By JOEL COLEMAN
Dez Harris is no stranger to adversity. The Mississippi State junior linebacker has torn one of his anterior cruciate ligaments three different times since his senior year of football at McAdory High School in Alabama.
So when arguably the nation’s best running back, Leonard Fournette came barreling towards Harris last Saturday night in Baton Rouge as MSU faced LSU, Harris wasn’t backing down. Twice on Saturday Harris knocked the football loose from Fournette’s hands. Both times, the Bulldogs recovered.
To top it all off, Harris recovered a late-game onside kick that almost led to a dramatic MSU victory. Not a bad night for a guy that admits he’d at least considered giving up football at one point after dealing with injury after injury.
“It was unbelievable,” MSU defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon said of Harris’ success at LSU. “He hadn’t played a lot up to that point, but the way he played, the way he competed and the way he handled himself on the sidelines was great to see. I haven’t been through all the adversity with him while he’s been going through it, but to have the resolve and be able to battle back after setback after setback after setback and then go out in that environment, in that situation, and pull the ball away from (Fournette) two times, that was a special night for anybody. To do it on top of the challenges that he’s had while he’s been here, I think that speaks to what kind of kid he is.”
Harris first tore his right ACL in a jamboree before his senior season at McAdory. He then redshirted his first season on campus at MSU before returning to the gridiron with the Bulldogs in 2014.
That season, he tore his left ACL. One year later, after returning, he tore it again. Harris said he considered giving up the game.
“At the same time, I have a tremendous support system,” Harris said. “My mom and my sister and my whole family just kept pushing me to just get back into it. I always told myself when I walk off the football field, I’m going to walk off on my own accord, not from an injury or something like that.”
Harris’ 13-year-old sister, Keniya Williams, gave Harris an extra push. Williams is just starting to become active in sports herself. Harris refused to be a bad example for his sibling.
“I couldn’t let her think that you can have one little injury and just quit and not keep going,” Harris said.
So back on the field Harris went. He recorded a tackle in both of State’s first two games this season. Then, against LSU, he set a new career high with five tackles in addition to forcing the two fumbles and recovering the onside kick.
“You see what we’ve been hoping to see out of him for the last couple of years and obviously injuries have set back his development,” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said of Harris. “He is a guy that we had high expectations for early on in his career. He was a really good special teams player which usually leads to you’re going to continue to grow and develop to become a good defensive player. Some of the injuries have cut that short for him. It’s good to see (nights like last Saturday). We’ve always expected a lot out of him. Hopefully, he can build on this now and start becoming more of a factor and role player on the defensive side on the ball.”
Harris said he no longer even thinks about the possibility of injuring either of his knees again. Despite all the frustration of the last few years, he’s only concerned with what he can control.
“I have tremendous faith and trust in the doctors that operated on me so I don’t really think about my knee anymore,” Harris says. “If it gets sore, I might put the brace on, but if it’s not sore, I don’t even wear the brace. It’s not really something I worry about.”
The trying experiences have taught Harris to appreciate every moment on the football field. Nights like last Saturday mean more to Harris than they ever could have otherwise.
“With all three of my injuries, only one of them happened through contact,” Harris said. “The other two, I was just running and stepped the wrong way. It just humbles you. It just shows that this game can be taken from you in an instant. You’ve got to just step out on the field and go your hardest.”