Is He The 1?

First-round pass-rusher Eli Harold met with Steelers brass at the combine and told a sad but familiar story. Not that it has him down.

Eli Harold's father left him early in life, and his mother died when he was 15.

Family? Harold craves it. And he found it with his older brother.

He might just find another family in Pittsburgh, too.

Did the long, lanky pass-rusher meet with the Pittsburgh Steelers?

"Yep," he said.

Did he meet with the head coach, an assistant coach, or an area scout?

"I met with that whole organization," he said with pride.

In fact, if you read Harold's story, you might have a hard time arguing that he won't be the Steelers' first-round draft pick this spring. He just might be an easy choice for them to make.

"My mother was diagnosed with yellow jaundice when I was 14 and they said it turned into pancreatic cancer," Harold told reporters from the combine podium this past Saturday. "She went into remission for a while and then it came back and hit her harder. I was 15 when she passed away. I didn't know she was on her last few days. My brothers and sisters didn't tell me. It was kind of rough. I watched her take her last breath. Growing up without a father, and having a mother really doing everything for you, it's pretty tough when you lose her. She was my rock. She would be proud of me right now."

Harold said he was raised by his older brother Walter.

"He's always been there for me. He's a pastor. He's 44. He's old enough to be my dad. He had five kids of his own. One passed away a month before I lost my mom. He was 20. He was playing basketball and he died. He had an enlarged heart. The autopsy showed he had a bad heart. We didn't know. But, yeah, he's always been there for me. He and his wife had been together before I was born. It's a very tight family, very supportive. He helps me make decisions. He helped me pick my agent. He helped me decide to come out."

After a successful career at Virginia Beach's Ocean Lakes High, where he was a freshman during Steelers safety Shamarko Thomas's senior season, Harold turned down multiple offers to say home at Virginia. In three seasons there, he compiled 141 tackles, 17.5 sacks and two interceptions. He was a defensive end throughout his career and often moved inside to play the 5-technique in the Cavaliers' 3-4. He dropped infrequently but was looking forward to showing scouts the next day that he could.

"I'm going to do it for my mom," he said. "I feel I have a lot to prove coming from UVA. Playing defensive end my whole life, I just want to show the world that I'm versatile. I can do more than just having my hand down. So tomorrow is the day. It's the proving ground. I'm psyched for it. I can't wait. I've worked all my life for it."

On Sunday, Harold, at 6-3 1/8, 247, ran official 40s of 4.61 and 4.60, had a vertical jump of 35 inches, a broad jump of 10-3, a 3-cone time of 7.07 and a short shuttle time of 4.16. He moved fluidly in agility drills, showed he could drop into coverage, and displayed the soft hands that caused him to be recruited as a wide receiver in the first place.

But Harold was moved to defense early, and last off-season gained 20 pounds. He had his weight as high as 250 during this past season and believes he can get up to 255 by next season.

Scouts say he's a pass-rusher with the strength to play the run on either side. And that's what teams such as the Steelers, Cleveland Browns, New England Patriots, and Washington Redskins are hoping, and probably why those teams met formally with Harold.

"The Redskins are my childhood team," he said. "Meeting them last night, I let coach know, 'Hey, I grew up watching you guys. I know everything about you. You're my childhood team.' But my uncle was a Dallas Cowboys fan. I stayed with him a few years of my life. I just wanted to like who he didn't like."

Even when he's on the opposite side of sports rivalries, Harold takes family very seriously. He said losing his mom "forced me to become a man earlier. And not having a dad growing up, being told things as a child a child shouldn't be told, it pushed me to be the athlete I am today. Everything I do I think of her. It just motivates me to be that much better at football, be a better brother, be a better friend, be a better teammate, be a better son. You know what I'm saying? It definitely molded me to be the better person I am today."

One of his older brother's sons, Sage Harold, is Eli's nephew whom he calls a brother. Sage is coming out for the draft after a solid career at James Madison.

"He had a heck of a year," Eli said. "We're a close family. I love a big family. My grandma had 13 kids. I have a huge family and we're all close."

The big guy finds comfort in a big family because his father let him down. Hard.

"Going to college, I would see guys with their parents at visits," he said. "They would be at dinner. A teammate I was real close with, I would just look at him and his father on visits and he was so happy he had both his parents. But, you know, it just motivates me, man. I don't believe you have to have a dad in your life to become a great man. My mom played both roles. I believe she did a great job, and my brother definitely helped me out a lot. Being in the church all the time, I didn't party. My senior year my curfew was 10 o'clock, so I was really not in the world. I was a late-bloomer but I have my head on straight. My mother did a great job, but not having a father, I don't let that determine who I am."

Does he still feel negatively toward his father?

"Yeah, I still do," he said. "I don't have anything to say to him. That's all I got to say about that."

If you know anything about Tomlin, you know the he has similar feelings toward his late father. And Tomlin is also partial to players who've overcome difficulties early in life, such as Harold. On top of that, Tomlin also hails from Hampton, Va., in the same Chesapeake Bay area.

"Oh, yeah, we talked about it -- a lot," Harold said of his combine meeting with Tomlin. "We talked about how Shamarko and I went to the same high school. There are ties there, man. I love it. And meeting with him, man, it was so cool because he was talking about home and where I'm from. He's a cool guy. He was down to earth. I really loved that meeting."

And, it was a meeting with "the whole organization," also known among the players who've ever spent any time with the Steelers as one, big, happy family.

But can he play?

The stats are good. The size is good. The speed is good. The tape is good. And records are sketchy but he's believed to have just turned 21, if that.

Yet, Howard, being so soft-spoken, and thoughtful, and, well, nice, the question becomes: Can he flip the switch at game time?

"Aw, I flip the switch," he said with a laugh. "Every time I go out on the gridiron I think about how much I've lost, how much I've been through so early in life, and it just pushes me to bring that fire out of me. You're definitely going to see it, and I can't wait. I can't wait to showcase my talents."


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