Fight On State Magazine Preview

Get a taste of what you'll find in the next issue with this feature story on Greg Harrison. The magazine features the Class of 2004 and a story on Class of '05 star Derrick Williams, too.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The next issue of Fight On State the Magazine focuses on Penn State's Class of 2004 and offers a long feature of Class of '05 standout Derrick Williams. If you would like to secure you copy, be sure to order an annual Total Access Pass to FightOnState.com
by midnight Tuesday, Dec. 16. A magazine sub comes FREE with your Annual TAP sub. Also, for a limited time, you will get the official 2009 Rose Bowl DVD with the annual subscription.

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In the meantime, here is a small taste of what you will find in our next magazine, as we catch up with Class of 2004 five-star prospect Greg Harrison.

HEADLINE: Best Foot Forward
SUBHEAD: A chronic injury may have cost top recruit Greg Harrison his football career, but his passion for the sport remains strong
BYLINE: Mark Harrington

Everything happens for a reason.

Greg Harrison became accustomed to hearing that phrase after he finally succumbed to a chronic foot injury that forced him to hang up his Penn State football uniform. The injury first showed up early in his college career and he practiced with it and played with pain as long as he could.

“I just wanted to play more than anything,” Harrison explained. “I just fought through the pain. I didn't want to give up, because I was making so much progress.”

The Scout.com five-star lineman from Shenandoah, Pa., was a four-year starter in high school and played on both sides of the ball. A first-team All-State selection, he was also an ace in the classroom, with a 3.7 grade point average. This combination of brains and brawn drew interest from around the nation, including football scholarship offers from Virginia, Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan State, Colorado and North Carolina State.

Harrison picked Penn State over that field, graduated early from high school and enrolled at the University Park campus in January 2004. He redshirted as a true freshman and appeared poised to make an impact on the offensive line in the spring of 2005.

Then his right foot began to bother him.

“I remember the day I first felt it,” Harrison said. “I was going up against [defensive tackle] Jay Alford in drills and something happened and it just popped. It was painful, but I just finished up the drills and went in to see the trainers to ask for some Tylenol. Of course, those guys always want to know what the problem is if you're asking for something. The trainer did one simple test on my foot, and in a split second I was in agonizing pain.”

The look on the trainer's face immediately suggested this was more than just a simple bruise. It turned out to be an injury to the Lisfranc joint, located on the top of the foot.

“This is the area of your foot that gives you all your power; without it you can't push off or cut effectively,” Harrison said.

Despite the pain, Harrison figured a foot injury could not be all that bad, and he was determined to play through the pain. At the time, the offensive line was in a state of flux due to several suspensions related to the “Arrowgate” incident, and Harrison saw a great opportunity to earn playing time.

“It was tough, but I just did everything I could to allow me to practice,” he said. “We'd just tape it up and I would take painkillers because I didn't want to miss a beat out there. I couldn't slow down.”

Reports out of spring practice indicated Harrison was one of the best young linemen on the team. Even at 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, he was considered nimble, with an aggressive style of play that allowed him to quickly get out of his stance.

But even as he played well at the end of spring ball, climbing to second team at right guard, the pain persisted. He played through it in the preseason of 2005 and then in the first three games. Then, in practice leading up to the fourth game, his foot gave out in a drill. The pain was worse than ever.

Harrison met with Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, the team physician, to discuss his options. It was decided that surgery was the best course.

“They did a bone graft and took a piece from my hip and put in two screws to try to fix it,” Harrison explained. “I was off [my foot] for about eight weeks, doing hard rehab like zero-impact exercises in the pool. By the end, I had to basically teach myself how to walk again. It's really weird to have to teach yourself how to use your foot again.”

But he was back for spring practice in 2006 and made a strong run for the vacant starting right guard spot left open by the graduation of Tyler Reed. On the 2006 preseason depth chart, Harrison was listed as one of two possible starters at the position, along with senior Robert Price.

“It was still painful, but I was using these [shoe] plates to immobilize my foot,” Harrison said. “We'd have to cut off my shoelaces to get them off at times. But I got through spring drills and then [preseason] camp.”

Harrison played as a reserve in the first two games of 2006. Then his foot “popped” again.

“I went to doctors and trainers and talked about my options,” he said.

It boiled down to this: If he wanted to play again, he'd need another procedure. But even if he had it, there was no guarantee he'd make it back to 100 percent. In fact, there was a chance that if he kept playing, he could have long-term issues with the foot.

“I started thinking about the basics, like running around with my kids someday,” Harrison recalled. “It was the toughest decision I've ever had to make. I love Penn State so much. The school and the coaches have done so much for me. I just wanted to make an impact, but the risk was just too great.

“I remember [assistant coach] Jay Paterno coming up to me when I was grappling with the decision. He told me, 'No matter what you decide, do what is best for you and be comfortable with the choice.' That meant a lot to me.”

The decision, of course, was to stop playing the sport he loved. And in certain respects, he was stepping away from an outstanding recruiting class he helped assemble.

Harrison committed to Penn State in the spring of 2003, and along with running back Matt Hahn, another early commit, took a proactive role in luring other players. Via phone conversations, e-mails and texts, they helped convince talents like Dan Connor, Josh Gaines, Mark Rubin, Tyrell Sales and A.Q. Shipley to join their ranks.

This even as the Nittany Lions stumbled to their worst record (3-9) in more than seven decades during the 2003 season. They all took a risk on the program and it clearly paid off.

Harrison was thrilled to be a part of the team's resurgence in 2005, when it won a Big Ten title and beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl. And he's a bit disappointed he was not part of all of the action in 2008, as the Lions wrapped up their second league crown in four years and another Bowl Championship Series berth, this time to the Rose.

“Sure, it hurts not being part of that team,” he said. “But I am so proud of those guys, because I know how hard they have to work and what they have to sacrifice. They deserve this so much.”

These days, Harrison is making an impact on the football field in a different way. The education major finished up his degree at Penn State and got the opportunity to student teach at Jim Thorpe (Pa.) High for the 2007-08 academic year. He also coached football at Jim Thorpe.

Through the head coach there, Harrison learned of a teaching and coaching opening at Ridgeview High in Orange Park, Fla., for the 2008-09 season. He got the job.

“I teach social studies and coach the offensive line now,” he explained.

In his first year on the staff, Harrison, who has dropped some 50 pounds since his playing days, helped turn the program around. Coming off a season in which it won only four games, Ridgeview rebounded in 2008 by winning the school's first district title and making a run in the state playoffs.

Among the wins in 2008 was an upset of Florida powerhouse Nease, Tim Tebow's alma mater. Ridgeview quarterback Derek Hatcher told the Florida Times-Union that Harrison's offensive line was the key to the victory.

“All the credit goes to that man over there," he said after the game, pointing to Harrison. "It all starts up front. Nease has two defensive linemen committed to Wake Forest, and I didn't get sacked one time. So it all starts there.”

For his part, Harrison says any credit for what he's been able to teach the players goes back to what he learned while at Penn State, especially from offensive line coach Bill Kenney and defensive line coach Larry Johnson.

“They were really the two coaches who shaped who I am on the sideline today,” he said. “Coach Kenney's wild, upbeat attitude was something that always stuck with me. And Coach Johnson's passion was something I have really tried to emulate. He was never my coach directly, but even if you're just within earshot of the guy, you want to run through a wall for him. We used to slow down as we walked by him giving the defensive line a pep talk in the locker room before games and it would really fire us up.”

Harrison is trying to pass on lessons he learned off the field at Penn State, too.

“I initiated an academic advising program for our players,” he said. “[PSU academic counselor] Todd Kulka had a big impact on me, so I wanted to try to emulate that for my players. It's great to see guys come in and say their grades have never been higher and show appreciation for the help and guidance.”

So while being a part of the 2008 Nittany Lion football team would have been thrilling, Harrison, who is engaged to Katie O'Connor, is not complaining about his station in life. Far from it, in fact.

He need only look into the faces of the young people with whom he works every day to find the silver lining of the injury that ended his football career.

“Life is great,” Harrison said. “Everything happens for a reason.”

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