TALLAHASSEE — No matter where he may be, no matter what he may be doing at the time, Florida State junior cornerback Michael Harris hears his mother's voice:
"Handle your business," Gwendolyn Harris would say.
Over and over, down through the years, she'd repeat those three little words.
"Handle your business."
It's the mantra Harris followed to mature quickly when he moved from Miami to Torrance, Calif., to attend junior college. It's the mantra that allowed him to transition seamlessly from an option quarterback to a new position at El Camino College.
And it's the mantra that helped him to develop the inner strength to continue working hard in the classroom and the football field even after tragedy — his mother's death the day of FSU's season opener.
"I got a lot of support from my teammates and academic staff and coaches," he said. "Everybody rallied behind me. I just knew they had my back and would continue to keep me pushing. And I know this is something my mom wanted me to do so that motivates me each and every day."
Ask FSU coach Jimbo Fisher about Harris, 21, and he'll breathlessly go on and on about his instincts, fundamentals and passion.
Though primarily used as a nickel back, a role that will expand this weekend as the Seminoles (7-3, 5-2 ACC) travel to Maryland (7-3, 4-2) for a game each must win to have a shot at the league's Atlantic Division title, Harris has put together quite the highlight reel.
"Coach (Mark) Stoops has a great scheme to put me in a position to make plays on the ball, and I just do my part," the unassuming Harris said of FSU's defensive coordinator.
Last week against Clemson, he corralled a ball deflected by linebacker Kendall Smith to stop a drive in the waning seconds of the first half.
"We have to get Mike on the field; he's doing too good a job," Fisher said. "And Mike's a tough guy, now."
Not just physically.
Harris didn't qualify academically coming out of South Miami High, but he had the singularity of purpose not to abandon his dream. He started attending a second-chance camp run by David Silveira, who has helped shepherd countless youngsters back on the road to college.
"He's a kid who works hard," Silveira said. "He just understands what he's got to do to succeed. It's the way he was brought up."
When Harris earned an opportunity at El Camino, where Silveira had sent several players before, including former FSU receiver Corey Surrency, his mother told him it was a "business trip."
That meant he better not get too comfortable. He had to handle his business — all of it — and that meant studying, paying his bills, shopping for groceries and improving on the football field.
"Being across the United States in California, I had to take a lot more responsibility and I had to take care of my own," he said.
Gwendolyn Harris had her first stroke when Michael and his youngest brother, Anthony, were on a football field playing Pop Warner ball. But she showed her children a quiet strength and fought through her health problems.
On the day of the Seminoles' opener, she had excitedly phoned Michael and Anthony, 20, a freshman defensive back at Mt. San Antonio College in California who was readying for a game, to remind them both — as if they needed it — to handle their business. She couldn't go to Tallahassee on Sept. 4, but she planned to watch the Samford game at a sports bar. She had never seen Michael play a college game.
"When she walked in and saw the TV she said, 'I can't wait to see my boy get his interception,' " said his sister, Vashanta Harris, 31, the oldest of four siblings.
Harris did in fact have an interception in the game.
His mother, a football fanatic who would read every story that mentioned her sons "like 20,000 times a day," her daughter said, never saw the play. By 12:10, just a few minutes after the opening kickoff, she was on the way to the hospital with another stroke and died later that day. She was 52.
Instead of frantically racing home or inconsolably sequestering himself in his room, Harris continued to go to his class that next week. He continued to hit the practice field to prepare for the Seminoles' game at Oklahoma as he knew his mother would expect.
He handled his business.
"One thing my mom instilled in all of us is that things are going to come at you from different angles but you put one foot in front of the other and do what you have to do," Vashanta Harris said. "Michael has that inner strength (to do that). That's something I admire. That's something I look at and it gives me strength."
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347.