Against The Odds
Montana Native Tuff Harris Overcame Obstacles To Realize NFL Dream
The dream started in the fifth grade.
That's when Tuff Harris began playing football, and that's when he knew that he would play in the NFL. At the time, he told his friends on the playground of his lofty goal. A goal that would be challenging for anyone to accomplish, and even more so for a kid who lived on the Crow Indian Reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana.
The dream almost ended before it even began for Tuff. Born on January 23, 1983, Chester David Harris almost didn't make it out of birth. It was one of the coldest Januarys on record and Harris developed a severe case of pneumonia in both lungs.
Harris was rushed from the reservation to Billings by helicopter to receive proper medical attention. During the episode, Harris stopped breathing several times as both lungs were filled with liquid.
Doctors battled for hours to save the tiny Harris and ultimately were able to stabilize him. As the lead doctor approached the family in the waiting area, he passed on the good news and shared a intimate detail of the ordeal that would lead to the nickname that follows Harris to this day.
The doctor said that during the ordeal, Harris would stop breathing and the doctors would put air back in his lungs and each time after doing so, Harris would wake up full of life and start smiling back at the hands who were saving him.
"Any kid that can do that is tough," the doctor said to the family in the waiting room.
And on that day, Tuff was born.
Back to the playground in the fifth grade, when Tuff made his goal known to his friends, he wasn't exactly taken seriously.
"My friends laughed at me and thought I was crazy," Harris said. "They pointed out I was from the reservation and that I couldn't play in the NFL."
Harris didn't let the early discouragement deter him though. He continued to make it known of his plans to play in the NFL and in doing so, developed a group of supporters that were there with him each step of the way, starting with his family.
"I look back and sometimes people ask how I made it to the NFL and I started thinking about it and I really don't know," Harris said. " I remember one thing I had was the support of my family. I had [the support] from mom and dad the whole time and they were huge in helping me accomplish what I did. I thank them all the time for that."
Harris recalled watching NFL players Al Toon, Ken O'Brien, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith as his fascination with football and being on the TV one day grew stronger.
"They'd call my brother Jay Montana cause he played quarterback," Harris said as he recalled his early days of playing football. "They would call me Tuff Toon since I would play receiver."
Harris admitted that when his football days first began, he didn't display the build of a future NFL player.
"I was really undersized," Harris said. "The one thing I had was speed and utilized that every chance I got. I didn't want to get hit, I didn't want people to touch me. It was everything I ever wanted."
The candidness proved a little ironic as Harris morphed into a six-foot, 198-pound NFL safety who earned his paychecks dishing out the punishment instead of trying to avoid it.
As Harris continued his pursuit of his NFL dream, he played his first two seasons of high school football at Lodge Grass High School.
The team wasn't very good and won only one game each season according to Harris. Knowing he would need to play against better competition on the field while also keeping the course load in the classroom challenging as well, Harris and his family knew that a move was in order.
The move came before his junior year and although Harris wasn't exactly sure where he'd end up initially, he found himself relocated to Colstrip, Montana and playing for Colstrip High School.
At Colstrip, Harris continued to excel on the field and in the classroom.
"It was incredible being able to grow from a player on a team that hardly won to a team that almost never lost," Harris said as he compared the difference between playing at Lodge Grass and Colstrip. "To be able to see the difference in the two was great because now I can see what makes a good team and what makes a team that needs a lot of help."
As Harris' high school playing days wound down, he began preparing for the next step on the road to the NFL, college football.
Harris waited for offers to come in, but initially no offers came his way for football. With Harris also playing basketball and running in track and field, he got the attention of the University of Montana and it was the Grizzlies who wanted to bring him on as a track athlete with a partial scholarship.
The fact that Harris didn't receive any offers for football didn't deter him, it only motivated him more.
"I love stories of the underdog, the Rudy Ruettigers and Vince Papales of the world " Harris said in reference to the famous football players who walked on for Notre Dame and the Philadelphia Eagles respectively. "I bought into being the underdog type and gave it everything I got to realize my goals."
With that approach, there was nothing that could be done in preventing Harris from suiting up for the Grizzlies football team.
Harris' determination gained him a spot on the Grizzlies roster as a red-shirt his first season with Montana. The following four years of eligibility he had for football played out exactly how any Hollywood script would've written it.
Harris was a four-year starter for the Grizzlies while being named First Team Big Sky All-Conference as a returner his junior year. The accolades for Harris continued as he was named to The Sports Network's 2006 I-AA / FCS All-American Team as a returner.
Harris pointed out that none of the accolades achieved at Montana would've been possible without his work ethic and determination.
"I think the thing that helped me was setting goals," Harris said. "In doing so, it helped me make those day-to-day decisions to reach the end goal."
The end goal hadn't been reached yet, however.
With a Grizzlies career over, one that included setting Big Sky Conference records for return yards in a season (667), longest punt return scoring play (94 yards) and a team record of most return yards in a game (147), there was only one thing remaining on Tuff's checklist: playing in the NFL.
"I knew I wasn't going to get anything on the first day," Harris said as he talked about the NFL Draft. "The second day towards the end, there was an opportunity of getting picked."
In typical Tuff fashion, it didn't come that easy.
Harris sat back and watched as name after name was called, none of which were his. As Harris' nerves grew, he remained in constant contact with his agent, who started to give him the info on how the process would work if he went undrafted.
"My agent told me that there would be this window of time after the draft where teams would call," Harris said.
The exact window Harris was looking at was minuscule compared to all the hard work he'd put in over the years to get a shot of playing in the NFL. All of his sacrifices and hard work and support of those around him rested on a 45-minute window in which Harris would find out if his dream was meant to be.
For this self-proclaimed underdog, the dream became a reality.
Shortly after the draft was over, Tuff received a phone call from a coach with the Miami Dolphins.
"He basically asked me some football questions and said he'd call me back in a few minutes," Harris said as the nerves of recounting that conversation still showed years later.
Harris received another call back minutes later, this time from a different Dolphins coach saying that they wanted to sign Tuff.
"I wanted to call a bunch of people and say a bunch of things," Harris said with a huge smile.
Instead, Harris set the phone down and took in the moment, reflecting on everything he did to get him to where he was now at, an NFL player.
Even after signing a deal with the Dolphins, the reality didn't completely hit him until he stepped on the practice field for the first time.
"Seeing the emblems and players that are Hall of Famers someday, that was the out-of-body experience moment," Harris said. "After practicing with these guys and getting acquainted with the process, everything slowed down and as soon as I got on the field, I relied on everything that got me here."
Harris' professional football career spanned five seasons, four in the NFL (Miami, New Orleans, Tennessee, Pittsburgh) and one season in the CFL with the Edmonton Eskimos.
Harris decided to move on from the sport he loved after the 2011 season with the Eskimos, a decision that he's content with to this day.
"Determination can push through a lot of injuries and in the game of football, you have to do that," Harris said. "I had enough injuries, had my first kid and was beginning to be pulled toward my next career. I knew that it could be time. I enjoyed every moment of it and was ok with the decision to retire."
Although Harris no longer suits up to play football, that doesn't mean you can't find him on the field offering coaching tips and techniques for the next generation of kids who dream of someday playing in the NFL.
Harris paid a visit to Glasgow High School on the final day of the Scotties football camp that took place last week to help Glasgow head coach Greg Liebelt run his guys through football drills.
"The one thing that has always impressed me so much with Tuff Harris, is how well grounded and sincere he is for someone that has been blessed with so much talent and accolades," Liebelt said. "Tuff is a very strong Christian, which I greatly admire, and has never changed his personality from when I first met him in the earlier years in Colstrip to after he finished playing in the NFL."
Besides trying to make a difference on the field for future football players, Tuff is also trying to make a difference back on his reservation.
Harris started a nonprofit organization called One Heart in order to help those on the Crow Reservation to develop leadership qualities and improve the quality of life within the community.
"We believe everyone is a leader, but not everyone will rise to that," Harris said. "For those who do, we want to partner with them, develop them and get them ready to lead."
Harris said that the process in starting the organization was tough since he didn't know much about nonprofits, but that it's been rewarding nonetheless.
"If you can get enough people as leaders and mentors over the course of time, you can change a community," Harris said. "On the reservation, there's a lot of things that need to be changed and that's kind of the process I've been given to try and figure out."
Harris began putting together this plan 18 months after stepping away from football and is excited to see where this organization goes during the next few years. He hopes to see his organization form into a nationally recognized organization that not only helps develop leaders among Native Americans, but society as a whole.
"It's kind of a long ways out to think of," Harris said. "I just see myself doing the things I have to do to stay healthy, continue to lead my family in the right direction and starting some groups and hopefully change the community."