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Ryan Harris: Of faith and football

Kate Gales | Friday, November 17, 2006

Editor’s note: This story first ran Sept. 29, 2006.

MTV. ESPN. Next up, C-SPAN?

Notre Dame senior left tackle Ryan Harris has started 36 games on the Irish offensive line and been featured on MTV’s “True Life” series – but he really wants a career in politics.

It might not be the typical life path for a student-athlete, but Harris isn’t typical.

He’s a devout Muslim at one of the nation’s most famous Catholic universities, where he embraced living on campus and being part of the Notre Dame community. After football, he’s thinking about law school and politics.

But right now, he’s ready to help the Irish offense get back on track – even though his football career got off to an inauspicious start.

‘I don’t know how’ to hit

The Minnesota native remembers watching the Minnesota Vikings at family events, sitting alone in front of the television and trying to make sense of the game. Later, he’d go to his father – who played college football at the University of Wisconsin-Stout – with questions.

“My first question I tried to figure out was why they always ran into where everybody was, up the middle,” he said. “When they were running the ball, why don’t they just run around everybody?”

Over time, he picked up on the nuances of the game. But eighth-grade football brought another humbling moment.

“I’ll never forget the first day we got pads,” he said. “Everyone made fun of me because someone said, ‘Hey, let’s hit,’ and I said, ‘No.’ And they’re like, ‘Why not?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know how.’ Everyone laughed at me.”

Retelling the story, he even laughs at himself. He can laugh now because, as a standout at Cretin-Durham Hall in St. Paul, Harris starred on the defensive and offensive lines.

“Especially being a bigger kid when you’re younger, you go to a sport where they need bigger people,” said the 6-foot-5, 292-pounder. “It’s definitely something you can enjoy and be yourself in.”

He was widely recruited out of high school, but his decisions came down to two schools – Notre Dame or Miami.

“For all the reasons that people love Miami, I loved Miami,” he said.

But his family loved Notre Dame, and Harris felt it fit what he wanted in a school.

“I wanted to come out with a degree that meant something,” he said. “I also wanted to have the most competitive athletic schedule and environment I could, and Notre Dame – it doesn’t get better than that.”

His own celebrity fit club

Harris was the smallest lineman at Notre Dame when he arrived, and one of the smallest – if not the smallest – lineman recruited in his year.

That’s why, when MTV’s “True Life” wanted to do a segment on positive weight gain, they called up Cretin-Durham and asked for Harris.

The segment aired without much fanfare for Harris and his family at home. But when he arrived at Notre Dame, it was clear that more than a few people had seen the show.

So did his new teammates in South Bend make fun of him?

“All the time,” he said. “I mean, all the time, especially when I first got here as a freshman. That was the joke, they were calling me names, MTV, you can imagine coming in as a freshman. They’re just looking for a reason to get on you, that was definitely my reason.”

Some on-lookers told him he needed to gain 50 pounds to be successful as a college offensive lineman.

Maybe that’s not quite right. He’s gained about 17 in the past four years and was on several preseason All-American award watch lists.

Over the most recent off-season, he focused on strength conditioning, particularly in his upper body, which he perceived as a weakness.

“I needed to get stronger,” he said. “And that’s still something I strive for, something I worked on all summer, from May until – well, I’m still working on it.”

On down the line

Harris’ first start was at Pittsburgh in 2003 – an upset victory for the Irish and a memorable experience for the true freshman. That was the night Julius Jones broke the school rushing record with 262 yards.

He played right tackle and started the final eight games of the season for the Irish, becoming only the third true freshman in Notre Dame’s history to start for the unit. Rivals.com rewarded him with a first-team spot on its Freshman All-America team, and The Sporting News had him as a second teamer.

As a sophomore, Harris moved to left tackle, one of football’s most challenging positions, to protect Irish quarterback Brady Quinn’s blind side.

“I think there’s a lot more expected of you,” said Harris about the position. “I expect a lot of myself. I was very humbled because there’s so many things that come with being the left tackle, so many things that I can take pride in, I just think being there’s been real fun for me.”

Offensive linemen are judged by the success of the unit, and most of the facets of the offense depend on how strongly it plays. Harris has embraced the opportunity to excel as an individual and as part of a group.

“You’ve got four other guys,” he said. “If one of you makes a mistake, it can cause problems across the board. As a unit, you protect the quarterback – everything starts there. If we don’t protect, Brady can’t throw to [Jeff] Samardzija or Rhema [McKnight] or anyone else.”

And then there’s the running game.

“If we don’t block, Darius [Walker] can’t run in the holes and he can’t get yards,” Harris said. “We really take a lot of pride and onus of responsibility on ourselves, and that’s what makes it so special, to be part of a unit and also being an individual.”

At times, left tackle is a lonely position. Harris often finds himself in one-on-one situations.

“Every play I’m going against somebody – and usually it’s alone,” he said. “There’s a lot of responsibility resting on my shoulders but that’s what I love.”

Offensive linemen don’t usually make the stat sheets, but for Harris, winning the game means that they’ve done well enough.

“If we win, we did something right,” he said. “Then if Brady’s been hit, if Darius doesn’t get a lot of yards, those are definitely things that we look at the next day in film and try and correct for the next week in practice.”

As a freshman, Harris’ highlight was Jones’ record-breaking game against the Panthers. As a sophomore, he recalls beating Michigan 28-20, and as a junior, nothing compared to the USC and Stanford games.

“But you think that’s it, and then you come out with a game like last week against Michigan State,” he said. “It’s just every year, it’s something phenomenal, and you’re like, ‘I could not have had that experience anywhere else in the world.'”

‘My own way’

Harris is far from finished with his football career. But he’s already making plans to take what he’s learned at Notre Dame outside the campus.

He hopes to go into politics or teaching after graduation.

“I wanted to prove to myself that I could handle the academic rigors of Notre Dame and do both things – I’m not just an athlete,” he said. “[There are] so many rivalries, every week, so much exposure, and you’re in the classroom the next day. It’s the best of both worlds. I’m just very happy I’ve been able to take advantage of both opportunities.”

Harris will graduate with a double major in political science and economics – a subject he says “just makes sense to me.”

Service work and volunteering are an important part of the time he spends in South Bend, and he said he made lifelong friends as a resident of Siegfried Hall.

But Harris’ Muslim faith is also a central part of who he is. Being at a predominantly Catholic school, he said, doesn’t make being Muslim harder.

“It’s easier,” he said. “Because people understand the religious component of life, people understand that faith is an everyday thing – not something you do just once a week. Being in an environment where they practice faith and appreciate faith and there’s so many opportunities for people to exercise their faith really makes it easy for me to feel welcome and for me to do the same in my own way.”

From faith to football, Harris has taken on every aspect of his life in his own way.

Harris has many goals for his life after this season and his graduation. But wherever he goes, Notre Dame will go with him, he said.

“The morals and principles that Notre Dame teaches – to be a Notre Dame man,” he said. “For me it definitely means someone who is a contributing member to the community and who stands for ethics and good things.”