NORMAN — When Nic Harris speaks, it’s not rare to hear him quote an inspirational saying or well-known catchphrase.
He uses many, but personifies only one.
“You’ve heard the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a kid?’” Harris asked. “Well, I was that kid.”
Harris, Oklahoma’s junior starting free safety from Alexandria, La., was born in 1986 to a 17-year-old father and 16-year-old mother.
At their young ages, they could not provide a conventional home life, so Harris found himself shuttled from house to house among his family and friends.
“Neither of them would step up to the plate to take care of their son,” Harris said. “I was bounced around enough that it wasn’t really steady or stable.
“In and out of schools every year. I didn’t have a bed to really call my own for a good part of my life.”
He was never technically in foster care — “my family was too strong to let that happen,” he said — but he didn’t have one place that was home, either.
Eventually, he was raised by LaQuanda Harrell, a woman he calls his stepmother. She was never married to his father, but did give birth to one of Harris’ eight siblings.
Harris admits growing up the way he did seemed tough at times.
“But I never asked the question, ‘why me?’“ he said. “Why not me? Who am I? Why am I so special that this shouldn’t be happening to me?
“I always thought about how there were people on the other side of the world who didn’t have food to eat. At least I had food to eat, clothes on my back and a roof over my head.”
Outwardly, Harris doesn’t show animosity toward his parents, but he knows how their actions deprived him.
“There’s nothing you can really have — something I didn’t experience — like a mother’s love or a father’s love,” he said. “Or someone to tell you everything’s gonna be alright.”
Yet he never paid attention to what he didn’t have. Instead, he enjoyed what he did have, soaking up the unconditional love his grandparents — Shirley and Emanuel Hayes on his father’s side, Charlie and Hattie Harris on his mother’s side — gave him.
“Going back and forth from house to house, seeing different ways of life — in the end, it made me out to be a better person,” he said. “I thank my grandparents to the utmost for being there for me when they didn’t have to be. I wasn’t technically their child, but they chose to treat me like I was.”
‘IF NOT ME, THEN WHO?’
While Harris credits his grandparents for keeping him focused in his early years, he deserves a lot of the credit himself.
“Being the oldest of nine, it helps you grow up extremely fast,” he said. “You have to mature extremely fast.
“You’ve got to lead by example. Talking can only go so far. Having them come to the games and look at you as a role model, as a positive example, it’s a lot of pressure.
“But if not me, then who? And if not now, then when?”
Sayings like that are the fabric of his thoughts and his speech. He often quotes Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, his two favorite athletes.
“The greatest of the great,” he calls them. “In order for you to be great, you’ve got to believe that you’re great. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
The phrases serve to keep him grounded, to keep him focused. And most of all, to keep him motivated.
“I feel if you don’t have motivation, you don’t live. You just merely exist,” he said. “You have to be motivated toward something.”
His favorite saying?
“If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything,” he said.
STANDING FOR SOMETHING
Shirley Hayes says her grandson was an exceptional child.
He hasn’t changed much in that regard.
A talented football player, one of OU’s defensive stars.
A strong student, majoring in physical therapy. He’s on pace to graduate in May 2009.
And a giving heart.
Earlier this month, he was selected as one of 11 NCAA Division I-A players on the American Football Coaches’ Association Good Works Team, which chooses its honorees based solely on work in the community.
Harris is the president of the BridgeBuilders, a group of OU student-athletes who reach out to African-American children. He’s been involved with Toys for Tots and other programs that focus on gathering food or raising money for children and families.
He mentors the children, spends time with them — “because an idle mind is the worst thing a child can have,” he said.
“I feel as easy as the Lord gave it to you, he’ll take it away. You should always give back to the community. I’m not personally able to give back to the community of Alexandria, La., but I’m just gonna try to make an impact in the area which I’m in.”
Because of his experiences, Harris understands the needs of underprivileged children better than some. His work with BridgeBuilders provides children with some of the things he never had.
“For a while, I really didn’t have positive role models that I saw on a daily basis,” Harris said. “I was academically sound, but I didn’t have that base, that foundation to come home to after school. I couldn’t say, ‘Grandma, help me with some derivatives.’ My grandmother didn’t know what derivatives were.”
Harris also knows what it’s like to have someone do something special for you.
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Harris remembers well the first birthday party he had when all his friends were there.
It was the day he turned 18.
“There were a lot of birthdays that went by where I really didn’t have a celebration,” he said. “My high school threw me an 18th birthday and bought me my class ring.”
More than 500 people were in attendance. Friends, family, essentially everyone who had played a part in raising Harris.
“That was the ultimate moment for him,” Harrell said. “It was a surprise party. All his friends and family were there.
“It was a really special moment in his life.”
ALL GROWN UP
Harrell first began taking care of Harris when he was 8 years old, about the time she gave birth to his half-sister, Sakena. “ Nic and I immediately began developing a mother/son relationship,” Harrell said.
And when Harrell quit seeing Harris’ father, she did everything she could to keep Harris.
“I wasn’t given legal adoption of Nic at first,” said Harrel, who became his legal guardian when he was 15. “But he always knew where he had a home.
“He was about the only reason I stayed with his father as long as I did.”
Despite his past, she saw something special in that young boy, something that is still showing through today.
“It’s one thing to go through all that he did and come out OK,” said OU linebacker Lamont Robinson, who was Harris’ freshman roommate. “But Nic’s more than that.
“He reaches for the mountain tops, he aspires to do good things and big things in life. And he goes and gets it. He doesn’t let his circumstances or situations hold him back. To get where he’s at now, I don’t see too much that he could go through in life that could hold him back.”
It’s hard to see why anyone wouldn’t agree.
“I had to learn on the fly,” Harris said. “My mother was in and out. My father was never really there. I was coming into my own on my own, so to speak.
“Just because I was thrown a curveball, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have to swing at it.”