EDMOND — Khari Harding missed half his games, was perpetually hungry and ran around in painfully undersized shoes his first season on a football team.
“I didn't have rides to get there,” Harding said.
Today, the standout Edmond Santa Fe safety holds eight NCAA Division I scholarship offers and is one of the top college football prospects in Oklahoma.
Rides, food and footwear haven't been a problem since five summers ago, when his dad drove to Texas and saved him from what had become unacceptable living conditions.
Khari Harding, his mother and two sisters had stayed in a one-bed hotel room near Dallas for the previous six months.
“We didn't have any money,” Khari Harding said. “My mom had just gotten divorced.”
A concerned grandmother called Corie Harding and asked him to intervene.
Corie had seen his son on occasion but was appalled when they came face-to-face that day.
“It was nothing like when I had seen him before,” Corie Harding said.
Khari Harding left that hotel with nothing but a tank top, a pair of shorts, an unkempt Afro hairdo and size-9 tennis shoes.
Steve and Barry's clothing store at the Gainesville Outlet mall was still open then, and Corie Harding took his son to get a new wardrobe.
A store salesman measured Khari's feet and discovered his correct shoe size was 12.
“His feet were all cramped up,” Corie Harding said. “It was a pretty bad sight.”
The transition for both father and son was a tough one at first as they adjusted to their new situation.
“Some of the things he could do down there, he thought he could do up here,” Corie Harding said. “I'm a strict disciplinarian.”
Suddenly for Khari, cleaning his room, washing dishes, finishing homework and regular haircuts were requirements.
Food was also an adjustment for both Corie and Khari.
“I didn't have a lot of money, and I'd go buy food for us,” Corie Harding said. “I'd come home, and it was all gone.”
Khari Harding had nourishment at home for the first time in years and took full advantage of it.
“Dude, it's just me and you,” Corie told him.
“It was hard for me to eat down there,” Khari would reply.
Khari Harding moved to the Dallas area from Oklahoma City when he was in the first grade with his mom, two sisters and then-step father.
They stayed in an apartment, but were evicted. After that, Khari moved in with his aunt, who also lived around Dallas.
After a while, his mom convinced him to come back home.
“But still, sometimes after school I wouldn't go home,” he said. “I'd go back to my auntie's house. I just didn't feel like dealing with all that.”
Khari's mother and two sisters still live in Irving, Texas, together.
He goes to see them occasionally — “I'll never keep him away from his mom,” Corie said — but always returns to Edmond thankful he escaped that life.
Khari Harding played his first full football season as a seventh-grader at Edmond's Cheyenne Middle School. With a stable home life and better nutrition, he grew and began to flourish on the gridiron.
He started a few games as a freshman at Edmond Santa Fe and played even more as a sophomore.
“That's when we had to make a decision — we've got to go to camps,” Corie Harding said.
They traveled to Colorado, Houston, North Texas, Oklahoma State and Tulsa for camps the summer before his junior year, and Khari started getting noticed by college coaches.
Then as a junior, Khari made 71 tackles and three interceptions, playing a huge role as Edmond Santa Fe went 10-2 and won its district championship.
He picked up his first scholarship offer March 1, from Kansas State.
Corie Harding won't tell his son where to play college football, he but does have one demand.
“He's going to get his degree,” he said. “All of those letters, two shoe boxes full, all of that doesn't mean anything to me. What matters to me is getting your degree.
“It's been a long road. He's a real good kid, and he's been behind the eight-ball for a long time. Things are looking up for him, but it's all in his hands.”