While marching toward the greatest moment of his football career, Ryan Harris took a detour. In the Bay Area for Super Bowl 50, where Harris would start at offensive tackle for the Denver Broncos, the former Irish lineman called an old mentor.
He wanted to reconnect with the man who recruited him to Notre Dame in the first place: Tyrone Willingham. They spent just two years together in South Bend before Willingham was fired, but meeting his former coach again was a reminder of what’s helped Harris last nearly a decade in the NFL, sign contracts valued at nearly $10 million and set himself up for retirement before his oldest child hits kindergarten.
“Being at Notre Dame taught me how valuable relationships are,” Harris said. “Maybe you don’t have the success you want as a team, but you can have success with those relationships.”
Harris ultimately lifted the Lombardi Trophy last February. The closest he got to the actual spotlight during Super Bowl weekend was taking a selfie with Peyton Manning. The former three-star recruit out of Cretin Derham Hall has made a career of working the background, making the business of NFL football work for him the best he can.
Harris said he’s moved 16 times in the past four years. He’s married with two kids under the age of two. He’s on his fifth NFL team, leaving for Pittsburgh this off-season on a two-year deal. He’s had three stints in Denver, which drafted him as a third-round pick nine years ago.
After getting a grip on the volatility of sports when Notre Dame fired Willingham for Charlie Weis after his sophomore season, the transient nature of NFL football didn’t upset Harris’s professional arc.
“I think everybody’s career doesn’t go exactly how they thought it would,” Harris said. “Ideally you’re a first-round pick, win three straight Super Bowls, then re-up for another contract.”
Instead, after his rookie contract in Denver, Harris relocated to Philadelphia but a back injury scuttled his season before it could start. He’d be on the transaction wire six times in the next six seasons.
“Notre Dame helped me with all that, preparing me for the NFL,” Harris said. “Not only did I get a great degree, it helped me navigate the life of an NFL player. I’ve been able to create financial independence from the financial literacy I learned at Notre Dame.
“I had great classes, great teachers, great expectations. You’re with people at Notre Dame who are not only excelling in their professions, they’re also going to be a big part of the community. Being an NFL athlete, dealing with large sums of money at a young age, it all helped to have that insight and information.”
The service aspect of Notre Dame didn’t wake Harris up to serving the community, but it reinforced why it’s important. He’s been involved in the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program. He’s worked with Habitat for Humanity. In accordance with his own faith, Harris has worked with Islamic Relief. He’s also assisted a program to aid refugees from Somalia.
Harris returned to Notre Dame last month for the Blue-Gold Game as an honorary captain alongside David Bruton, who spent seven years in Denver before signing with Washington this off-season. Bruton didn’t play in the Super Bowl after suffering a fractured right fibula in December.
The spring weekend let Harris reconnect with former teammates, fostering more of those relationships he values. He keeps in touch with Brady Quinn, Julius Jones, Trevor Laws and Tom Zbikowski. He’s now teammates with Stephon Tuitt. Former Irish running back Ray Zellars lives near Pittsburgh.
“I really do know and believe that guys who go to Notre Dame are a different breed,” Harris said. “You choose to challenge yourself athletically and academically. That’s not the case everywhere in the NFL. We’re like-minded people.”
Seven Notre Dame players got drafted this year, meaning a new round postgame handshakes for Harris. He’ll cross paths with KeiVarae Russell, Jaylon Smith and Ronnie Stanley this season. Tyler Eifert and Zack Martin will be on the schedule too. And Harris’s first game with Pittsburgh will come against Bruton and Washington.
Harris watches enough Notre Dame football to know Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise too. He also attended the same Cretin-Derham Hall program that produced Michael Floyd and James Onwualu.
“The biggest thing with me is that kids who commit to Notre Dame are already on the right track,” Harris said. “They’ve already chosen a path of more resistance and that means a path of more reward. Continue on that path. Pick up a shovel and work, work, work and work some more. Write down your goals and don’t give up on them.”
For Harris, that meant not only sticking in the NFL out of Notre Dame – he keeps in touch with Weis and former offensive line coach John Latina too – it also meant winning a Super Bowl. Harris knows his football career doesn’t have many seasons left, but he’s savored its highs and learned during its transitions.
Later this year he’ll be at the White House when the Broncos are honored by President Barack Obama.
“It was so unexpected how it happened,” Harris said. “It was just the most amazing experience that I’ve ever had. To be a part of that brotherhood in Denver last year, it made every failure, every setback, every sacrifice worth it.
“I never knew how much I’d love holding that trophy. I can’t get enough time with it.”