A Q&A With MSU Track Athlete James Harris

Mississippi State freshman track athlete James Harris (6-4, 200) was one of the premier track athletes in the country his last two years of high school. He was recruited by schools across the nation. James talks about his gifts as an track athlete, his recruitment, why he chose Mississippi State, his hopes for the future, MSU's new track facility, and Saturday's SEC vs Big Ten track meet at MSU.

Obviously, you are a gifted athlete. When did you first realize that you could do things other people couldn't?
James Harris - "I actually realized that it could pay for my college when I was a freshman in high school, so that is when I really started to work hard in it. I knew I was fast. I played football so I had to run fast. On the basketball court I wasn't the most coordinated person so if I was going to do anything I was going to do it fast so my coach would know that I was hustling. As far as track, at first I was doing it to stay in shape for football and it was also something to do before baseball season started.

"Around my sophomore year I noticed I was pretty good at this."

What happened your sophomore year?
"My 8th grade year I got second in the state in the 400 for class 2A. I came back and got second again my freshman year. That's when I realized that I really had a passion for it because it broke my heart that I got second that year. I knew the 400 was my race. I was like I'm not going to let anybody ever beat me again at the state meet in the 400. And I won it the next three years.

"I was still focused on football at that time (my sophomore year). But around my junior year was when you have the sit ins with your school counselor about what you wanted to do for college. Everybody knew I was a pretty good football player so I was hopeful I would get a sports scholarship in it. But to get an sports scholarship you have to have the academics. And there are so many people out there trying to get one the odds are slim to none that you will be one of the people to get one, let alone a full scholarship. That's when I actually started working hard at it. That's also when I started getting involved in summer track. Before I got into summer track I was doing just enough to beat the guys from the local area. But I lived in Alabama and everybody is focused on football. And I knew some of the best guys in football could beat them but they weren't in track because most of them were focused on football at the time same. So, I got into summer track right around my junior year.

"The fastest time I ran that year (in high school) was around 48.7 seconds in the 400 meters. I went to the (summer) Nike meet and ran a 46.8, which was a big difference compared to the spring."

Recruiting-wise, what happened when you ran that 46.8 400 meters?
"(MSU head) Coach (Steve) Dudley had given my high school coach a questionnaire and a brochure at the end of my junior year. He did that at the state meet about a month or so before I ran in the Nike meet. I thought to myself Mississippi State, they are an SEC school. They were the first school to start recruiting me. They started recruiting me even before Alabama State did and they are just 45 minutes away from my house. At least I then knew somebody was going to recruit me in track. I had already received questionnaires from schools in football."

What happened then?
"Coach Dudley came to Nike. He had already signed Tavaris Tate and he was running at Nike that same year."

Did you know who Tate was at that time?
"I knew who he was through the internet. I imagined him to be some big guy about 6-2, and just rolling. I met him and I thought he is short. But it was good for me to actually see him in action. I thought he is going to Mississippi State, so it must be a good school."

You are now at Nike about to run. What were your thoughts about that?
"I was glad to be at Nike because I knew everybody there was going to be faster than me. And that would make me compete up to my maximum capabilities, which would allow me to see what I could actually do. I PR'ed (personal record) by two seconds.

"Right before the race I had introduced myself to a coach of a school that had a good (track) program. I gave the coach my name and told him I would be running the 400. It was like during the entire conversation he was very nonchalant. It was like he was paying me no mind at all. I felt that vibe from him. I won't say it made me mad but it did kind of make me upset because it was like he didn't want to give me the time of day. So, I wanted to show him when I went out on the track.

"When I came across the line I had run a 46.86. I thought I didn't know I was that fast (laugh). My coach who was with me, by the time he had gotten to the other side where the athletes can go, coaches were lined up to give him information and that same coach was in that line waiting to give him his information."

Did you win the race?
"I won the heat but got third overall in the meet."

With all those coaches now interested in you, how did that make you feel?
"It surprised me. I thought, well, maybe I can do something with track. I came back later and beat that PR with a 46.55 to win the USA Junior Olympics. That's when I had a lot of coaches coming in. I even got to go to Australia that summer. And there's a dead period in track where coaches can't talk to you, so when I got back home my grandmother had saved all the coaches calls on her answering machine. I pushed play and probably stood in front of the answering machine a good five to six minutes just listening to the different coaches. And there were some big names among those coaches. The first call I actually returned was Coach Dudley."

Why did you call him first?
"Coach Dudley was recruiting me before I ran those high times. And I figured he could see what he could do with me before I had actually competed at that level. I thought he had been waiting the longest, so I called him first.

"I had never seen him in person but as soon as I started talking to him I felt the vibe you see from him every day at practice. Every time I have talked to Coach Dudley on the phone, even when I was still in high school, I would get that excited vibe from him. Just talking to him I saw the realistic goals he felt he could set for me and that I could achieve year by year."

But you hadn't made up your mind recruiting-wise that you were going to Mississippi State at that time had you?
"I hadn't made up my mind. And I was actually stuck on LSU at that time, before LSU had even thought about me."

You were now receiving recruiting interest. Who did you consider initially and who did you narrow it down to?
"My first three schools were Mississippi State, Clemson and Texas A&M."

Why just three? Why not 10 or 15, then narrow it down to three?
"When you have a lot of good programs coming after you, you feel you can do good at all of them. But I limited myself because I felt time was going by fast my senior year and I didn't want to consider a lot of them. You only have five official visits anyway. And I took all five of them."

Who did you officially visit?
"Of course I came to Mississippi State. I also went to Texas A&M, Clemson, LSU and UCLA."

Why those five?
"I knew track wouldn't be a problem for me because I had a God-given gift. It was more about James Harris the individual going on into the world than it was about James Harris the track athlete. Track is going to last for only so long. I am glad it's going to pay for college but I know that I have to work some day. Most of the coaches that I talked to told me what their school could do for me after I get finished with track. Coach Dudley was big on that. (Head) Coach (Pat) Henry out of Texas A&M was big on that. (Head) Coach (Lawrence) Johnson from Clemson was big on that. (Just to show you how highly recruited James was, the current track rankings have Texas A&M 2nd in the nation, LSU is 5th, Clemson 6th, MSU 8th and UCLA 24th in the nation.-Editor's Note)

"When I sat down and thought it, those were the schools I felt where I needed to invest my time. I had to think about my future.

"What helped me a lot about Coach Dudley is that he would call and check on my grades, tell me what classes I needed so I would be in line to pass the clearing house. He would even call to tell me what I needed to do to get cleared through clearing house. I hadn't even committed to Mississippi State at the time. He was the first to actually visit me. He came to my school and showed me what my actual scholarship papers looked like. I'm glad he did that because every time I went on a visit I would take those papers with me. I would always talk to the head coach during my meeting with them and I would sit it down in front of him and told him when you send my papers to me on signing day they would look like this. They would look at them and tell me that I had everything ready. Then, they would look at the top of it and see how Coach Dudley had everything labeled and they would say that Coach Dudley already has everything ready for you (laugh). I would tell them 'yes, he does.'

"Really, it was the fact that Coach Dudley had already seen what he could do with me before I was that 46 (second) guy. And I had a lot of respect for that."

What was the visit like at Mississippi State? How did it help you make your decision?
"When I came on my visit to Mississippi State. I'm from the south myself so I know football is almost like God in the south, right behind church. When I came here it was like being home because I live about 15 minutes outside of Auburn. And I knew what Saturday morning football is like. And when I came here on my visit it was just like being at home, really. I bonded with all the players on the team, and I enjoyed myself."

When signing day what were your thoughts at that time?
"A couple of days before signing day I was sick to my stomach because I felt like I couldn't go wrong with any of my choices. But then, when I thought about Mississippi State I saw good academics and I saw a cast of guys in front of me that would help me achieve what I would need to achieve when I was on a track and field team. I could achieve that during practice due to the competition. I had Tavaris Tate, O'Neal (Wilder), Manny (Emanuel Mayers), Daundre (Barnaby). Those guys have really pushed me since I've been here."

Now that you are at State, what events do you compete in for State? I know you run in the 400 meters. What other events do you compete in?
"I high jump, run the 200 meters. I'm also on the 4x4 and 4x1."

What are your track goals while at Mississippi State?
"I see myself achieving so much, but I'm still a freshman and have so much learning to do. I have never really had any formal training in track. I didn't lift weights in high school. I didn't even have a track to practice on in high school. I didn't even have a high jump pad to practice on in high school. I would just do it when I got to a track meet. Now I have the new facilities."

Speaking of new facilities, what are your thoughts about the new Mississippi State track facilities?
"When the track was finally completed, we had to lift weights. But when I looked out of the weight room and saw that everything was laid down, it just gave me chills. I thought that I would actually have something to compete on, practice on, and something that I could actually call home. I have never had that. I'm glad to be a part of it. I know a lot of money has been invested in it. I will not be a person who will let it go to waste because I am so excited to be able to compete on it. With Saturday's (SEC vs Big Ten) track meet coming up, family will be here and all the alumni are coming back. We'll have some good competition here."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.

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