TAMPA — Only a short fence separates one of the Tampa Catholic end zones from the apartment building that overlooks the football field. On autumn nights when he was sure the Crusaders would win big, Demond Snyder had been known to walk down the hall from his apartment and hang over the building’s balcony to cheer on his stepson, T.J. Harrell.
For three years, Harrell has lived just steps away from his second home, the place where the 6-foot-1 athlete most recently carried a Crusader team through a season spent largely atop the state’s Class 3A standings.
Following Tampa Catholic’s ousting in the state semifinals on Nov. 29, Harrell’s were some of the only dry eyes in the huddle. That’s because the four-star recruit knew football was still in his future.
Where and in what capacity, however, was — and still is — unknown.
As national signing day (Feb. 5) looms, time is running out for Harrell to choose between his 25-plus Division I-A offers. He might be leaving one home behind, but soon he’ll gain a new one. And that’s a decision he’s not about to rush.
“The schools that really want me won’t pressure me. They’ll sit back and wait,” he said.
“’We’ll have room for a good player like you,’ that’s basically what they’ve been telling me.”
An inherited passion
Harrell’s mother wanted her young son to play baseball. It was safer, she said. When Snyder came into his stepson’s life, he had a different idea.
Snyder played linebacker for Earl Garcia at Hillsborough High school from 1991-93 and kept a passion for the game long after his own playing days were over. When Snyder looked at Harrell, he didn’t see a little slugger.
“Since the first day I met him, I knew he was a football player. He was one of those boys’ boys, one of those rough, get in the dirt, always laughing and doing something he shouldn’t be doing type of boys,” Snyder said, laughing. “I love that about him.”
At Snyder’s urging, Harrell starting playing tackle football at age 5 for the Boys and Girls Club league, and his stepfather trained him at home by teaching him proper technique. By the time he started at Tampa Catholic, Harrell, one of a handful of freshmen on the varsity roster, started on defense.
From the beginning, Harrell said, he missed the feeling of having the ball in his hands.
Harrell played running back in youth football over the years, but it wasn’t until his junior season at Tampa Catholic that the coaching staff first tried him out at running back. As soon as they did, it paid off heartily for the Crusaders.
During his junior and senior seasons, Harrell combined for more than 1,200 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns while also playing linebacker and safety. Harrell said he spent 75 percent of his time in practice working with the defense. Being a defender, coach Mike Gregory said, was Harrell’s primary role.
But now and then, when the Crusaders needed an extra spark, Gregory knew whose hands to put the ball.
“If you look at his ratio of touchdowns to how many carries he has, it’s almost like everything he touches turns to gold,” Gregory said.
“He just gets the ball in his hands and he’ll find a way.”
An all-consuming process
Even when Harrell tries to escape football and the big decision he has to make, he can’t.
“You think about it when you’re in the shower, you think about it when you’re doing your homework, think about it at school,” Harrell said in November. “You think about it all the time, no matter when. It doesn’t leave my mind at all.”
To make matters even more complicated, schools are recruiting Harrell to play different positions — either running back, safety or linebacker. Harrell has only been on one official visit — he went to Michigan State to see the Spartans take on Michigan in November — but has visits planned to other schools every weekend until signing day.
Harrell said he’s narrowed his options down to Texas, Louisville and Michigan State, but likely won’t make a decision until he signs his name on the dotted line. Louisville wants him to play defensive back, Texas wants him to play running back, and at Michigan State, he said, it could be any of the three positions.
As for his preference? That’s one outcome that doesn’t concern him.
“No,” Harrell said, his grin as wide as the field — his home — right behind him. “I’m playing football regardless.”
Kelly Parsons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @_kellyparsons.