Former UWM basketball player gets his chance at NFL

Demetrius Harris hadn't played football in four years, but that didn't stop NFL teams from calling.

Demetrius Harris listened to the cell phone message over and over, excitement both swelling and sinking as his mind examined the possibilities. 

Was the guy on the other line really John Dorsey, the Kansas City Chiefs general manager? Or was it some John Doe, intent on messing with Harris' head?  

"I thought it was a joke," Harris said. "I didn't think it was real. I had to listen to it like three or four times. I called my mama telling her. She was like, 'No, this can't be real.' Then I called one of my friends. Everybody thought it wasn't real. Then, he called me back."

Indeed, this call proved authentic -- as improbable as it all seemed.
Dorsey informed Harris, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee basketball team, that he was interested in scheduling a pro day tryout for him.
Harris hadn't played a down of football in four years, but Dorsey remembered him as a standout high school wide receiver and safety in Arkansas when Dorsey was a Green Bay Packers scout. He had made a note to follow up with Harris when his college basketball career ended.

Now, here was the moment Dorsey had envisioned for years and Harris never saw coming. And one other thing, Dorsey said over the phone. Could Harris be ready in eight days? 

"I wasn't nervous," Harris said. "I love football. I've been playing since I was 5. I was more excited than I was nervous. I just couldn't wait for that day."

The story that followed was one culled from a movie script. Most athletes have two or three months to prepare for a pro day following a bowl game. But Harris' basketball season didn't end until March and with time against him, he enlisted the help of trainer Steve Becker, who owns Athlete Performance in Mequon, Wis. 

Becker couldn't magically transform Harris into an NFL player in a week, so he targeted the numbers Harris would need to impress scouts. He tweaked Harris' start times for agility runs and the 40-yard dash, changing his footwork to help Harris move quicker out of his starting crouch. 

Even before Harris showed up at Engelmann Field on Wisconsin-Milwaukee's campus for his April 5 pro day with Kansas City, Becker had a good feeling about his potential.

"We work with quite a few football guys," Becker said. "The stuff he was doing, we started comparing and contrasting the stuff that had been done in this draft combine. His numbers were above and beyond most of those that we saw."

Harris would run a 4.52-second 40-yard dash in front of Chiefs scouts. For comparison's sake, only one tight end at the NFL Combine, Arkansas' Chris Gragg (4.50) ran a faster 40. Harris also performed well in the vertical jump (36 1/2 inches) and the broad jump (10 feet, 2 inches). Although he bench pressed 225 pounds just twice, he also hadn't weightlifted during basketball season.

"The 40 time and some of the other times that he put up, I was really impressed," Wisconsin-Milwaukee basketball coach Rob Jeter said. "I was shocked, really."

Jeter knew of Harris' football background when he signed Harris for the 2011-12 season out of junior college. Harris was supposed to play college football at Arkansas State, but his ACT score wasn't good enough. Instead, he enrolled at Mineral Area Community College in Park Hills, Mo., to play basketball. In addition to his football skills, Harris had earned all-state honors in basketball and led Jacksonville High to a state title.

When Harris arrived at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, his skill set was raw. But his strength and athleticism helped turn him into one of the team leaders. As a junior, Harris appeared in 19 games and averaged 2.1 points, 1.7 rebounds and 7.6 minutes. During his senior year, he was voted a captain, started 28 of 32 games and averaged 9.1 points with 5.3 rebounds in 25.2 minutes. 

Jeter recalled Harris' final college game as an example of his desire and will to win. Harris battled a severe case of the flu, went to the hospital to receive IV treatment and came back that night to play in the Horizon League tournament. He tallied seven points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes during a loss against Green Bay.

"He's a tough kid," Jeter said. "I just think he can do it, man. I really do. He's got great hands. He's really raw and has a basic understanding of football. But once he gets at that level of the NFL, I know he can athletically compete at that level."

Jeter, whose father, Bob, was a Green Bay Packers cornerback, had intended to use his NFL contacts to land Harris a tryout. But Kansas City scheduled one anyway, allowing Harris' NFL dream to begin without Jeter's assistance. 

When YouTube video of his pro day with Kansas City surfaced, other NFL teams scurried to learn more information about Harris. He worked out for Oakland, Baltimore, Dallas and Philadelphia, among others. And when it became apparent Harris might have a future in pro football, Jeter connected him with sports agent Buddy Baker. 

"Once he put those times up and he was able to get some representation through Buddy Baker, then everything really started for him," Jeter said.

Although Harris wasn't selected during the seven-round NFL draft two weekends ago, a flurry of interest remained for him on the free agent market. Harris said his most substantial interest came from Kansas City and Baltimore. He could have signed a free agent contract with Baltimore, but he wanted to repay Dorsey and the Chiefs for their faith in him when nobody else knew his name.  

"If they've been following me for this long, since I was in high school, the GM, I know he trusts me," Harris said. "He really wants me if he did that. I was just thinking it was my best chance there."

Kansas City's rookie minicamp begins Friday and runs through Sunday, and Harris will be there ready to prove his worth as a football player. In the days leading up to minicamp, he said he was intently studying the Chiefs' playbook. He has been asked to learn two positions: slot receiver and tight end. When Harris last played football in high school, he simply looked at his armband in the huddle to find the right play. Of course, routes in the NFL will be significantly more challenging.

Harris said his whirlwind last two months has made him wonder what life would be like if he'd been able to play football all along in college. He believes he would have been considered a top prospect in the NFL draft given the strides he made in only a week for pro scouts in April.

Still, he doesn't want to let those questions impede the opportunity he has in front of him now. Other players possess more experience, but few hold more potential than Demetrius Harris.

"I've just got to go in there and do what I can do," he said. "Do what I know how to do. I'll always feel like an underdog. I always feel like there's a chip on my shoulder. I'm going to go in there, stay humble and try to outwork everybody at the camp."

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