Alabama's Najee Harris redefining what it means to be a star college athlete in the 21st century
They used to call Najee Harris “the enigma.”
The No. 3 prospect in the 2017 247Composite kept his recruiting process shrouded in mystery. Back then, 18-year-old Harris was the furious product of a tumultuous upbringing, his one source of stability the notion of pummeling opposing football players with reckless abandon.
Three years later, the Alabama running back runs with that same rage. But he’s not a mystery anymore.
Between his ascent through the program’s list of all-time greats and his choice to thrust himself into the social spotlight, Harris is redefining the experience of today’s top-tier college athlete.
On the football side, he’s a potential Heisman Trophy finalist and within reach of surpassing Derrick Henry as Bama’s all-time leading rusher. (With 2,475 career yards, Harris is 1,117 yards shy of that mark.) Harris’ offseason gains from training with former Auburn running back Brad Lester — which included racing against drones — were evident in Saturday’s 3-touchdown, 5.8-yards-per-carry performance against Missouri.
Harris’ 98 yards moved him into 14th on Alabama’s career charts.
“I didn’t even know I was on track to do that until I got tagged in something after the game,” Harris said this week. “It ain’t really a goal, it’s not my personal goal. My personal goal is to really be more of like a spokesman person because I suck at that right now with my teammates. I’m not really that type of guy to be in front of people and, like, talk. I’m not really that type of guy.”
It’s that transformation that truly sets Harris apart.
Finding a voice
Alongside the likes of Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, the 22-year-old senior was one of the main voices in college football’s “#WeWantToPlay” movement as COVID-19 threatened to cancel the season. He helped lead Alabama’s response to the social unrest sweeping across America this summer.
The dude even has his own YouTube series.
Show us a better example of the evolving voice of players in big-time college sports.
Harris’ digits were some of the first on the group text of college football players across the country who demanded the sport’s fragmented leadership give them a chance to play under coronavirus-related protocols. After naming themselves the “College Football Players Association,” the loosely-organized bunch spearheaded momentum that ultimately led the SEC, Big 12, ACC, Big Ten and most recently the Pac-12 to play football in some fashion this fall.
It also laid the groundwork for the potential unionization, or at the very least increased player rights, once we move past the madness of 2020.
“We all just came together and said we need to hear our voices,” Harris said. “I think personally that we actually made an impact. … For us to let us play, it was a lot of relief on our side, the coaches, too, the players, everybody in Alabama, really.
“It could’ve been taken away from us.”
When he wasn’t lobbying for fall football amid the pandemic or helping organize the Crimson Tide’s anti-racism march, Harris was working with Birmingham-based production company Q6 Media to star in a three-part series entitled “The Campaign.”
It’s a behind-the-scenes look at Harris’ preparation for his senior season. The installments feature him training with Lester and former Kansas City Chiefs back Derrick Blaylock, a tour of Alabama’s pristine football facilities and a review of The Varsity’s fare in Atlanta (for the record, Harris referred to the famous hotspot’s offerings as “cafeteria food”).
“It was really a hobby I could do during the quarantine,” Harris said. “I wasn’t really focused on it. As a running back, it’s hard to win a Heisman if we’re being realistic here nowadays, especially with all these great quarterbacks. It was really just a hobby.”
— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) September 27, 2020
It also shows Harris eating at multiple restaurants, visiting a hot yoga studio and recovering in a cryogenic chamber following a workout.
Once the NCAA’s Name, Image and Likeness rules are finalized, you can imagine all those types of establishments shelling out good money for placement in that type of content.
This is the future of college athletics’ business model, where players’ personal brands become profitable while helping those of their institutions remain money makers. Bama coach Nick Saban’s mission statement has come to include the opportunity for his players to “create value for themselves,” and even he admits that goes beyond their NFL stock.
You have to wonder how others in the Tide athletic department — which, like others throughout the Power 5, has invested heavily in its own content creation resources — feels about the football team’s star running back striking out on his own. This is the can of worms that comes with the social media-ization of athletics.
Started from the bottom
That’s a paradigm shift college programs will have to figure out. But regardless, there’s no denying the meaning of Harris’ rise.
Especially considering where he started.
Although he claims Antioch, California, as his hometown, you could ask a toddler to scribble on a map of the West Coast and it might come close to depicting Harris’ journey from town to town. According to 247Sports, Harris and four older siblings grew up bouncing around the Bay Area and spent several stints in Seattle. Their father abused both them and their mother, Tianna Hicks, and Harris remembers being in and out of homeless shelters.
“Staying in a house is the best thing,” Harris told 247’s Chris Hummer in 2017.
Hummer’s fantastic reporting revealed an angry youth who once tore apart an entire classroom and kicked his principal in the stomach.
Harris described himself as “a little a**-hole.” The Harris’ stay at a Seattle special assisted living center designed for families in crisis provided a turning point.
Harris’ sister went on to a “dream job” at Macy’s. One brother played college basketball, another opened up a burrito shop and the third became an aspiring Bay Area rapper.
And Najee, considered the most well-rounded back in the 2021 NFL Draft class, has found his purpose on and off the gridiron. First at Antioch High School, now at Alabama, and likely in an NFL future that would afford him opportunities he never dreamed of as a kid.
He’s already made good on a lot of them.