Matt Harris wasn't ready.
He wasn't ready, at just five years old, to be left in a single-parent household after his parents Tina and Russell Sr. divorced, nor was he ready to bounce around to various tiny apartment complexes in the Chicago area with his mother and seven siblings. Tina frequently worked three jobs to feed nine mouths including herself. There were nights when those mouths went unfed. It wasn't easy, but they made it work. When Matt thinks back on it, he calls his upbringing "tough."
"I think everything happens for a reason, and I don't know if [my] relationship [with my mom] would have been different but I know everything that we've been through has definitely made our bond a lot closer," he said. "Going through a struggle together, that definitely made us depend on each other when no one else was there for us."
Matt Harris wasn't ready to be left fatherless.
Seven years after his parents split, his father died. Matt was mad. He was confused. He wanted answers -- answers he would never get. He needed an outlet. And he found it in the form of football.
"As kind of a crutch for the anger and all the emotions that went with that, I started playing football and using those emotions in a positive way, and not just sit up and cry or do something stupid," Harris said. "I had always wanted to play football before then but never really got into it. I thought that was the perfect opportunity for me."
From an athletic perspective, Matt could do it all. Yes, he was small in stature (and still stands just 5-foot-11) but big in passion, emotion and love for the game, not to mention the speed he had developed from running track at a young age along with several other siblings. Matt Harris's football career, birthed by tragedy, had begun.
Matt Harris wasn't ready to be the man of the house just as he was developing into a top area high school football player and three-star college prospect.
But after Tina battled bouts of depression that led to her eventual hospitalization, it was up to Matt to fill the role of homemaker as well, helping take care of his younger siblings both logistically and financially. He worked to pay bills, helped put food on the table, and cleaned the house. "Basically all the things," as he put it. He gave his mom frequent visits to make sure she was okay and to check in on her progress. He played football for a better tomorrow, but also to escape, if just for a few hours, the challenges of the present.
"I was like the parent for my little brother and little sister when she was away," Matt said. "I think, in a way, it was a good thing just to prepare me for life. As I got to college, it was a lot easier... I was seeing it from a different perspective."
Harris's roommate at Northwestern, middle linebacker Anthony Walker, picked up on the cornerback's homemaking tendencies, too. "He's always cleaning something or walking around the house trying to fix something."
In his quest for a better tomorrow, Harris's on-field accolades spoke for themselves, and the scholarship offers started rolling in. In the end it came down to Northwestern and Wisconsin. A tough decision was made easier by several factors. Evanston is 45 minutes from LaGrange Highlands, and Matt could see his mom more easily. Northwestern promised outstanding academics and a program on the rise. But what was more than that, Matt felt a part of the Northwestern family from his very first visit. For a guy that had grown so close with his kin, it was that kind of atmosphere that set Northwestern apart from all other suitors.
"The guys that came in the class with me are some of my best friends, and just being with those guys, I don't think I would have gotten this opportunity at any other place in the world," he said.
Things were headed in the right direction, finally. Matt, who had played wide receiver in high school, made the switch to defensive back in an effort, he explained, to see the field as soon as possible. After all, what was a switch to the defensive side of the ball for a guy that had already lost his father, bounced around several different homes and supported his family? Nevertheless, it appeared as if a redshirt season was in order. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald had said that no true freshmen would see the field. But when the opening kickoff of the 2013 season came, there was that speedy, undersized true freshman sprinting down the field on the special teams coverage unit under the beautiful Berkeley sky.
Matt Harris wasn't ready for injury number one.
But really, who could have been? After all, it came on that very first play of his collegiate career, a play that shouldn't have happened for another year per Fitzgerald's comments just a few days before. Harris was concussed, but he recalled with a laugh trying to convince the trainers to let him play. After all, for the past half-decade, football was his rock. His crutch. His escape.
"I knew I was concussed but I love the game so much that I just wanted to be out there, but of course the training staff wouldn't let me," he said with a smirk and half-smile, as if he were looking back on a younger, naive version of himself. "It was just kind of like a wake up, a welcome to college football.'"
After recovering, though, Matt Harris proved to be ready for the rest of his true freshman season. He started the last five games of the year and finished the campaign with 36 total tackles and five passes defended. Not bad for a kid that wasn't even supposed to see the field.
But it was no surprise that Matt Harris was defying the odds. He had been doing that all his life. From the moment he arrived on campus, all he wanted to do was play football.
"He's focused," said Walker, one of Harris's closest friends. "That's the biggest thing I see. You have some guys want to go and live the college life and then go to school and whatever, but I think Matthew is a very focused person and I think that's why I took a liking to him when I first came in, because you could tell how focused he was coming in as a freshman and you just want to be around someone like that."
He also wanted to make Tina, who had a second struggle with depression after Matt left for college, proud. "I talk to her almost every day," Matt said of his mom. "I know she's just motivation for me, seeing everything she fought through. I want to get her in a position where she doesn't have to worry about anything for a long time."
Matt Harris wasn't ready for injury number two.
The scary scene happened in a 2014 game at Penn State, with Harris's body going limp after a collision with Nittany Lion quarterback Christian Hackenberg. "I was in shock," he recalled. "I was just thankful to be alive, honestly." He was carted off the field, but not before giving a thumbs-up to the crowd. Northwestern finished off the Nittany Lions on that afternoon, and Harris would return for the next game and end up starting all 12 contests of his true sophomore year, registering 70 tackles, nine passes defended and two interceptions. But he wasn't satisfied with another 5-7 season, and neither was his team. So Matt got to work as soon as possible, as did his teammates.
"This offseason I studied a lot of NFL corners, from Patrick Peterson to Richard Sherman to a couple first-round draft picks of the past," Harris said. "And just studying their game and their styles, and everybody has their own little different style, and I tried to figure out what mine was. And that was my goal, to figure out my style. Figure out what I'm good at, what I'm bad at, and make my weaknesses my strengths and try to be the best player I can be."
Nick VanHoose, the starter opposite Harris for much of the past two seasons, also noticed his fellow corner's growth: "Obviously [defensive backs] coach [Jerry] Brown has trusted him more and more over the years. Starting off, there were some games he would make only play one side, like I would have to continually switch, but now he trusts Matt and I trust Matt to get the job done. So I'd say his football I.Q. has definitely gotten a lot better. He sees things a lot better."
The extra work Harris put in over the offseason, he reasoned, would not only make him more comfortable and confident on the field, but make football fun again, a feeling he sometimes thought his teammates struggled with during the back-to-back 5-7 seasons.
"It's aggressive," he said of his playing style. "I use speed to my advantage; I can kind of sit on routes a little bit more. I just try to go out there and have fun, try not to overthink things. But really, the style is just carefree. I'm going out there to play. That may be the reason for some of my injuries. I just go out there and throw myself. But honestly I just try to have fun no matter what it is, even if we're down, I just go out there and try to have fun because it's all about perspective. It's not the end of the world. It's just a game at the end of the day."
That's why you've seen the Sky Team dancing around on the field, or Brown dancing in the locker room, or Steven Reese Macarena-ing on the sideline. Football is fun once again for the team, and Harris has been a big part of that. "You see us on the field, we're out there dancing and just doing everything we can to make sure the game is fun because I think it gets to a point sometimes where people take it too seriously and don't really enjoy the moment, and that's just what we try to do," he explained.
But Harris stepped up in other areas, too, in the offseason. He became a team leader, and was elected to the leadership council by his teammates, joining fellow Sky Teamer Traveon Henry. "It meant a lot, actually, just being identified as a leader," said Harris, who pointed to Henry and former Northwestern safety Ibraheim Campbell as leaders he tries to emulate. "It was coming up from my freshman or sophomore year, I knew that I wanted to step up and be that outspoken guy and lead by example. But I also made an extra effort just to be known as a leader and have my voice heard when I knew something wasn't right."
He also stepped up off the field away from the team. Coming from a difficult background, Harris has a first-hand account of the challenges that underprivileged kids go through. So he put that knowledge to work, not only helping better himself as a person, but better those around him. In addition to serving on the board of Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy (SESP), the school in which he majors in Learning and Organizational Change, he's a member of Northwestern's Student Athlete Advisory Committee. Outside of the university community, he volunteers his time at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago and has spent several summers mentoring kids in shelters and youth clubs in the area.
"I think, just as athletes, we get comfortable with our community a little bit so I've been trying to break the barriers and get outside a little bit more," he said. "Just really investing in and empowering our youth, I think, is the most important thing because in our generation there's so many kids that have so much potential but they're not really being exploited. Not enough people are investing in them, so that's what I've been trying to do."
Matt Harris wasn't ready for injury number three.
Northwestern was in the midst of one of its best ever starts heading into Ann Arbor, Michigan as a 5-0 team on the heels of a 27-0 shutout of Minnesota in which Harris had contributed a great interception along the sideline to go along with five tackles and three pass breakups. Nothing went right that Saturday afternoon in the Big House from the opening kickoff to when the clock hit triple zeros. And in between, Harris suffered injury number three. He again lay on the ground motionless, his cheekbone fractured. But perhaps what he was least ready for was the thoughts of quitting football for his safety, the first time he had ever had such thoughts.
"I really don't remember the play and I really don't remember even getting off the field," said Harris, who was accompanied by three of his brothers as well as a nephew who had sprinted down from the stands to be next to Matt. "The only thing I remember is when they were stitching my cheekbone up. I looked to the left at my family and I was just sitting there thinking about how much I love the game and just contemplating if I want to give it up and everything, and just really appreciating life. But I love this game so much, and I love my teammates, and I don't know what my life would be like without football. Football's been in my life for so long. I thought about it, but not too long."
He missed the next two games, not coincidentally two of the Wildcats' worst defensive performances. Northwestern got crushed by Iowa in Evanston and then survived a shootout in Lincoln, needing a stop on a two-point conversion attempt to beat the Huskers, who had Tommy Armstrong, Jr. throw for nearly 300 yards.
"Losing someone that had been starting for us for a while was key," said VanHoose. "We know that he's gonna be there when he needs to be and we trust him. But losing Matt, he brings a lot of passion to our defense. His energy that he brings on the right side of the ball is definitely a big thing that we missed."
He returned against Penn State and ended the season with a team-leading four interceptions; 45 tackles, most among all cornerbacks; and 12 pass breakups, including perhaps the most important one of the season against Wisconsin to seal a wild win. The next week, he came up with a huge interception with Illinois mounting a comeback and deep in Northwestern territory.
"Matt's a playmaker," said Fitzgerald. "He's been that way his whole career."
If this year's team is to win an 11th game for the first time in program history, it'll have to do so without VanHoose, who will miss the Outback Bowl with a finger injury, meaning Harris will be in the spotlight. Next year, he'll be the elder statesman of the secondary, as both VanHoose and Henry will be gone. Beyond that, the NFL is the goal, especially for a kid who rose up from next to nothing.
"That'd be the greatest thing ever," Harris said when asked about the pros, a smile creeping across his face. "That's something I dreamed about as a kid and I think my family, they knew how important football was from a very young age. I'm gonna try to enjoy it as much as I can and as far as my family, I just think they'll be ecstatic to see me reach my life goal. We're gonna celebrate it all together."
He turns solemn again, though, knowing all too well that nothing's a given and, just like the rest of his life, he'll have to work harder than ever to achieve that goal. But he has all the motivation he needs. "We're just trying to keep the car moving and trying to get my mom into the best position possible," he said. "At the end of the day, that's the most important thing, because she's given her life to all eight of her kids."
VanHoose, who will be, without a doubt, active on the sidelines in Tampa, has seen Harris gain experience as a top-flight cornerback. "The biggest thing," VanHoose said about Harris's growth, "is you're going to make mistakes and bad things are going to happen to you. You just gotta keep your head up. People are gonna catch ball on us. We're DBs. That's the life we live. Bad things are gonna happen. You just have to handle the adversity."
If there's one thing Matt Harris can do, it's handle adversity. He's done it for years, both on and off the field, and before he even played organized football. And there's no reason to believe he won't continue to handle the adversity and excel in the face of it. Not against Tennessee. Not throughout his senior season. Not until he's ready to hang them up after what he hopes to be a long and fruitful football career, one that he hopes will end his family's struggles.
Matt Harris wasn't ready to give in.
So he hasn't.