|« Goal: No. 1. Madison Expects To Contend For FCS Title||Griz open practice Monday »|
Ex-St. Mary's football player keeps athletics, lack thereof, in his sights
MORAGA — As he walked into the St. Mary’s College football stadium for the first time in more than four years, Clifton Harrison was feeling more than a little nostalgic.
“I haven’t been here since our last game, which was in 2003,” said the 22-year-old Oakland native, looking out over a field equipped with lacrosse nets, not goal posts. “It brings back a lot of good memories.”
Harrison, who graduated Saturday, was one of four remaining students who played for the St. Mary’s football team, which was dismantled in 2004. Many of his former teammates transferred to other schools, but — after something of an identity crisis — Harrison decided it was more important to hit the books than the tackling dummies.
A soft-spoken communications major who exudes confidence, Harrison plans to counsel high-school athletes to focus on school as well. Too many athletes — especially African-American males like him — pursue athletics at the exclusion of everything else, he said.
“The percentage and statistics of making it to a pro level (in sports) are slim to none,” said Harrison, who lives in Concord with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. “You have to be realistic.”
The NCAA estimates one in 17 high-school football players goes on to play at an NCAA college. Eight of every 10,000 high-school senior players gets drafted into the National Football League.
Harrison, who played on Oakland Technical High School’s defensive line, was good at that level, but he had no illusions. With a 3.6 grade-point average in high school, he said he didn’t even think about an athletic scholarship when he applied to St. Mary’s.
But St. Mary’s head coach Vincent White had seen a tape of Harrison playing and, unexpectedly, Harrison had a Division I football scholarship. A broken jaw sidelined Harrison late in the first season, but he made an impression on his coaches.
“Great kid,” said White, now a coach at Southeast Missouri State University. “I always thought he had the chance to play elsewhere if he wanted.”
Moving on wasn’t really a consideration, since Harrison had come to St. Mary’s primarily for academics. But the football program’s cancellation — the news was delivered to the team after a sprint session — was a blow that shook him deeply.
“It was kind of rough for me, just how quickly it happened,” he said. “I went through a period where I was down on school.”
After returning to school for the fall semester in 2004, his first fall term without football, he had his second life-changing experience of the year.
His girlfriend was pregnant, so he took a year off from school to help — and to marry — her, working two jobs to make ends meet.
The year off “was one of the things that helped me focus on academics, to come out of that stuck-in-the-mud position I was in after football was canceled,” Harrison said. “I appreciated being able to come back to college and spend four to five hours here rather than working 15 hours a day.”
His senior project examined how violence affects young black men in poor neighborhoods.
Harrison grew up in the relatively safe Adams Point area, north of Lake Merritt, but many of his Oakland Tech classmates lived in terrible neighborhoods beset with bloodshed.
Harrison’s sensitivity to the people around him has served him well in college, said Shawny Anderson, an associate dean who taught one of Harrison’s classes this year.
“He’s just committed so deeply that it’s beautiful to see,” she said. “I’m just so impressed with him.”
Although he has a career blueprint in mind, Harrison’s plans still are somewhat vague. While he wants to become a counselor, he doesn’t know when that’s going to happen, and he also plans to work on a master’s degree at some point.
His wife, Zekeia, also wants to go back to school, so it might take some time for Harrison’s academic career to continue. But he seems content to be a dad for now, bachelor’s degree in hand.
“Had football not been canceled, it would have been difficult to raise my daughter,” he said. “I’m a big believer in karma and things working out, even if you can’t see it right away.”
By Matt Krupnick
Contra Costa Times