimson Tide. A dominating win over Ohio State on Jan. 11, 2021 capped that chapter with a second national championship ring.

And a day or two after bathing in the confetti of Miami Gardens, Harris would move into his townhouse in Frisco, Texas, to take the next step — one that would affirm physical investments and personal sacrifice.

The NFL dream was within reach, and the four-month sprint to the finish was about to begin.

Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande Or on Facebook.