Damon Harrison played college football at William Penn University. Don't worry, I haven't heard of it either. It was an NAIA Division II programme, and understandably, it didn't earn him a lot of NFL attention. In fact, he took part in Iowa State's pro-day just to get a little bit more of a spotlight, and to some degree, it worked. Yes, he wasn't picked in the 2012 NFL Draft, but he caught on with the New York Jets as an undrafted free-agent, and from there, things only went up.
An inconsequential rookie year gave way to an open competition at defensive tackle in 2013, and Harrison fought his way -- improbably, but definitively -- to the top of the depth chart. He was an immediate impact player for the Jets, who really needed some help at the position after losing Kenrick Ellis early in the year. Since 2013, Harrison has started all 48 out of 48 games. That's why when he hit the open market this past off-season, the New York Giants pounced and signed him to a $46 million contract. From an undrafted small schooler to a premium free-agent, Harrison has finally climbed the mountain that many can only dream about.
So, what was the first big purchase for a young man with lots of cash? A house for his mom. Meeting with the media after the first day of OTAs with the Giants, Harrison dished about his recent purchase.
"I went down there and surprised her. It was a house she wanted for a while and it was unexpected, so she cried and my fiancé cried as well, so everybody was emotional in the house. I didn't.", said Harrison, following up with a clarification on that last part when prompted by a reporter asking if he really didn't cry, "I did. I just didn't want to tell you guys."
Going back a little further, though, we get a better picture of why this bigger than just another football player looking after those who are close. You see, the house is in Louisiana. Harrison and his whole family, they're Louisiana natives. A lot of that area is wealthy, and the rest, they aren't so lucky. It's very much a state of stark contrast and Harrison wasn't one of those on the bright side of that divide.
Today, a star NFL lineman met with the media for the first time with his new team, and he described what it was like growing up in an overcrowded apartment, and then having to lose even that at one point.
"Projects, man. Apartments, if that is what you want to call it, in New Iberia, Louisiana and in Lake Charles.", said Harrison. He seems like a nice guy. Affable. Someone you'd want to give a great big bear hug to if not for the fear he may reciprocate and squeeze you too hard. "Regular project apartment. There were three bedrooms, the kitchen, living room, dining room and playroom all together, all in one room. A small bathroom, so now, I told my mom, I was joking with her and told her that whole apartment can fit in her kitchen now. I'm still smiling on the inside. I just got done texting with her and she said she is still crying."
"Katrina and Rita, yes ma'am", he answers with certain southern knowing when asked if he was affected by the hurricanes that hit Louisiana in 2005. He was still in high school at the time, but his family -- six kids total -- had to give up their humble living space and brave the Superdome "for some time".
Up until a few years ago, Harrison's story was tragically common. Most of those affected by Hurricane Katrina are still feeling the affects in some way or another. It's been over a decade, and the structural rebuilding has been immense, but the socio-economic landscape of the state is still a long way from flourishing.
Sure, it's easy to look at Harrison on the field and see what makes him a great signing for the Giants. They'll benefit mightily from his presence on the defensive line, but just from a human point of view, it's much more exciting to see Harrison signed to a big money contract. And don't think that just because he's locked up long-term that he'll be taking it easy either. His off-season has already been a little more labor intensive than most.
"That is another thing. I went there to just surprise her with the house and I ended up helping everybody move in. [...] Yeah, I had the dolly; I was moving refrigerators and deep freezers,"said Harrison.
"You got yourself a good workout there,"noted one reporter.
"Yes ma'am, I did.", he replies in a way that makes me think about something along the lines of taking a boy out of the south...