Gophers defensive lineman Harold Legania meets challenges head on

MINNEAPOLIS — Harold Legania has gone through some adversity on the football field, but it can’t hold a candle to the adversity the Gophers junior has endured away from the game.

Legania, a defensive lineman at Minnesota, grew up in New Orleans. He was a two-star recruit while playing for Edna Karr High School and eventually chose the Gophers over several other options.

Before football became a big part of Legania’s life, he lost another huge part: his father. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the surrounding area of the Gulf Coast in 2005, Legania and his family evacuated New Orleans before the storm hit. They left for Baton Rouge, an 80-mile trip that normally takes just over an hour. Because of the traffic from so many residents fleeing New Orleans, it took the Legania family 17 hours to make the trek.

Legania’s father, Harold, Sr., was very sick with cancer and had been battling the disease for six years. Due to the hurricane, Harold Sr. was not able to get the proper care he needed and eventually lost his fight with disease.

Harold Jr. was just 14 years old and was about to begin high school. He had to do so without a father figure in his life.

“It was a pretty hard thing to get through,” Legania recalls. “The passing of my dad, and then my city going under water, that was a bit of adversity I had to push through also. … As I look back, it was hard. It was really hard.”

Indeed, continuing life without his father was tough on Legania, but he found an outlet in football. After his father passed away, Legania began to grow. He grew around four inches and added 20 to 30 pounds of weight, which certainly helped on the football field. As a defensive lineman at Karr High School, Legania helped his team go 11-2 in 2009 thanks to his 78 tackles, 28 tackles for loss and 10 sacks during his senior season.

Those numbers were good enough to catch the eye of previous Gophers coach Tim Brewster, who helped Legania make the transition from the southern climate of New Orleans to the frigid winters of Minnesota. His New Orleans accent made Legania stand out, and he admits he has changed the way he speaks a bit to fit in better in the Midwest.

Legania had seen it snow twice before in Louisiana, but the snow melted instantly as soon as it hit the ground. His freshman year in Minneapolis — especially the snowy winter — was a big adjustment for Legania.

“My freshman year, that was the worst it had snowed in Minnesota in, like, 20 years I had heard,” he said, a tinge of his Cajun drawl still evident. “It was brutal.”

Legania redshirted in 2010 and then did not play at all in 2011 as a redshirt freshman. Instead, he watched the Gophers under first-year head coach Jerry Kill finish just 3-9.

Last year, Legania finally saw the field as a redshirt sophomore, albeit briefly. He played in three games on the defensive line, debuting in the season opener against UNLV. He recorded his first career tackle against New Hampshire and also played in one Big Ten game against Michigan State.

All that perseverance that Legania had gone through in his life, both on and off the field, was finally starting to appear worth it. He was now a Division I football player. Much like he learned during Hurricane Katrina, Legania was taught how to push through adversity on the football field last season.

Now a redshirt junior, Legania should see a bit more playing time as a reserve defensive lineman. He’s transformed his body in the offseason thanks in part to head strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein and now weighs in at 6-foot-4, 308 pounds. Minnesota’s defensive line has plenty of depth, and Legania is a part of that.

“Harold’s done a great job since I’ve been here in learning how to do what he needs to do,” Kill said. “He’s on track to get his college degree, is on track in school. He’s changed his body type, worked very hard in the offseason with Coach Klein.”

Like any football player, Legania has goals for himself and for the Gophers this season. Before mentioning any personal goals, however, Legania shares that his biggest goal is for the Gophers to win a Big Ten title — something they haven’t done in more than 40 years.

After enduring one of the most devastating hurricanes in recent history, as well as the loss of his father, Legania still somehow manages to wear a smile on his face every day. He’s playing Big Ten football, and he now has a chance to contribute to a Gophers team on the rise.

“I recruited New Orleans all the way back to Southern Illinois, so even though I didn’t recruit him, I knew about Harold through recruiting down there,” Kill said. “You always root for kids like that, no question about that.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter