Ronnie Harris has played football in front of stadiums filled with rabid fans, but that experience doesn’t unnerve him as much as those moments of solitude seen only on a track.
“Getting into the blocks for a 400-meter race is probably the most nerve wracking experience,” Harris said. “I’d walk around, do a lot of breathing and do a lot of visualizing just to relax. A few times, I got sick after the race was over. Everything was spent.”
Exhilarated but somewhat exhausted from watching the track events of Atlanta’s Olympics, Harris is winning the race of his football life. After three years of running on the fringes of 53-man rosters on two separate coasts, Harris has an inside lane on making the Seattle Seahawks roster and becoming a significant contributor. If he’s not the star of Dennis Erickson’s second training camp, he’s earned some medal.
In perhaps the most competitive camp for wide receivers in Seahawks’ history, Harris beat the odds, something he came close to doing several times on the University of Oregon track team.
“I like the underdog role,” Harris said. “I was a solid guy in the Pac-10. I finished fourth in the 100. I won a lot of races. There have been a lot of big names at one time or another I’ve run behind.”
Even though track was fun, Harris believed that football could one day pay his bills. New England Patriots coach Bill Parcells signed Harris as a free agent in 1993 and gave him some advice.
“Parcells said, ‘The thing is, you have to earn your way into preseason games,’ ” Harris remembered. “I got to return punts in preseason games, but never got to play receiver. From his standpoint, I guess he would say I didn’t earn my way to play.”
Despite being a punt-returning star for Parcells that summer, Harris received a pink slip. The Patriots re-signed him to the practice squad for the next two seasons, allowing him to surface on the active roster for only six games.
“Even in the second year, I guess I didn’t do well enough to warrant a chance to get into a preseason game as a receiver,” a puzzled Harris said. “That’s his judgment. But he tried to find a position for me.”
It took the Seahawks less than five seconds to find a place for him. That was the time it took the Seahawks personnel office to watch him run a 40-yard dash and then look at their watches. What they saw, they couldn’t believe.
“One person had a 4.36 (second 40-yard dash), another had a 4.4,” Harris said.
The scouts ran 4.2-second 40s to their office to find a contract. After all, the Seahawks exhausted three years watching prospects Doug Thomas and David Daniels get worse instead of better. A fresh prospect with fresh legs joining them after Thanksgiving was a blessing.
“We were looking for people to upgrade that position,” offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said.
Heck, Harris even volunteered to play special teams. Thomas and Daniels shivered at those assignments. Track made Harris fast. Football made him tough.
“When I was little I didn’t like football,” Harris said. “I played soccer until 10th grade. In fact, I came onto the football as a kicker and a punter, but my coach found out I could run fast and catch. Soccer was my first love, but a lot of things I was doing on the football field turned out to be successful.”
Football, though, taught Harris rejection. He remembered a University of Washington coach who contacted him as a junior and primed him for a December visit by his senior year. Eager to fly to Seattle, UW then told they didn’t need him. He felt disappointed.
“Washington signed a couple of junior college receivers, and they told me they didn’t need me before I was going to make the trip,” Harris said. “All I remember is forget the Huskies because they kinda dogged me.”
Instead, Harris ended up at rival Oregon where he caught 65 passes for 933 yards and was a sprinter on the track team.
“I was returning punts during my senior year in college and learned that you’ve got to go out there with the mentality to go get the ball no matter what and make something happen,” Harris said. “You can’t worry about guys coming down trying to take your head. Covering kicks, you’ve got to have the same mentality, to light somebody up and not worry about the consequences.”
Unlike track, football is a hard contact sport. Harris didn’t mind. The game was kinda fun.
“If I had a little more speed, maybe I should have stuck to track,” he said. “It would have been nicer on my body.”