Harris leaps each hurdle

Thanksgiving provides the opportunity to reflect on life's great fortunes. This year, Matthew Harris has plenty to be thankful for. Through hard work and determination, he has the chance at his dream, earning a college degree on scholarship.

Matthew Harris has never been one to take no for an answer.

As an eight-year-old, Matthew watched his older brother, Russell, run high school track. Each time, he pleaded to the coach for the chance to run. One day, he was finally given the chance. The young Harris posted a 100-meter dash time which would have qualified for nationals.

Now, Harris is a decorated football standout with Lyons Township (Ill.) High School and will be playing collegiately with Northwestern. It's the journey to that accomplishment which makes him remarkable.

Growing up as one of seven children, Matthew and his siblings were forced to be self-supportive, to take the burden off his mother's shoulder.

"Matthew used his God-given personality to make sure he always had a job and to make sure he could take care of himself so we weren't dependent on our mom too much," said Russell.

But Matthew is no stranger to challenges. In December of 2009, his father, Russell Sr., died of a heart attack, leaving his wife and children behind.

It was Harris's father who instilled a love of sports in his children, and ensured he didn't miss a game. Matthew, then in eighth grade, was forced to cope with tragedy.

"Matt took it really hard," Russell Jr. said. "He dealt with it differently. He funneled all that emotion into sports and really excelled."

Football became more than a game for Matthew. It was the door to opportunity. He set his eyes on earning a scholarship in order to give his family a financial break.

Matthew Harris left his father with gifts on his birthday. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Harris)

"I really noticed a change in his passion," said Russell of his brother. "He wasn't doing it because his friends were doing it, he was doing it to make it to college and to make it a better situation for his family."

A two-way standout in high school, Harris dedicates each game to his father. He wears 11 on his jersey, honoring his father's birthday, Nov. 11. Each time Harris takes the field, it's personal.

"Everything I do for my life is for my family," said Matthew. "When I play football, I do it for my father. Football isn't just a game to me, it's pretty important, knowing my dad would be happy looking down on me now."

The drive and talent Harris brings to the football field became a ticket to his dream. After a stellar junior season, interest from prospective colleges turned into full scholarship offers.

Harris came to a decision in July. He brought his family to Evanston and gave Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald his verbal commitment. Matthew held his father in his heart at that moment.

"I know my dad is very proud with the decision I made," said Harris. "I just wish he could be here to celebrate with me."

The commitment to Northwestern brought great gratification to the Harris family.

"When he made the decision to go to a school like Northwestern, we couldn't have been more proud," his brother Russell said. "He really looked at Northwestern as an opportunity to get where he wants to be in life."

Harris will enroll at Northwestern in January, allowing him to get an early start on his dream. On the field, he'll work to find a niche as either a wide receiver or defensive back—whichever the coaching staff chooses. In the classroom, he'll work toward his dream of earning a college degree.

On Nov. 11, Matthew visited his father's grave to celebrate his birthday. He laid down flowers and a Northwestern t-shirt, then said a prayer as he always does.

"I'm just thankful for the great life I've had," he said.

In his father's memory, Harris is tackling each challenge that stands in his way, and doesn't plan on saying no.

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers for Big Red Report, and currently covers the Northwestern Wildcats and Chicago Cubs. He resides on Chicago's north side.
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