Four hundred and fourteen. Leonard Fournette had gone 414 consecutive carries without fumbling the ball once. The living legend currently terrorizing opponents out of LSU’s backfield, the gigantic intimidator of a Tiger running back, the man with hands as strong as a vise grip and legs as thick and tough as tree trunks, hadn’t fumbled a football in almost two years.
On Saturday, Fournette had the ball ripped away twice – both times by the same Mississippi State linebacker.
If Fournette had never heard of the man who twice stripped him of his most prized possession, it’s no surprise. Seemingly few people have. And the majority of those who do know his name appear to have written him off anyway, either back in high school when he tore his ACL as a senior and the recruiting calls stopped, or again early in college when he tore another ACL just as he was starting to become a contributor as a redshirt freshman. If not then, it was when he had a seemingly devastating third torn ACL last year.
Most didn’t believe Dez Harris would be on the field at this point, let alone that he’d be one of the primary reasons his Bulldogs almost made a 20-point comeback in the fourth quarter to beat LSU at Tiger Stadium on Saturday. Yet, here he is.
“It means a lot,” he said. “I always grew up thinking and believing that God gives his hardest tasks to his strongest warriors. I listened to my mom preach that to me. Seeing it play out, it was great.”
Not only did Harris force two fumbles Saturday – and recovered one – he also recovered the onsides kick that led to a quick touchdown, pulling MSU within three points with a few minutes left in the game. The reasons State got back in the game are numerous. Junior quarterback Damian Williams stepped in admirably when starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s helmet popped off, for one. Fred Ross, Donald Gray and Brandon Holloway made some great catches. The defense as a whole was dominant for almost the entirety of the second half. Westin Graves hit some big kicks, including the onsides kickoff (“It was a really good kick,” Harris said).
But none of it happens without Harris, to the surprise of everyone but himself. Well, not quite everyone. When so many of his offers disappeared after the first knee injury in high school, MSU stuck with him. When his second and third injuries came, Harris’s teammates stood beside him through surgery and rehab.
Through it all, his biggest supporter has been his mom, the woman who raised him to believe in himself and to fight through any adversity that comes his way. She could have no way of knowing how lucky her son would be to have the athletic gifts he does, to have the opportunity to earn a free a college degree and to play college football at the highest level. Nor could she have ever known what a toll those blessings would take on her son’s body. Luckily, she knew his mind and spirit would be strong, even when the body was weak. That’s how she raised him.
Delaina Wilson talks to her son every day, but Saturday night may have been one of the happiest – and most emotional – calls she’s placed.
“She was crying,” Harris said. “She was so happy … I was emotional because we lost, but at the same time, I was emotional because I had a good game and she reacted the way she did.”
Few people knew better what Harris had been through than his mom, though if any have followed as closely, it’s his 13-year-old sister, and it was she who Harris often thought about after his most recent ACL tear.
Lesser men would have given up. Equal or even better men have before. And to be certain, the thought crossed his mind. How could it not? He’d already been through it all twice, and the prospect of doing it a third time was daunting.
But by then, he was a role model, and he had to make sure he gave the right example.
“My little sister just started sports, so I can’t let her think it’s OK to get hurt and just quit right then,” he said. “It was time to go back to work again; time to have the surgery and get back to it. I already knew what I had to do. I just stepped up and did it.”
Throughout the rehab, Harris has quietly changed his body and morphed his game. He’s always had great speed, he acknowledges, and that paired with his length is what had MSU’s coaches so excited about him as far back as his freshman year. But in the time spent in the weight room, Harris’s frame has filled out considerably, muscles growing and body thickening as he’s transformed into quite the intimidating presence – now up to 6’ 4”, 236 pounds – on a football field full of people trained to be intimidating themselves.
Few saw Harris coming coming, and particularly not Fournette, but perhaps they should have. Even now, however, Harris is reluctant to talk, hesitant to respond to those who wrote him off. He just wants to keep improving, and he wants to do whatever he can to help his team win.
“I believe that actions speak louder than words, so I don’t really have much to say to people that doubted me,” he said. “ [I’ll] just continue to get better and continue to perfect my craft. Go hard and fill my role for this team.”