By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The solitary figure stood there under an August West Virginia sun that was blazing down on him in mid-June, a baseball cap atop his head, sleeves cut off at the shoulders on workout jacket, an cool juice drink in his hand.
He gazed out at the children before him as they ran through drills as involved as 6- or 8- or 10-year-olds can be, passing a foam football back and forth, counting aloud as a group each time they did so successfully.
“Eight, nine, ten,” their shrill voices shouted, piercing the hot, heavy air. “Eleventeen, twelveteen.”
Major Harris saw that, heard that and smiled a Hall of Fame smile.
At that moment you wondered just what might be going through his mind, was it on not-so-instant replay itself to when Major was a corporal, so to speak, aged 7 or 8, an innocent child on his way to become maybe the greatest quarterback ever to play football at West Virginia University.
“When I was young, whenever I heard about a camp I was there,” he would say later, just as the day’s instruction at Quincy Wilson and Grant Wiley’s Living Legends Camp at Mylan Park was coming to an end for the 159 kids who showed up.
“Football camps, baseball camps, basketball camps,” he said, offering up the reason why without being asked.
“Because they served lunches,” he said with a huge belly laugh, if such a pun can be pardoned.
After the laughter died down, Harris got serious about the question for a second.
“Going to camps, I think it helped me stay on track. If your goal is to play professional football, baseball, whatever, you have to go to school, and I think camp helped with that,” he said.
Just at this moment a nervous, polite young child walked up and asked him he could sign the camp T-shirt he was wearing. The kid was no more than 7, and you wondered if he really knew who Major Harris was or was just getting someone’s autograph … maybe as much for his father or mother.
Moments later another kid and another showed up until Harris was surrounded with maybe 40 or 50 kids and almost as many adoring parents shooting videos and pictures of Harris and their child. He eventually dropped to one knee as they lined up to get shirts, footballs, hats or anything else that a magic marker could write “Major Harris No. 9” on.
In fact, one kid said to another, as they held the hamburgers from the lunches that Harris had loved so much as kid, “get a hamburger signed.”
That made everyone laugh.
After signing each and every autograph, Major Harris kicked back for a moment and returned to the conversation about his youth. Having watched him sign autographs, one wondered if he had ever gotten any and if he had a favorite.
“Yeah, I got autographs, definitely. My favorite? Well, you know, the Steelers were big then. I was in Pittsburgh. Any Steeler was big.”
As Harris emerged as an athlete, it was obvious to all who saw him that he was wonderfully gifted, not only in football,.
“Actually, my favorite sport was basketball, but I was getting more offers in football, which made me choose to go in that direction,” he said. “My senior year I was City League player of the year in football and basketball, but my offers were all coming in football, so that made the decision for me.”
Of course, in the mid-1980s not many teams gave blacks a chance at playing quarterback, and most of the offers were to play in the secondary. Don Nehlen, then the West Virginia coach and building toward greatness, would have let Major coach the team if he would come to West Virginia.
You can’t argue with the decision to come to WVU or argue with Nehlen for keeping him at quarterback, having produced WVU’s first unbeaten, untied team through the regular season in 1988, only to lose to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl when Harris injured his shoulder in the first quarter.
By then, Harris was a Mountaineer legend, if for no other reason than what came to be known as “The Run” when he ran the wrong way against Penn State and with absolutely no blocking cut and twisted his way 21 yards into the end zone.
His greatest run? He says not, that there even might have been better runs back there when he was 8 or 9 and attending camp.
“TV makes things bigger,” he said, trying to describe why that play reached legendary status. “Like in high school game, if it wasn’t caught on film, a better run than that no one would really know about. I always felt there were other plays that were better than that, but I don’t want to sound like I’m ego-tripping.”
When you can sign an autograph and close it with “HOF,” you’re allowed some ego-tripping.
“Biggest surprise of my life when I got that call,” he admitted, speaking of the Hall of Fame call. ”When you are young you don’t realize how big awards are until you get older and look back and think, ‘OK, we played for a national championship.’
“You are always looking at what comes next. But when you get older, you appreciate awards more.”
As everyone knows, Harris did not have an NFL career after leaving school a year early, and you wondered if maybe he now regretted that decision.
“I didn’t realize that the best time of my life was in college. When you get past that, then you realize it,” he said.
By how, Harris was talked out and, besides, he had something waiting for him in the pavilion by the football field … a lunch. Major Harris was back being that 8-year-old camper again, football and lunch.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.