Damon Harrison was cut twice from his middle school football team and then again during training camp for the team at his community college. But he might just be finding a way to make it with the Jets.
The long road to the NFL has had its ups and downs for Harrison, who comes to the Jets from William Penn, a tiny NAIA school in Iowa. Before he even entered high school, Harrison was twice cut from his middle school team in New Iberia, La. and was so discouraged that he swore off football and switched his attention to basketball in high school. From ninth grade through his junior year, Harrison excelled on the court until Nov. 29, 2005 when he tore his meniscus on his 17th birthday. He gained 40 pounds while he recovered from the injury and that summer, after some begging from the coaching staff, tried out for the high school team.
This time, Harrison made it.
“I had a lot of fun playing football that year. Even though I had played just one year, I did really well. I played everywhere along the offensive line and on defense, well I played defensive end,” Harrison told Metro New York. “But I only really had an offer to play at a community college and no major colleges offered me, because I played just that one year.”
So Harrison attended the community college, but was cut during training camp. His defensive coordinator told him that he “wasn’t going to be good enough to play.” He left school and through a temp agency landed a job at Walmart near what is now his hometown of Lake Charles. He worked doing overnight stocking of shelves and his easy-going spirit coupled with his obvious physical strength made him a favorite of management.
On the same day that Walmart offered him a full-time job, Harrison received a call from William Penn.
“One of my former coaches was coaching there now and he wanted me to play there. I really didn’t have to think about it too much; I wanted to play,” Harrison said. “So I did, I went after it.”
Harrison excelled at William Penn, where the inferior competition couldn’t handle the size and strength of his 6-foot-4, 350-pound frame or the athleticism that saw him star in basketball in high school. Typical of small school players, he was overlooked in the NFL Draft, but the Jets liked what they saw of him on film, especially since he’s the prototypical player for the nose in their 3-4.
“I know personally, I have a long ways to go, a lot to learn and a lot to understand about the game. There’s a lot more I need to learn, to understand about playing at this high a level. In college, I obviously wasn’t playing against top competition,” Harrison said. “They’re not making any promises, but I keep getting better and better each day so I hope I can take the next step with them.”
A big part of the learning curve for Harrison has been the defense’s meetings in the afternoon, where they can go over the playbook and study film. He has made friends with Mohammad Wilkerson, the defensive end who was the Jets’ top pick last year and has earned praise from head coach Rex Ryan this offseason.
Wilkerson came from Temple, a program often overlooked for its football talent, and sees enough similarities in Harrison to lead him to mentor the rookie.
“I was a rookie last year and I know what it is like, to want to learn at the first try. He’s really eager,” Wilkerson said. “He’s physically strong and athletic. If he keeps honing his craft I think he can do well here.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer for all your offseason news on Gang Green.