Once or twice a week, a veteran NFL running back can be found training at Wesley Chapel District Park, readying for another shot to play on Sundays.
“I’ll get that call soon. I know how the game goes,” he says.
Indeed, Brooksville native DuJuan Harris knows pro football all too well.
Since 2011, the 29-year-old has bounced around to eight NFL franchises across both coasts, in various capacities.
It has included multiple stints with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2011, 2017), and stops with the Pittsburgh Steelers (2012), Green Bay Packers (2012 to 2014), Minnesota Vikings (2015), Seattle Seahawks (2015), Baltimore Ravens (2015) and San Francisco 49ers (2015 to 2016).
He’s spent just weeks with some teams, and months with others. He’s been on practice squads and active rosters. He’s even been a starter multiple times.
For Harris, it’s all been a “blessing.”
“I’ve bounced around to a lot of different places, but I got to meet a lot of great guys. I played side by side with some future Hall of Famers and some Hall of Famers now, so it’s been amazing. It’s been tough, but I wouldn’t try to change it for anything; every team has been fun.”
More recently, Harris spent preseason and training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars, until he was released in September.
It’s not the first time he’s been cut, and it surely won’t be the last — should another NFL opportunity arise.
“Every year you’ve got to prove yourself, so it’s a grind,” Harris says. “It’s a different kind of life, definitely. It’s been a struggle throughout my career…”
The average NFL career is 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players Association.
It’s undoubtedly shorter for undrafted free agents, like Harris.
“You can make the same mistake as a first-round guy, and (coaches) are going to pat him on the back and say, ‘Oh, it’s OK.’ You make that same mistake (as an undrafted player), you’re going to be gone,” Harris explains.
The circumstances entering the league don’t matter anymore to Harris.
Instead, he bides his time, relishing the chance to prove himself once again as a veteran player.
“It’s something that I hold my head up for when I go to new teams,” he says. “I don’t get nervous about anything. I feel like you see someone new come in that door, you’re going to have to worry. That’s how it is in the NFL. That’s what I tell some younger guys, ‘Don’t get down when you get released.’”
Whatever the reason, Harris consistently has been overlooked as a football player.
Despite starring at Central High School in Brooksville — where he recorded 3,000 career rushing yards and 45 touchdowns, and holds a Hernando County record for the most yards in a single game with 363 yards and five touchdowns — Harris only had offers from Troy (Alabama) University and Florida A&M University.
And, after a prolific four-year college career at Troy — nearly 3,200 scrimmage yards and 32 touchdowns — Harris didn’t receive an invite to the NFL combine.
Perhaps it’s his stature. He stands at just 5-foot-7.
It’s certainly not his athleticism or aggressive running style.
At 206 pounds, the chiseled Harris recorded the highest vertical leap (41.5 inches) and fastest 40-yard dash time (4.37 seconds) on his college team.
But, an eye-opening pro day workout wasn’t enough to have Harris’ name among the 254 chosen during the 2011 NFL Draft, either.
“I didn’t mind even not getting my name called on draft day,” Harris says. “I really just wanted to hear my name called for my family. Just for them to hear it and for them to cheer about something. Other than that, my mindset is, ‘I’m going to play football anyway. I’m going to be in the NFL, I’m going to get my respect one way or another, if I’m going to get picked or not.’”
He’s done that year in, year out.
In 38 career NFL games, Harris has tallied 590 rushing yards, 244 receiving yards and three touchdowns. In regular season action, he’s proven to be a productive back, averaging a career 4.1 yards per carry, and a reliable pass-catcher, with 21 receptions.
Harris, meanwhile, is confident he can still make plays, at 29 years old — aging by NFL standards.
“There’s older guys that can still do it, and I feel like if they can, then I can, too. It’s doable,” he says.
His newfound athletic trainer, Bebe Roberts, also shares the sentiment.
“He’s amazingly fast, but I didn’t know he was that fast,” Roberts says of observing Harris in a recent workout.
Roberts is a former Wesley Chapel High School track star. He’s worked out other NFL hopefuls through his athletic training company, Fast Sprint Quick Performance LLC.
His relationship with Harris dates back to high school, when they went head-to-head in local track meets — where Roberts beat the NFL player in the 100-meter dash. “He brings that up all the time,” Roberts jokes.
Roberts’ job is to maintain the NFL veteran’s speed and flexibility, through hip stabilizers and other routine running back drills.
“He’s a running back, so we don’t want him to get tight, especially in the offseason,” Roberts explains. “I did a lot of research on him, so I could help make him a better athlete.”
Those personalized workouts are critical to Harris, who’s fighting to stay in the sport that skews young.
“Every year since my rookie year, it’s been the same thing. Just pretty much trying to work on everything. In this league, you learn something every year—and people get better every year,” he says.
“You just got to stay prepared. You could have a skill set that’s pretty good, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you all the time. You’ve got to keep working at it.”
Harris has temporarily settled in Wesley Chapel with his family, while he awaits his next football opportunity.
With ample downtime, he’s been assisting in his wife’s custom wig business, DarVida by Keysha.
“She makes the wigs, and I take care of everything else; we make a good team,” says Harris, noting he developed the professional website.
Interestingly, it’s not the first non-NFL job he’s had.
Harris garnered national headlines in the 2012 season, when he went from working at a Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge dealership in Jacksonville to the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad, eventually working his way onto the active roster as a starter.
That year, Harris took the sales job to supplement his income, as he awaited his next NFL roster spot.
Harris recalls the unique circumstance:
“I’m not a big spender, but during the offseason there’s only so far that your money can stretch. I didn’t have enough to get me through an offseason and some of the season, so I had to get up and work. I couldn’t just sit around and wait for something to happen.
“The process of getting a job was new for me. I never had to go in for an interview, dress nice and everything else. It all was new to me. I was only there for a week —didn’t sell a car, but came close on a couple.
“It was fun, and I was thankful for them giving me the opportunity. I was doing workouts in between, got a call from Green Bay, and they asked me if I wanted to fly out the next day.”
Now Harris hopes for a similar call, from any of the 32 NFL franchises — or even the Canadian Football League.
It may come sooner than later, as injuries mount and wide-eyed rookies make mistakes.
“In this game, if a young guy’s not doing too well, they’re going to go to a vet, no matter what. I’ll get my name called soon,” he said.
Additional Q-and-A with veteran NFL running back DuJuan Harris
On having his No. 20 jersey retired at Central High School’s Sept. 29 Homecoming game:
“It didn’t hit me until I got on the field. I was thinking, like, ‘Wow, nobody in this school is ever going to wear my number again.’ It kind of just hit me. My wife was trying to ask me, ‘Did it really set in yet?’ She saw, once I kind of got some tears in my eyes.”
On the challenge of bouncing from various NFL franchises, with a family at home:
“That’s when it got hard. When I was by myself it was simple. …Just bouncing around from place to place, sometimes I’ve got to leave my wife, and for her to take care of things on her own—I hate having to do that. When you get to a new city and she has to go, now she’s in a new place by herself. So, that’s another thing that I’ve got to try to worry about on top of all the new (stuff) I’ve got to get ready for. So, it’s difficult, but it is what it is. We’d rather go through all of it now.”
On the feeling of getting released:
“You might feel like you’re an outcast when you leave ‘here’ and get released ‘here,’ and you might feel a little embarrassed, and you want to be in your shell. But, when you get a call from another team and go there, there’s guys in that locker room that are going to worry because, ‘Hey, they just brought in a new running back, who’s going to go?’ And in this league, it’s a numbers game. You just can’t really think about all the negativity in the league because there’s a lot. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
On what he misses most about the NFL:
“Just pretty much being in that (locker) room. Just that atmosphere itself, it’s amazing, and it’s something that a lot of people wish they could be apart of. If I get another opportunity to prolong my career, it would be a blessing…”
On the difficulty of learning an NFL playbook, especially in a short period of time:
“It’s definitely not like the video games. You’ve got to learn a new language pretty much. It’s a little difficult. One word might mean something for one team and it means something else for another. And then the routes, they call the routes a little differently. But, it’s a copycat league. Everything you pretty much learn from other teams, you end up running that same play. …I go to one team, and I just try to learn the basics and then go from there. You’ve just got to put in the time. There’s a lot more to it than people think.”
Published October 25, 2017