Charles Harris is not supposed to be here. He wasn’t supposed to make it out of the 3100 block of his beloved hometown, Kansas City, Mo.
“Where I'm from in Kansas City, there's not a lot of positive stuff happening,” recalls Harris. “But the people of my hood helped create me. They probably don’t realize it, but they are a big reason why I’m here.”
At age 12 Harris had become a bit of a troubled teen. Between his mother, Deborah, fighting multiple sclerosis and him dealing with being picked on at school, Harris had developed quite a bit of pent-up anger. Mr. John, Charles’ neighbor, took notice of the frustrated pre-teen and took him under his wing via the world of boxing. Mr. John and Harris would spar and go through various drills at the local YMCA. Boxing gave Charles the opportunity to release his pent-up anger while also helping him develop a whole new level of toughness and resiliency.
“It was so frustrating at times. My mother was this beautiful, sweet woman but she had to deal with this disease that had no cure. Every day I watched her condition get worse and worse. First, she needed assistance to walk, and then it got to the point where she couldn’t really stand and became wheelchair bound,” said Charles. “I would be so mad at myself and feel like I wasn’t good enough because no matter how much I helped around the house I couldn’t make it better. I couldn’t cure her.”
Things were a little tight financially around the Harris household, so Charles didn’t begin to play organized sports until he was nearly in high school. During his freshman year, he signed up for football, but after a week he decided it wasn’t for him and decided to focus solely on basketball.
“To be honest with you, I just couldn’t get down with the idea of letting someone try to knock my head off for fun,” Charles said. “So I told Coach [Lee] Allen I’m a basketball player and quit the team.”
Over the next few years, Charles’ basketball career began to really take off, but Coach Allen always stayed in his ear about returning to the gridiron. If it hadn’t been for an unplanned meeting with the football team during his junior year, Harris may have never given football another chance.
“My friend asked me to go with her to give something to Coach,” remembers Harris. “The whole football squad just happened to be in his classroom at the time. Coach asked me if I was finally ready to come play football, and I was like, ‘Nah, just came with my friend to drop that off.’ Then one of the dudes on the team yelled out something about me being too scared to play football. I couldn’t let that slide. I couldn’t have people thinking that I was too scared to play, have them thinking that I’m weak or soft. Nah, I just couldn’t allow that, so I started going to football practice, and the rest is history I guess.”
In that moment, no one could’ve predicted that Harris would dominate the game of football in the manner that he did. Having zero football knowledge, Charles was still able to rack up six sacks and 40 tackles during his junior year and followed that up with an even better senior campaign. His senior year, Harris wreaked havoc in opposing teams backfield, recording 12 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 60 tackles.
Despite the impressive stats and selection to the third-team All-Metro Kansas City team, he still had been unable to garner any attention from college football programs. As National Signing Day approached, it appeared that Harris would be headed to Missouri Western to play basketball. But then Missouri assistant Andy Hill stumbled across the raw defensive end.
Missouri had just missed out on highly touted recruits Dimarya Mixon and Kolton Shindelar and was scrambling to fill out its recruiting class when Hill discovered Harris and invited him to tour Mizzou.
Harris agreed to visit campus and blew the coaching staff away during drills. A few days later, Mizzou officially offered Harris a scholarship, and he accepted immediately. Charles had just done the unthinkable: he had earned a football scholarship from an SEC school without even having a Rivals profile.
“My family and friends were so happy, but I was like, ‘Do y’all know what I have to do now? I have to work harder, I gotta take my grind to a whole ‘nother level,’” explained Harris. “I have to take my mind and everything thing I do off the field to whole new level.”
Local media pundits were shocked that Missouri had gone out and signed such an unknown. Missouri had just stumbled to a humbling 5-7 record in its inaugural season in the SEC, and now the Tigers were signing a kid that didn’t even have a Rivals page?
Harris, on the other hand, viewed his situation in a completely different way. Instead of being down about the lack of attention, he embraced it.
“With me not having a profile, I didn’t have a baseline. The only thing that I could do was fail. I was already looked at as a failure and a failed recruit. I was thinking to myself like, ‘Well damn I ain’t gotta please none of y’all. Because y’all already think I ain’t shit,” explained Harris. “So when I did start coming up and making plays, I had resentment in my heart. I had resentment in my heart for reporters, for the people that said I wasn’t going to be nothing.”
Harris used that resentment. Since he was well entrenched on the depth chart behind future NFL draft picks Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, Markus Golden, and Shane Ray, Harris redshirted his freshman year. He took this as an opportunity to transform his body and make people notice that he was more than capable of playing at this level.
“I used to compare myself to (Shane) Ray, Markus Golden, Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, all those guys. I used to go to Coach Ivey every day so I could compare myself. I used to grab Shane’s portfolio. I used to look at his numbers and then look at my numbers,” Harris explained. “I used to look at the numbers and say well he ran this today, so by this time next year I should be able to run this too. It's just so amazing how I idolized and I wanted that competitiveness. I wanted to be better than all of them, so I kept working until I was on their level, and then I worked some more.”
As Harris improved and subsequently rose up the depth chart, he began to realize that the resentment that he had was misplaced energy. Instead of focusing solely on proving the naysayers wrong, he changed his mindset and started focusing on proving everyone who was in his corner from day one right. When he made that change, the fanfare and attention from the media followed.
Looking back as the 22nd pick in the NFL Draft, Harris is finally able to find the humor in his come up.
“I still remember all those dudes. I remember all of their little Twitter pages and stuff like that. I remember all the times they said I wasn’t nothing and they couldn’t remember my name,” chuckled Harris. “So now that those same people are rushing up, trying to talk to me, it’s so funny. Three or four years ago they didn’t wanna do this, but now it’s like that.”
While Charles Harris has accomplished most males childhood dream of being a first-round pick, he still that has the edge that got him here. He wants more — his inner dog won’t allow him to become comfortable. He feels that he still has so much left to prove.
“Everyday, I'm still working harder and harder trying to get to some unknown place. I don't have a certain goal. There is no specific number that can satisfy this hunger. I'll always be chasing to be the best. If it's one record that I break there'll be another one that I want.”
Does he fear ever losing his edge? “I never take days off. I feel like I'll never lose that edge. Especially now that I’m starting to get paychecks. My performance will dictate how my family eats and lives. So nah, I'll never lose that edge. That's just ingrained in me. That's how my father is, that's how I am. That's just how it is.”
Charles Harris wasn’t supposed to be here. He wasn’t supposed to believe that he could earn a D-1 scholarship as a 0-star recruit. He wasn’t supposed to lead the SEC in tackles for loss with his signature spin move. He wasn’t supposed to be a first round pick.
And Yet here he is.