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Five years ago, Damon Harrison quit his job as an overnight stock boy at Wal-Mart and left his home in Lake Charles, La., for a college he knew nothing about.
Harrison didn't know William Penn University existed until a couple of days before his recruiting trip, when he searched the school on a computer. He thought he was visiting William & Mary. When the recruiter mentioned "William" in their conversation, he immediately assumed it was the school in Virginia.
|Damon Harrison tackles the Patriots' Stevan Ridley back in Week 2.|
One of his former coaches at Northwest Mississippi Community College, Steve Miller, was the new defensive line coach at William Penn, and he needed players. Harrison met Miller and six other potential recruits at NMCC in Senatobia, Miss., and they crammed into a Jeep Cherokee for an eight-hour drive to Oskaloosa, Iowa, home of the William Penn Statesmen -- an NAIA school.
On the drive north, Harrison saw snow for the first time.
He laughed at the memory as he stood last week in the plush New York Jets locker room. He starts at nose tackle for the Jets, only one year after arriving as an undrafted free agent. "Big Snacks," the nickname he received as a rookie, is now a Big Deal.
"The whole journey in itself, it's a whole lot more than people know," said Harrison, who once served as the water boy on his middle school team because he wasn't good enough to play. "It's amazing, man. It's a blessing."
The Jets' area scouts spend the entire fall on the road, driving from school to school in search of talent. The typical scout is on the road for 150 days a year and will visit 42 to 44 schools, knowing ahead of time that at least 20 of those schools will produce no one good enough to hear their name called at Radio City Music Hall in April.
For every Michigan, there's a William Penn.
But they make the trips anyway, because you never know.
"We're all hoping," Jeff Bauer said. "As an area scout, you know that on 50 percent of your stops, you won't see anyone that will be drafted. But you keep grinding, looking for that one guy."
Bauer is the Jets' director of college scouting, but he spent 11 years as their Midwest scout, covering Minnesota to Texas and Kansas to Indiana. At heart, he's an Iowa man. He lives in Ankeny, where he was born and raised, and he played football at Iowa State. He knows the state better than MapQuest.
Before the 2011 season, Bauer was assigned to write a report on a 6-foot-2, 347-pound defensive tackle named Damon Harrison, whose name appeared on the NFL scouting combine's list of prospects. At the time, Harrison was just one of 400 names on the list.
But you never know.
Bauer got in his car in September 2011 and drove to Oskaloosa, a city of 11,500 in the middle of the state. It was only the second time he had visited William Penn.
Harrison tried out for his middle school football team. He got cut.
He tried out the following year. He got cut again.
He wanted to stay involved, so he accepted a position as a water boy. That lasted only a couple of weeks because he got tired of being ridiculed by his friends.
"Being told you're not good enough that many times ... all your friends are playing. My brother played football in high school -- yeah, it was discouraging," Harrison said.
So he stuck with basketball, his first love, becoming a highly skilled, 205-pound point guard. Football seemed over for him, but a series of random events led him back.
In his junior year, Harrison came down awkwardly with a rebound and his knee swelled. He'll never forget the date -- Nov. 29 -- because it was his birthday. It was a torn meniscus, which required surgery -- the first of four operations, two on each knee.
During his convalescence, Harrison ballooned to 255 pounds. There aren't too many 6-foot-2 power forwards, so he decided to give football one more chance. This time, he made the team, but he wasn't happy on the bench. He was on the verge of quitting when the offensive lineman ahead of him suffered an injury. Just like that, the water boy was starting.
|Harrison consoles quarterback Geno Smith after the team's loss to the Pats.|
Only two replied, and one was Miller, an assistant at NMCC. He studied Harrison's basketball tapes and saw a freakish athlete, so he offered him a spot on the team as a left tackle.
Harrison's joy was short-lived because, by the time he arrived in Senatobia, he had lost his spot to a transfer from the University of Miami. He was victimized by the politics of college sports. He also discovered that, with only one year of experience, he was far behind the others in terms of fundamentals. He was gray-shirted, meaning he had to pay his own way.
"He was very unhappy," said Miller, who had accepted a position at Arkansas State before the season.
Unwanted by NMCC, Harrison went home to Lake Charles and started stocking shelves, thinking his football career was finished before it really started. He had only one thing working for him: his relationship with Miller. That, as it turned out, changed everything.
When Miller landed the job at William Penn, he invited Harrison to visit the school. So Harrison bought a ticket on a Greyhound bus and rode to Senatobia, where he met Miller and six others for the long drive to Oskaloosa.
Miller estimated the average size of each player was 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, making the car a can of sardines on four wheels. It was so jammed with bodies and luggage that it took 20 minutes to reload the Cherokee after a rest stop.
"There was no room for a bag of peanuts," Miller said.
Harrison was only 250 pounds when he arrived at William Penn, where he made sure to capitalize on the school's meal plan. Based on Miller's observation, Harrison didn't get enough to eat at home, where his mother worked two jobs to support the family. At college, he was a fixture in the dining hall, sometimes sitting for an hour per meal.
He ate his way to 360 pounds, yet managed to maintain his small-man athleticism. It was on display during one memorable day in the gymnasium.
Iowa defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn, who would become a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011, created a stir on campus when he showed up and wowed onlookers with a dunking exhibition. People urged Harrison to give it a try. He grabbed a ball, and the former point guard one-upped Clayborn with a one-handed, 360-degree dunk.
"It was 360 degrees at 360 pounds," Miller said. "The whole gym went crazy."
Despite Harrison's weight fluctuations, due in part to the multiple knee surgeries, Harrison dominated on the NAIA level. Division I schools tried to steal him away, but he remained true to William Penn. By his senior year, pro scouts started showing up on campus.
A Bucs scout was the first to arrive. After watching Harrison's tape, the scout told Miller, "Coach, this is very rare."
When Bauer arrived at William Penn on behalf of the Jets, he watched tape of Harrison's junior year and the first couple of games of his senior season. He sat with Harrison for an hour, a get-acquainted chat. That's one of the advantages of scouting at a small school -- a scout can spend quality time with the players.
Bauer learned Harrison's story -- about his late start in football, about his wasted year at community college, about his strong desire to provide for his family and about his history of knee injuries. The knee problems, Bauer concluded, contributed to Harrison's conditioning issues. This wasn't a lazy athlete, as some scouts assumed.
"You just knew this kid had what it took," Bauer said. "He dominated at that level -- not all the time like you want to see, but he got better and better."
Bauer, with cross-checking from fellow area scout Matt Bazirgan, wrote a glowing report of Harrison, giving him a seventh-round grade. He was a "sticker" player on the Jets' 2012 draft board.Former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum established a practice in which each area scout was allowed to identify one priority free agent by placing a sticker of himself -- a mug shot of the scout -- next to the player's name on the board.
Bauer picked Harrison.
The sticker guy stuck, the only undrafted free agent to make last year's team out of training camp. He didn't play much, only a handful of plays in five games, but he'll never forget his NFL debut. It was "Monday Night Football" against the Houston Texans, and he was so awed by the moment that he was oblivious to conversations around him.
"Mo (Wilkerson) and Mike DeVito were trying to talk to me," Harrison said, "but I didn't hear anything."
It was a long way from William Penn, where the average home crowd was about 800.
This season, the former water boy, capitalizing on an injury to Kenrick Ellis, has claimed the starting nose-tackle job. From the outside, Harrison might be seen as the outcast on a defensive line that includes three first-round picks -- Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and Sheldon Richardson -- but his value transcends his football pedigree.
In Sunday's win over the Buffalo Bills, Harrison was on the field for four of the Jets' eight sacks, setting up Richardson's sack by bulldozing center Eric Wood -- the same Wood who recently signed a four-year, $25 million contract extension. After the game, Richardson gave Harrison a shout-out on Twitter.
"I always knew he was special," said Miller, his old college coach, "but I didn't realize he was NFL special."
Meanwhile, somewhere on the road, Bauer is smiling.
"It makes you proud," he said. "I love Damon as a person. He's one of those kids you want to cheer for. We spend a lot of time on the road. To see it pay off, yeah, it's fun."
Because you never know.