DENVER - The University of Kansas sought another cornerback in its 2007 recruiting class, and Bill Young, the defensive coordinator, had a two-star kid from Oklahoma in mind.
Their competition for future NFL All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris Jr. was pretty much nobody. On one recruiting jaunt to Bixby, a Tulsa suburb where Harris earned all-state honors in two sports, Young ventured into a high school gym to see (and be seen by) Harris in another arena: "He was a real good basketball player. The skills he had at cornerback - ability to break on the ball and change direction - you could see that on the basketball court," Young said. "I'd have to say we wanted Chris pretty bad."
After a long pause, as though he was still worried about losing Harris on national signing day, Young added, "We were pretty concerned he might go to Tulsa, actually."
How's that for a signing day story? One of the five best defensive backs on the planet - something Broncos Country knew for several years, only to become official with Harris being named first-team All-Pro this season - had only two college programs after him.
No offense to either, of course. They were the ones sharp enough to identify Harris as a power-conference talent, a player who combined smarts with skills and an ornery side that endears coaches and infuriates wide receivers. On signing day, it's the oldest story in the recruiting book: Unheralded prospect, a two- or three-star recruit in high school, shatters expectations and overcomes all the odds to build a professional career.
Chris Harris Jr.'s isn't a new story.
But it never gets old. And it's worth telling over and over, just so the two-star running back from the Class 3A school knows it's possible. Or so the Class 2A volleyball libero with shaky grades knows it's possible. Or so the starting pitcher who hasn't hit his or her growth spurt yet knows it's possible. It is possible. I've seen it with Chris Harris.
"I'll never understand it," Harris told me this season about his wild journey from lightly recruited prospect at 17 to undrafted free agent at 21 to All-Pro defensive back at 27. "I think about it. It's just one of those things. They didn't think I was good enough, I guess."
Were you slow? Were you small? What was the deal?
"You'll have to ask them. All I know is I'm here now."
And with that, Chris Harris Jr. laughed a Chris Harris Jr. laugh and rose from his Dove Valley locker, just a few steps away from the Lombardi trophy he won this time last year.
Harris is one of the best football players I've ever seen. His man-to-man coverage is so overwhelming he's become the football equivalent of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf with the Nuggets. It was a shock when Abdul-Rauf missed an open jumper. Likewise, it's a shock when a quarterback completes a pass to the unfortunate wide receiver assigned to Harris.
"It was like that (in college). The first 6-7 games he played as a freshman he hardly had a pass completed on him," said Young, now the defensive coordinator at Tulsa.
Harris played one season alongside Aqib Talib at Kansas. Not too shabby. This season Harris and Talib became the first cornerback duo in NFL history to make first-team All-Pro in the same season. How do his college coaches explain Harris' rise from the unknown?
"I think Chris was a very mature young guy," Young said. "His mother was an athlete herself, and his family did a great job of raising him. He was very respectful. He had all the tools, all the physical tools, along with the mental capacity to get it done. He was a really smart player, a very driven young man. That was probably the biggest thing."
Harris reached the football state championship game in high school, the Orange Bowl in college and the Super Bowl, twice so far, as a professional. These days he has a sports career that includes a $42 million contract, a ring from Super Bowl 50 (the Broncos are champs for four more days, celebrate accordingly), a spot on his first (but not last) All-Pro team, a street named after him in Bixby and, yes, the last laugh.
On signing day, it's possible. Chris Harris is proof.