LAWRENCE — For nearly six weeks last fall, Damien Harris was arguably one of the top five running backs in the National Football League.
It wasn’t a total surprise. He comes from good, though somewhat despised stock: University of Alabama and the New England Patriots — teams that because of their dominance aren’t popular beyond their own fan bases. They are disliked, even resented by much of the college and pro football worlds.
A friend recently told Harris about how COVID-19 not only rocked Lawrence High School, but slowed its football program to a crawl. Harris became interested in the team’s struggle, and Michelle Adamic from the Everyone’s A Player program in Lawrence helped get Harris to the team’s Tuesday practice for a surprise visit.
Originally, he was going to do a video salute to the team. Instead he decided to come to Lawrence.
While Lawrence High, winless in the current Fall 2 shortened season, might not have the success enjoyed by Alabama and the Patriots, Harris doesn’t see a difference. Players at all levels — from high school to college to the pros — share a game that he believes has no match.
“This is the greatest game in the world, the ultimate team sport,” said Harris, who spoke to the players and then stayed around to watch most of the practice. “This is the time you need to stay together, be together as one. This is when you find out about yourself.”
Despite his pedigree, Harris knows about struggles. He was a non-factor as a rookie when the Patriots had their so-so 2019 season, but has emerged as an effective pro runner.
“Every day is an incredible chance to get better,” he said.
At the Lawrence High practice, a few players asked questions of Harris, wanting to know about his aspirations in high school and how he did academically.
“Trust me, every coach knows your GPA,’’ Harris said. “They know when you skip a class. Academics were very important in my home. My mom wouldn’t let me play if my grades weren’t good. I learned that early on. Football is great, but it doesn’t last forever.”
Lawrence High senior captain Eric Gomez was inspired by the impromptu, unexpected visit by the Patriots new star.
“People sometimes look at us like we’re invisible,” said Gomez, one of the toughest high school linemen in the area. “This means a lot — that he looks at us as football players, like he is.”
Sophomore quarterback Julian Rosario, 16, said the visit meant a lot to him.
“He’s no bum. He’s good,” Rosario said of Harris. “It’s nice to see people acknowledge us. I love football just like he does. That’s cool.”
Lawrence High coach Rhandy Audate was floored that Harris wanted to come and talk to the team even though the school didn’t ask him to visit.
“We are a young team, but we have a bright future,” Audate said. “We need this. I need this. This is inspirational. Everything he said was true. Football is the greatest game.”
You can email Bill Burt at email@example.com.