Harris Turns Up The Volume

Perhaps it's time to scratch "soft-spoken" off the list of adjectives to describe linebacker Bernardo Harris.

Harris, Green Bay's starting middle linebacker for the past four seasons, has turned up the volume as he has cranked up his performance on the field. He has become a visible and audible presence with his teammates, and reporters and commentators surround the once-quiet Chapel Hill, N.C. native in the locker room after games.

Everyone wants to hear what Harris has to say, and, for once, the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder is telling them.

"I want to be respected on the field and in the locker room as a leader," Harris said earlier this season. "Some things you can't do by being a quiet guy. But I still just want to get the job done, and do what's best for the team. My main goal always will be to win games, not make myself a big star."

Harris has put out plenty of effort this season. He leads the team in tackles with 60. He also has three sacks, forced one fumble, recovered two, and three passes defensed.

Against the Detroit Lions in the season opener, Harris made eight tackles and came up with the first fumble recovery of his career in the fourth quarter. In a 31-23 win against the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, Harris made eight tackles and knocked down a pass.

"It's nice to have a good start, but we're here to win games," Harris said. "You can talk all you want, and get people whipped up, but you still have to make plays. Without that, your words don't mean much."

Perhaps Harris feels he can cut loose because he feels comfortable on and off the field. He turned 30 on Oct. 15, signed a long-term contract after last season, and is entrenched as the team's middle linebacker. He has been in the same scheme for the past two seasons, and makes many of the defensive calls on the field.

"I feel I know the system, and can concentrate on helping the guys around me be better players," Harris said. "I know that I can do the job, and I'm ready to do that every week. But that's probably not why I speak up. That's more an emotional thing at the moment. It just hits me."

It hit Harris especially hard last December when the Packers played the Vikings at the Metrodome. Harris was totally revved for the game, which pitted the NFC Central Division leaders against the underdog Packers. Before the game, Harris shook almost everyone's hand, and talked on and on about the game.

"I was talking before the game, at halftime, in the third quarter, in the fourth quarter," Harris said after the game. "It was a feeling I couldn't keep bottled up. It caught a few people off guard because they haven't seen me like that before."

Indeed. His teammates didn't know what to think. "To have him raise his voice like that is just different," said safety LeRoy Butler, the defense's elder statesman.

And the Vikings didn't know how to handle Harris. He dogged the Vikings all day, making five solo tackles – including two for loss – and knocked down a career-best two passes. After knocking down the second, in the fourth quarter, Harris bellowed and flexed his muscles, much to the delight of the Packer faithful in Minnesota. His physical, emotional performance that day in the Dome earned rave reviews from head coach Mike Sherman.

"I used to think he was a good NFL linebacker," Sherman said after the game. "But today he was a great NFL linebacker."

He certainly didn't start out great. Harris played for the University of North Carolina for four years, and started his last two seasons. He was not drafted after his senior year, and signed with Kansas City Chiefs in June 1994. He suffered a knee injury in the first week of training camp and was cut in August. He spent the season out of football and working in the parts department of a BMW auto dealership.

The Packers signed Harris in January 1995. He suffered a broken arm in training camp, but made the roster with a gutsy performance. He became a special teams ace, leading the team in special team tackles with 11 in 1995 and 21 in 1996. When linebacker George Koonce got hurt near the end of the 1996 season, Harris got his chance at a starting spot. The Packers brought in former All-Pro linebacker Seth Joyner as a replacement, but Harris beat him out in training camp, and Green Bay traded former first-round draft pick Wayne Simmons to get Harris and Joyner on the field at the same time.

The move paid off as Harris led the team in tackles in 1997 and 1998, finished second in 1999, and led again last year with a career-high 132. While his play was intelligent and workman-like, he never seemed to have the flashy interception or bone-crushing tackle for a loss.

"His play-by-the-numbers mentality lends itself to dependability, but not necessarily big plays," said one postseason review of his performance. And this from a 1998 postseason report card: "Steady for two years as a starter, but will never be confused with Junior Seau."

Harris's coaches, though, took toughness over talk.

"I would like Bernardo to be more of a guy who yells and screams and jumps around and all that," said Fritz Shurmur, the Packers' late defensive coordinator, in January 1998 before Super Bowl XXXII against the Denver Broncos. "But I'm not so sure I don't see a lot of jumpers and screamers who don't play so good. I'd rather have what we have – a guy who can play good out there."

Shurmur turned Harris loose against the Dallas Cowboys in December 1997, the team's first visit to Lambeau Field in seven seasons. Harris blitzed on the second play of the game and sacked Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman for a 10-yard loss. The play set the tone for the Packers, who won 45-17.

Current linebacker coach Bo Pelini has called Harris a prototypical middle linebacker.

"When I came in here, all I heard was what he couldn't do," Pelini said. "But he's a force inside in the run. He's a good leader, and gives us the most experience of our guys who have played. I think that he's still going to be even better than he was last year."

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