It’s hard to believe that last summer, the Minnesota Vikings had what they felt were too many offensive linemen competing for too few spots. Returning all five starters from 2015, injured Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan coming back and adding Alex Boone and Andre Smith – not to mention developmental backups like Jeremiah Sirles and Nick Easton – there was a quiet confidence that the line would be improved.
It appeared in July to be too many linemen, which would soon transform into a cupboard that was almost bare as the next man up became the next slew of men up.
Among the casualties was guard Mike Harris, who spoke to the media on getaway day Monday about the mystery illness that sidelined him the entire season. Both Harris and the Vikings have been mum about exactly what the problem was, which led to varied speculation about what the malady could be.
But, Harris reiterated that he feels strong and ready to go, he’s just waiting for medical clearance to hit the ground running.
“I’m feeling great,” Harris said. “Everything health-wise, physically, mentally, I’m feeling great.”
As bad as it has been for Harris to be taken away from his first love – he makes no bones about his devotion to football – the mental part of his absence has been the hardest to handle.
Many Vikings offensive linemen went down with injuries during the season – from concussions to knees to backs to Achilles tears – but Harris has been battling his sidelining mostly outside of the prying eyes of fans and media and there are times it gets to him on a deep emotional level.
“Psychologically, it was killing me not to be out there,” Harris said. “I love the game so much and not being out there was really hard. I pride myself on bringing the physicality and toughness and when I couldn’t, it hurt me inside. Once I get that clearance and can get back there, it will be a dream come true.”
Harris has been a rare sighting in the Vikings locker room during those periods when the media is allowed inside because he has grown tired of getting the same questions about what the affliction is that he has. But, at the same time, he understands that some of those asking the questions have real concerns about him as a person, not just as the guy who wears No. 79 for the purple and gold.
“It can get to you, but I know you guys (the media) are just doing your job,” Harris said. “I’ve learned that there are people who legitimately care and that’s why they’re concerned and ask about it. All I can do is trust the doctor’s orders and rest myself physically and mentally. Hopefully, it will make me better having this time off. I’ve been playing football since I was 10 years old. It’s taken a toll on my body, so I’m hoping that time away will rejuvenate my body, my mind and my soul. I’ve learned to appreciate the game more by being away from it.”
Harris remains positive that he will get the go-ahead to start working out and practice, but, whatever it is that prompted the team’s medical staff to pull him from the field, he is still unclear exactly when he will get clearance.
“I don’t know,” Harris said. “I’ve just got to wait and see. Once I get the clearance, I’ll be good to go. I feel great. I’ve just got to stay positive. The psychological thing about it, just not being out there, not being able to help my team, this season was rough for everybody. A lot of injured guys on the team, which we needed. But if we can all come together and everybody can stay healthy next season, we’ve got a Super Bowl in mind.”
Harris explained his situation as one that left him in limbo. When he was pulled from the field at the start of training camp, it wasn’t an automatic belief that he would miss the entire season.
However, as time went by, he kept trying to maintain a positive view of things even though nothing changed from the initial prognosis.
“There was hope,” Harris said. “There was always hope. But once I knew I wouldn’t be playing, I just did what the doctors said and the trainers recommended and I just sat out. I was able to just recover and feel better after that. The season’s over now and I can look forward for 2017.
“The past is the past,” Harris added. “I’m not going to dwell on not being able to play and the disappointments and all that. I’m going to stay positive. I’m going to come back this spring, hopefully get that clearance to play and do everything I can to help this team win. I know they needed me. It’s hard just to watch and see my guys battling out there and taking the heat from the media and the outside. But those dudes, they gave it their all this season. I know it wasn’t perfect. But we’ve got a good team, and I know once I get back out there, it will be even better.”
One of the hardest parts of being sidelined was what took place at the start and end of Sunday’s season-ending win over Chicago. The Vikings made a point to honor veteran Chad Greenway, who, by every indication from everyone but from Greenway’s mouth himself, is retiring.
He was last player introduced Sunday and came back out on the field following the game for a curtain call with the fans that got an ovation and tugged on the heartstrings of Harris, who wants to leave the NFL on his own terms, not due to an injury or being kept off the field by the team doctors and training staff.
“I was in tears in a little bit after (Sunday’s) game – seeing guys like Chad Greenway and the sendoff he got for the legacy he’s left,” Harris said. “I want to leave a legacy with this Minnesota Vikings team. There have been some bumps in the road, especially this year, but if I stay positive and stay strong, I’ve got a good support system and everything will work out for me. It’s not the end of the world, but it feels like it sometimes. I’m an athlete and this is all I’ve known.”
Harris is keeping his fingers crossed that the green light from the medical personnel is coming soon because he can’t wait to get back to the grind of an NFL season. As much as players can gripe about the rigors of a season when they’re in the middle of it, when they aren’t playing, many miss it like few other things in their lives.
That’s even more pronounced in Harris, who gives the impression he would play for free if that was his only option and promised that, when he does get clearance, he will let the public know what the battle was he has been fighting.
“Football isn’t everything, but it is to me,” Harris said. “I’m disappointed about it, but my teammates and coaches have been very supportive. Everyone is treating me the same. When I come in this locker room, I can just be myself. Everybody loves me and treats me as a friend. When I can, I’ll let you know.”