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In the limelight at last


DuJuan Harris has carried the same news article in his wallet for years.

It's about another running back, Emmitt Smith, who critics claimed was too small to play the position.

We know how that ended up — with Smith's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

For Harris, it's a source of motivation. A reminder: Don't let the doubters get to you.

And he's doing just that.

A former Central High School star, Harris has been overlooked and undervalued throughout his football career. He got only one Division I-A offer to play in college. In the National Football League, he bounced among teams before being cut last fall. Unemployed, he started working at a car dealership in Jacksonville.

But he never gave up.

Picked up by the Green Bay Packers in October, the 24-year-old Harris advanced from the practice squad to starting running back in less than two months.

On his first possession, he bowled over a defender for an 11-yard gain.

Later that game, he scored his first NFL touchdown.

• • •

Harris was a superstar coming out of Central in 2007.

Coaches there noticed his talent right away.

One day, the coaches were watching a video clip of him in slow motion, said Mike Giorda, a friend and former defensive line coach with Central. Even at reduced speed, they witnessed an amazing burst of speed.

"Fellas, that's a gift from God," Giorda said.

Throughout his high school career, Harris had a remarkable work ethic. He came to practice early and stayed late. He always encouraged his teammates. He was a leader.

"The kid had a heart of gold," Giorda said.

In his senior year with the Bears, he ran for nearly 1,700 yards, scorching one team's defense for 363 yards and setting a county rushing record. He qualified for the state weight-lifting meet. He won state titles in the long jump and triple jump.

But when it came time for him to move on to the collegiate level, the phone was mostly quiet.

The University of Florida wasn't interested. The University of South Florida never came around on signing day. Bethune-Cookman University rejected him — by text message.

He finally got his chance to play college football with Troy University, a Division I-A school in Alabama.

There, he had 540 carries for 2,635 yards, with 27 rushing touchdowns. He caught 79 passes, totaling more than 500 yards, scoring another five TDs.

• • •

Out of college, Harris was picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent.

He spent most of the 2011 NFL season playing on the team's practice squad. With five games left in the season, he was added to the active roster, carrying the ball for 42 yards on nine carries.

But his days with the Jaguars proved to be numbered.

Harris was cut from the team after training camp in 2012.

He was picked up by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but lasted for only four days.

Harris returned to Jacksonville to wait for another shot.

The phone remained silent for weeks.

"I was, like, just waiting for a call for two months," he told the Tampa Bay Times this week. "I just had to keep the faith and continue to work."

He took a job with a Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge dealership.

He was there for a week when the Packers got in touch with him. He was signed to the team's practice squad Oct. 24.

• • •

As injuries piled up for the playoff-bound Packers, Harris was moved up to the active roster on Dec. 1.

Eight days later, he started his first game. He said he tried to keep his emotions in check.

"It's showtime," he remembers thinking to himself.

The Brooksville native called it "a great accomplishment."

"As long as you continue to work hard, good things will happen," he said. "It was an honor to help lead this team to some victories.

"This is what you've been working hard for. This is what you've dreamed of."

He didn't see any of it coming. But he appreciated it — especially since he knew what it was like to be away from the game.

"Once you finally get it back, you cherish it more and do whatever you need to do to stay in it," he said.

Harris went on to score two touchdowns in the playoffs for the Packers — one against Minnesota in the wild card game, the other last weekend in the team's season-ending divisional playoff game against San Francisco.

• • •

Harris says he will continue to try to disprove the doubters. Continue to push himself.

"As long as you keep that, it doesn't matter who doubts you or who says you're not capable," he said.

Harris says he's already looking forward to next season, ready to work with a trainer and continue to improve.

"It's on me to lose it," he said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

In the limelight at last 01/18/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 8:30pm]
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