Thursday July 2nd, 2015

Three-and-a-half years ago, Tommie Harris was deplaning a flight from Chicago to Austin. The 2011 NFL season had just ended, and the 6' 3", 295-pound former first-round draft choice out of Oklahoma was excited about the days ahead—in spite of his dimming pro football prospects. In three short years he had gone from a mainstay at defensive tackle with the Bears (three Pro Bowls, one Super Bowl) to a 28-year-old veritable temp worker with the Chargers.

Harris looked forward to spending a weekend with his sister in their hometown of Killeen, Texas, and then traveling on to Norman, Okla., where his wife, Ashley, awaited. The couple had recently married, on New Year’s Day, following a four-year union that produced two children—Tinsley was then 3; her younger brother, Tyson, was two months old. In fact, Harris would spend the whole flight bragging about his bride to the passenger sitting beside him, the owner of a private jet company. “If you ever need anything,” the man told Harris as they exchanged information, “let me know.”

Harris didn’t give much consideration to the offer; he was too focused on Ashley, who had traveled from their home in Chicago to Oklahoma for a routine outpatient surgical procedure and with whom he would reunite on Valentine’s Day. But almost as soon as he arrived in Austin, all those plans went out the window. “Tommie, you need to get to Oklahoma right now,” phoned a friend who was at Ashley’s side as she was rushed from the outpatient facility to OU Medical Center after suffering a stroke. “Your wife has stopped breathing.”

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Stunned, Harris quickly called his seatmate from the Austin flight and agitatedly explained his situation. “I’ll have a plane landed in Killeen by the time you get there,” explained the man who would be saved in Harris’s phone as “Austin Jets,” but whose name he would never know. The stranger arranged travel for Harris, his mother and whoever else needed to come along.

Harris got there fast, but not fast enough: Doctors pronounced Ashley dead on arrival, the result of an unexplained brain aneurysm. She was 29.

Harris was devastated. “I talked to her the night before,” he recalls. “We were laughing.” Now, here he was, a widower with two children and no plan for the future, and without the one person whose voice could cut through the clamor of the strangers who’d gravitated toward him over the years. As a professional football player, “all the real men in the world treat you like you’re this god or this superhero,” he says. “In reality we can’t change our engine oil. Half of us never write checks or pay our own bills. We don’t cut our grass.”

Ashley’s death would force Harris to grow up fast. He effectively quit football to care for his children, halfheartedly wading into the free-agent market that spring. He figured his days as a famous person were through.

When those very idol-worshippers flocked to Harris, seeking not autographs but to express sympathies, their sentiments offended him to his core. How could these people—these strangers!—know the extent of his pain after all? He didn’t even know the extent of his pain, a skein of anger and bitterness and feelings of helplessness. At first, Harris says, he believed that getting out in Chicago might help dull the pain, but when that only yielded trouble (misdemeanor charges of indecent exposure and simple assault stemming from a public urination incident, his first and only off-field disturbance; the charges were dropped), Harris holed up inside his manse in the north Chicago suburbs.

Darren Carroll for SI

On the rare occasion that Harris did return to the city, it was to visit a boxing gym. “That was [our] thing,” he says of a sport that he and his wife had shared. “She would do it for the workouts, and I would join.” What started as a means of connecting with Ashley became Harris’s way to connect with himself, to work through his feelings before he could fully articulate them. “I fell in love with a heavy bag,” he says. “I looked forward to expressing myself to [the bag] because I knew it could never talk back. It became my [grief] counseling.”

As the emotional fog slowly lifted, Harris’s spirits rebounded and his body—beset by nagging knee and hamstring injuries late in his career—returned to full health. (A 40-pound weight loss surely helped.) His life gathered pace again, and in 2013 he moved with his two children back to east central Texas to be closer to family. “I think I would’ve died if I had stayed out there,” he says of Chicago. (A third child, a one-year-old daughter named Madison who was conceived in a subsequent relationship, stayed behind in Chicago but Harris visits her when he can.) Resettled, Harris availed himself of the fortune he had saved—a reported $25 million in on-field earnings—and began the pursuits of a local entrepreneur. “I’ve always wanted my job to be checking up on my money,” he says.

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Among his recent investments: a health food store called PureFit and a wig shop, Hair Affaird, in Killeen, plus a boxing gym closer to his home in Georgetown, Texas, called Eight Count Boxing and Fitness. On that enterprise he has partnered with Herb Fulton, a 53-year-old Army veteran and boxing coach who he met through church and who agreed to train Harris upon hearing his story. “[Tommie] came into the gym and basically punched the bags off the chains,” Fulton recalls of those still emotionally raw days. But as Harris came to hold his own inside the ring, as a super heavyweight, he so too found success outside of it. “He’s a very astute business person,” says Fulton. “I didn’t think he’d care that much about the small things, but he does.”

Today, Eight Count has 40 members—and that’s with its interior space still under renovation. The gym expects Harris’s celebrity and Fuller’s increasing local renown to attract many more would-be pugilists, although Eight Count’s aim isn’t so much about making fighters as it is about creating a fighting mentality with a rigorous and inventive workout regimen that turns gym-goers into self-starters. “It’s hard at the beginning if you’re a person that’s never worked out, never trained,” Harris says of his program. “I just wanted something different.”

That yearning for variety keeps Harris busy. He recently broke ground on a Killeen recreation center called Kids University, a proposed one-stop afterschool program where kids will be able to, say, get a haircut, take martial arts lessons and get help with homework. “What I want to do is build some more classrooms that parents can actually pay tutors to home school their kids while they’re away. You just drop ’em off at the campus, and they can one-on-one your kid.”

Eventually it won’t come as much of a surprise to see Harris, who’s completing his MBA at Miami, presiding over some of those classes. During his secluded grieving period he discovered something he never knew about himself: a voracious appetite for reading. “I look at reading now as a [group of] conversations,” says Harris, who’s particularly drawn to books about spirituality. “Anytime I’m ready to start talking, I just look on the side of my bed and open a book.” Or a few. “I’ll stop at chapter four [in one book] and then I’ll be on chapter six [in another], chapter 10 [in yet another], and then I’ll be closing out [still another one].”

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some things Harris doesn’t move along from easily. One venture he refuses to abandon is the Fall Experimental Football League, a developmental outfit with ambitions of becoming the NFL’s farm system. When the FXFL launched in May 2014, Harris, along with former OU teammate Eric Bassey, bought a stake in a franchise. Initially they’d hoped to base their operation in Austin, but, says Harris, Longhorns-supporting locals “weren’t really fond of a Sooner doing this. I didn’t think it would matter—but it does.” So they’ll move that endeavor back above the Red River, reportedly to Oklahoma City, and see if it takes.

“One day I want to either GM a football team or have my own team,” Harris explains. His experience to date—in the game and in life—would seem sufficient to qualify him for an apprenticeship. But pro football, he feels, isn’t nearly as open-minded as, say, the NBA when it comes to finding a place for retirees. “I just think it looks so beautiful the way [the NBA] takes care of its people,” he says. “Meanwhile, our joint will take on all these guys who have never played—and the guys who did, who have all this knowledge of the game, they’re out on the street, losing their money, don’t have jobs.

“You want to help old [NFL] players? Give them something to do when they [retire], something to look forward to. It seems like every [retired] guy I go around is trying to sue the league. It’s crazy! When you’re done, it’s like you join this line of guys.”

Harris, though, isn’t bitter. The NFL provided his seed investment, and “with my business,” he says, “I created my first big-time money by myself. I thank [Bears owner Virginia] McCaskey for my house, my cars.” He credits the heavy bag and his faith for seeing him through his darkest days. And now that he has finally found peace—“a stillness within my movement,” he calls it—he’ll keep taking new swings at life. 

Darren Carroll for SI

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