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 would walk down the hall from his apartment and hang over the building's balcony to cheer his stepson, T.J. Harrell.
For three years, Harrell has lived just steps away from his second home, the place where he recently carried the Crusaders through a season mostly spent atop the state's Class 3A standings.
After Tampa Catholic was ousted in the state high school semifinals Nov. 29, Harrell's were some of the only dry eyes in the huddle. That's because the 6-foot-1 four-star recruit knew football was still in his future.
Where, and in what capacity, however, is still unknown.
As the Feb. 5 national signing day looms, Harrell is still considering his 25-plus Division I-A offers. He might be leaving one home behind, but soon he will be headed for 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 coach Earl Garcia at Hillsborough High from 1991 to 1993 and kept a passion 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. "I love that about him."
At Snyder's urging, Harrell started playing tackle football at age 5 in a Boys and Girls Club league, and his stepfather taught him proper technique at home. By the time he went to 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.
He had played running back in youth football, but it wasn't until his junior season at TC that the coaching staff first tried him at running back. As soon as they did, it paid off for the Crusaders.
During his junior and senior seasons, Harrell rushed for a combined 1,200 yards and 17 touchdowns while also playing linebacker and safety. Harrell said he spent 75 percent of his practice time working with the defense. Being a defender, coach Mike Gregory said, was Harrell's primary role.
But now and then, when the Crusaders needed a spark, Gregory knew whose hands to put the ball in.
"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: running back, safety or linebacker. Harrell has only been on one official visit — Michigan State to see the Spartans host Michigan in November — but he has visits planned to other schools every weekend until signing day.
Harrell said his options are narrowed to Texas, Louisville and Michigan State, but he likely won't make a final decision until he signs his name on the 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.
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.