In 2014, he played in 12 games, starting five at right tackle in place of the injured Phil Loadholt. In 2015, when the Vikings were forced to shuffle their offensive line, he moved inside to right guard, where he started all 16 games.
But this season, Harris has been nowhere to be seen and getting specifics has been even tougher.
Harris worked out with the team during OTAs, but in late June he was sidelined with what has been deemed a “head injury.” Whether it is concussion-related or not, he and his coaches have kept the details pretty close to the vest.
While short on specifics, Harris is getting the itch to get back on the field. The only time he has missed significant time was in 2012 when he was a backup in San Diego and missed 11 games with ankle injury. He feels that he is getting closer, but has yet to get clearance from doctors after being placed on the non-football illness list at the start of training camp after taking his team physical.
Being on the non-football illness list means Harris can’t return to practice for the first six weeks of the regular season, but sometime in the month after that there will have to be a decision made on his availability for the season. He isn’t saying when or if we’ll see him on the practice field, but he is antsy to get back doing what he does, not watching his teammates do it.
“It’s getting better,” Harris said. “I’m really missing not being out there. I’m still just doing what the doctors tell me and I feel like I’m getting better. Hopefully, sometime soon I can get to playing. But, for now, I’m just following directions so I can get back out there healthy.”
While remaining mum on exactly what is ailing him, he’s like every other player who has been sidelined and has been denied playing the game he loves.
You can only do so much on the sidelines until you get the green light. It’s always bad, but is isn’t as traumatic when it’s training camp and the preseason. Nobody likes either one, unless you’re fighting for a roster spot.
But now that winning or losing matters and games are part of the NFL’s recorded history, it makes not being available to help his team that much worse.
“The biggest thing for me is that we’re getting into the games that count and I’m not out there with my teammates,” Harris said. “We’ve got a big game this week and I’m just doing what I can – helping out young guys and staying active in meetings and stuff like that so I can contribute where I can.”
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Harris hasn’t had the opportunity to fight for his starting job or even solidify his spot as a swingman on the 53-man roster. It’s been a professional setback that most non-Pro Bowl types can ill-afford to have. The NFL inexorably moves on. Players get replaced. Coaches get replaced. Even owners get replaced. The lifespan of an NFL player is a finite window and Harris is missing out on a part of his career that he can’t get back.
The worst part for Harris is the isolation that takes place when a player isn’t surrounded by his teammates. The little things that are taken for granted by most players are the things most precious for those on the outside looking in as a game plan is being installed.
“It’s hard, man,” Harris said. “I love the game, especially just being around the team, traveling, doing that stuff. All the different places that you play during a year, I miss that stuff. But, health is number one right now and all I can do is what the doctor says.”
There is some concern that, with the missed time, Harris will be behind the curve when he comes back. It takes time to get in what the pros call “football shape.” You can be a chiseled as granite, but the rigors of playing 60 or so plays a game test the mettle of the toughest of big men.
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This isn’t Harris’ first rodeo, so he has been doing what he can to simulate the kind of demands that will be called upon him when and if he is activated. But, until then, he’s been getting a professional tutorial on how the game is played. By design, players are myopic. Offensive linemen are only concerned about the defenders in front of them. Guys like Harris typically operate in a phone booth of field space looking to dominate the man on the other side of an invisible line.
But, being sidelined has opened his eyes to the little things that take place off the field that those in charge of the players have to do and what the expectations are of those wearing helmets and popping pads on Sundays.
“I’m a five-year vet, so I know what it takes to be ready for games,” Harris said. “I’ve been in every meeting. With the time I haven’t been out on the field, I’ve been studying more. I’ve been able to see a lot of the behind-the-scenes things with the coaches – what they’re looking at with the line, the quarterbacks, the receivers. I’m seeing what they see – the big scheme of things. That’s what I’ve been able to do, seeing how everything operates, not just my position.”
It’s hard to assess when Harris may be able to return to doing what he loves to do – beating people up on a football field in a battle of 300-pound men – because nobody is talking about exactly what is wrong with Harris or to the extent to which not playing is in his long-term best interests.
But, he remains philosophical. A day hasn’t gone by that it doesn’t cross his mind how the last three months have gone on without him. Yet, he is convinced that he will be a better player once he returns from his current career setback.
“Adversity makes you better, I feel,” Harris said. “It hasn’t been fun, especially in Mankato where you get to interact with the fans. I miss that. Watching from the sidelines has been tough, but it has made me stronger. I’m staying positive. My coaches and teammates have been supporting me, so I’ll be fine. I’m just happy to be a Viking and getting ready to get back out there. Once I get clearance from the doctors, I know I’ll be ready to play.”