By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
On graduation day, four or five or who knows how many years into one’s college days, you expect to put on your cap and gown and listen to words of wisdom from a commencement speaker more along the lines of Henry Kissinger or Bill Clinton, but that is not to say it is only a day for an academic elitist.
And so it was that the West Virginia University College of Sports Sciences and Physical Education graduates spent their 2013 graduation day listening to a man who may not have split the atom but one who had split the gap between a defensive end and an outside linebacker on an option play better than anyone who ever wore the old gold and blue of the Mountaineers.
His name is Major Harris, and considering that this class is leaving the academic world and heading off into the real world, a place where the answers are not found in textbooks, but instead learned by trial and error, there is no one who can really teach them much more.
Harris’ skills were unmatched as he came out of Brashear High in Pittsburgh, a hotly recruited prospect over which the Backyard Brawl rivals West Virginia and Pitt battled.
“Coming out of high school my goal was to play professional basketball,” Harris told the graduates, “but I was getting all this publicity in football, so my goal in life changed. Just like, you might want to be one thing and it might change. You just have to roll with the punches.”
Indeed. Harris was trying to use his football prowess to allow him a chance to play basketball, too.
“I figured I could parlay that into an offer where I could play both sports. When I got here, it wasn’t happening. Coach (Don) Nehlen said I couldn’t play basketball.”
So he rolled with the punches.
Nehlen had already done enough for him. Pitt, you see, wanted him to play defense, this being the mid-1980s, a quarter of a century ago, and black athletes were not normally landing quarterback jobs. But Nehlen saw him as a quarterback and as a leader of men and opened that door for him.
Garrett Ford, one of the great running backs in WVU history and one of the first players to integrate the football program, followed Harris’ career.
“I had the opportunity to see him grow into the person he is today,” Ford said during his introduction. “He chose WVU because he knew he would play QB.”
And play it like no one before him.
He led the Mountaineers to the Sun Bowl against Oklahoma State, then to its first unbeaten season and a shot at the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, but they lost a game Nehlen has always maintained they would have won had not Harris injured his shoulder in the first series.
Talk about rolling with the punches.
There was, however, a matter of guidance, and Harris got some bad advice. He had never been a selfish player or one out for personal glory, always putting the team first.
Rather than stay as a senior, Harris left for the NFL, which was not as ready for a mobile quarterback as it is today. He lasted until the ninth round, as difficult as that is to believe, wound up being drafted by Oakland and never played there, winding up going to Canada and being injured.
So there he was.
“There was a saying when I was back in college about the dumb jock, about the situation where the guy played football, basketball or baseball and left college and he didn’t have his degree. That ended up being me,” he told the graduates.
“There it was, I played three years and left to turn pro and didn’t have my degree. When I left to turn pro it didn’t work the way I wanted it to work out, so I ended up being that dumb jock we were always talking about.”
Harris wasn’t going to accept that.
“I said I’ve got to do something about this. So in 1993 I came back to school and ended finishing up my degree. When I look back, that was the best thing that ever happened to me. You hear the story about how it’s something they can’t take away from you. Well, it’s true. Even though it’s over 20 years, the degree is the one thing no one can take,” Harris said.
And this brought him to the point he wanted to make.
“Sometimes in life you feel like you got the short end of the stick and people use those circumstances against themselves, thinking, ‘Well, if I do this, I’m going to fail anyway.’ Well, the way the system is set up you gotta do what you gotta do. What I mean is if the system says you gotta get a degree to be a doctor or you gotta get a degree to be a lawyer, well that’s what you got to do.
“Then if it doesn’t work out for you, then you can complain. But you can’t complain if you didn’t do it. A lot of times you hear a lot of people saying, ‘Life ain’t fair; it ain’t fair.’ Well, whatever happens in life, keep struggling, keep fighting, if it doesn’t work out.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.