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.”