A one-time star tight end (well, in middle school) and current 29-year-old journalist, I challenged the Broncos’ All-Pro cornerback to an afternoon of one-on-ones. To my surprise, he accepted. My journey to a turf field in Tulsa, from the elation of a nine-yard reception to the pain and embarrassment of… pretty much everything else that happened that day
BIXBY, Okla. — My job, at its core, is to watch as much football as possible. I love it because, I suppose deep down, like most fans, a small part of me wishes I was out there. And an even smaller—and remarkably naïve—part believes I could be.
Last summer my job took me to an NFL training camp where I had a spirited conversation with an AFC cornerback about red zone press-coverage techniques. I crouched into position and said to the corner, “Well why don’t you just do this?” The corner said “this is why” and, taking literally one step forward, knocked me off balance. It was fascinating, and it somehow emboldened the small naïve part of me that thinks he can play.
I told my bosses, Peter King and editor Mark Mravic, that I wanted to play wide receiver one-on-one against an NFL cornerback and write about it. Peter and Mark became the first in a long line of people who would laugh at me. After convincing them I was serious, Peter said I could do it if I found a superstar to face. Perhaps this was Peter’s polite, backdoor method of discouraging the idea—like how you might tell a kid he can get his own house if his lemonade sales raise enough funds. My pool of prospects went from 130 corners to less than 10.
But to my surprise, the man at the top of my list, Denver Broncos star Chris Harris, immediately said yes, almost no questions ask. In our business, that’s like finding a holy grail filled with winning scratch tickets. And the timing was perfect: Harris was hosting a free youth camp in his hometown of Bixby, Oklahoma (a Tulsa suburb) later that month. Our showdown would take place before the Broncos could catch wind and put the kibosh on it, and just before my 30th birthday, after which the idea of me going against an NFL star would be coated in a thicker level of pitifulness.
* * *
When people I meet learn what I do for a living their first question is almost always whether I played football growing up? Yes, but only a little. In seventh grade I was a tight end on a 5-1 North Junior High lightweights team. I had nine catches for 85 yards on the season, all in the final two games (which in lightweight junior high football is like 25 catches for 415 yards in the NFL, thank you very much). In eighth grade I quarterbacked the lightweights and did well enough to get offered the Boise High sophomore team QB job two years in advance. But at Boise High, soccer was king and captured the potential skill position players. I don’t remember the school ever winning more than two games.
This, plus—I can admit now—an intense aversion to getting hit was enough for me to fashion an excuse about retiring early to pursue other interests. The early offer to be the sophomore QB was stowed away as a future source for humblebragging (which, you can see, is still in use to this day).
So facing Chris Harris would be the first football I’d played against another person since eighth grade. To prepare, I did what any kid from an upper-middle class household would do: I went out and bought snazzy gear and accessories. New cleats, shiny gloves and a regulation NFL ball, all of which went straight from my shopping bag to suitcase the night before my flight.
An AFC corner I talked to last summer told me a slow receiver’s lack of speed makes the double-move more deceptive. So about six yards off the line, I turned, then I flipped around and exploded upfield. It worked!
I work out daily, eat healthy and do enough Pilates to shame even the vainest trophy wife, so I wasn’t worried about my conditioning. I knew I wouldn’t outlast Harris, per se, but I could survive however long our battle might be. Before leaving, I got in a practice round with former Boise State quarterback Bart Hendricks, who is now 37 and works for the university. The session was meant for me to gain a plan and understanding of basic route running. Instead I came away with an updated set of fears. What would I do if Harris jammed me? Like, really jammed me? Who will throw me the ball? Bart’s throws still had plenty of heat, and my catching them resembled more an act of self-defense than athletic prowess. If Harris had some younger former Tulsa or Kansas QB working his camp, I’d be screwed. And then there was the old standby concern about whether I’d pull up lame—something that’s never actually happened yet somehow still camps in the back of my mind.
I shared news of my upcoming endeavor with everyone I encountered—from family to friends to NFL coaches—and was unsettled to find that the better the person understood football, the more genuine their concern was for my well-being.
* * *
Nevertheless, I showed up on the last day of the Chris Harris Underdog Academy Football Camp. I warmed up while kids did drills, then nearly exhausted myself trying to stay loose for the 90 minutes Chris spent signing autographs afterwards. Finally, when the stadium was cleared, Chris, with several friends and family watching from the sideline, took the field. He and I had never met.
We did an intro for the cameras and it was here where I assumed the false bravado that would turn out to be a catalyst for my heartbreak. “Chris,” I said, “I’m going to address the elephant in the room: the significant advantage I have coming in. I’ve seen every one of your snaps on film, and you’ve never seen me. I admire your courage for stepping into the den of a lion you don’t even know.”
Chris acknowledged it was true he’d never seen me but said he would trust his techniques and that, like always, he’s going to compete. Then he realized he wasn’t wearing his sponsored Nike shoes and worried aloud whether he should change out of his generic track sneakers. I told him that my cleats, which I wasn’t wearing because he wasn’t wearing his, were Nike and that I could put them on. But my gloves were Under Armour and would that be a problem? “No, I don’t think they care what you’re wearing,” Chris said. He wasn’t mocking me, just stating a truth, which is why it stung so bad.
After the catch I spun the ball at Chris’s feet. It quickly wobbled over like an unbalanced top. I don’t think Chris even noticed. He noticed the catch, though, because on the next snap I received his most aggressive bump-and-run coverage of the day.
Eventually he dismissed the shoe issue and we lined up to play. My quarterback turned out to be a Bixby High star linebacker, Casey Saied, who now plays for Northeastern State University in nearby Tahlequah. Not exactly Bart Hendricks, but he could still throw a spiral. Chris, out of politeness, began in off-coverage, giving me a cushion. I wanted to face his jam right away and so I declared the situation to be third-down-and-three. He eagerly shifted into press position.
At the simulated snap of the ball, I paused ever so slightly coming off the line, per my instructions from Bart and the earnest safety warning I’d gotten from an NFL assistant coach. (“Do not fire off right away, you’ll run your chest right into his jam.”) Chris delivered some contact, I struggled a bit, but to my pleasant discovery was able to release inside and work upfield. From here, football IQ became important. That corner I’d talked to last summer had also told me the last thing he wants to see from a slower receiver is a double-move early in a game. Apparently the lack of speed makes the double-move more deceptive.
So about six yards off the line, I turned to face my quarterback. Then, I flipped around and (from my perspective) exploded upfield. And it worked! Chris took the bait and I got over the top. Unfortunately, the throw was out in front and I just barely failed to corral it. It was disappointing because I knew this double-move would be my best chance all afternoon. But this unexpected success coupled with my earlier false bravado gave me an insurmountable illusion that I could actually compete with Chris.
Now, a few caveats here, all of which totally change the equation but didn’t register in my mind at the time: Chris hadn’t been particularly physical with his jam, he’d allowed me to get off, presumably to help establish some rhythm and get things rolling. (Think of a tennis player lobbing a ball instead of serving it.) Also, Chris’s shoes were bad. They weren’t meant for quick changes of direction, especially not on turf. But neither were mine.
After the play Chris said he needed to change into cleats. This was a safety precaution as much as anything, though I took it as a sign that he’d bitten off more than he’d expected to chew. I made a brouhaha about also changing my footgear—you want cleats, that’s great, I also got cleats!—and like a couple of little boys we sat on the field determinedly tying our shoes. This was where I learned that Chris’s modest, well-mannered demeanor is counterbalanced by his wife, Leah, who is a bit of a heckler. “Oh it’s on now, he ain’t messin’ around now,” she yelled at me from the sideline. I turned and waited for her to break a smile, but she kept right on staring.
So now it was on.
* * *
On the next play, Chris’s jam was a little more fervid and he rode my hip pocket. No separation was achieved. After that, I ran a short in-and-out pattern, aka a “jerk” route. Chris asked if that was a real route and, affronted, I told him yes, it’s a jerk route that he’s surely seen hundreds of times from Demaryius Thomas in practice. “Oh. Okay,” he said.
A few plays later there was a contested ball and my microphone, strapped tightly around my torso and to the back of my shorts, fell off. I whined, Chris said we need a referee, and I argued that with the mic attached tightly and behind me, the only way it could detach is if someone grabbed it. Illegal contact, maybe even outright pass interference, since the ball had been in the air.
Mic slippage would turn out to be an ongoing problem due to the normal herky-jerkiness of running. After the fourth or fifth time our cameraman fixed mine, I said we’d better also check Chris’s mic. The cameramen quickly said his was fine, and I bristled at the implication that Chris was so much more fluid than me.
Chris’s intensity picked up gradually and Casey, the quarterback, started worrying about getting intercepted. “He don’t want no pick-six,” Chris yelled to the sideline. On the next throw—a deep fade—Chris elevated, plucked the ball and ran it back (unnecessarily) to the end zone, zigging and zagging to taunt, like in a video game. I yelled that I had gotten two hands on him after the pick (which was true) and Chris said that he normally breaks those tackles. Whatever.
He wasn’t going hard at all? “If Chris didn’t want you to move, you wouldn’t have moved out there.” Oh.
After that, I started motioning to the slot. Chris called it out and, as expected, backed off his press coverage. I ran a shallow route. The first ball was off target but I was encouraged, telling Casey we can get Chris on these. The pick-six had been discouraging, but just getting into my routes kept my confidence afloat. In fact, inside, I was beaming. Chris was actually starting to sweat. And a few times I caught him managing his breathing. A little over halfway through he even asserted that if we were doing this in the Denver altitude, no one would be breathing right now. This I chalked up as “excuse-making,” pointing out that we were in Chris’s own high school stadium on a street named after him. And he’s talking about not having his Denver homefield advantage?
Right after that I made my first catch. It came on a slant-stutter-hook-second slant-dig route (yes there is such a thing). Admittedly, this was about a nine-yarder against the type of off-coverage Chris plays on third-and-10. But my juices went from flowing to gushing. After the catch I stalked around haughtily like Steve Smith and spun the ball at Chris’s feet. Or tried to. The ball quickly wobbled over like an unbalanced top. I don’t think Chris even noticed. He noticed the catch, though, because on the next snap, I received by far his most aggressive bump-and-run coverage of the day.
Over the next few snaps I ran intermediate and downfield patterns. These were the most fun, particularly when the ball was in the air. I’d track the ball with absolutely no idea where Chris was. Every time I went up, I’d believe it was just me in the picture, that I had somehow shaken him. Then Chris would appear from exactly the angle you’d think he couldn’t possibly be. From there, collisions ensued, sometimes between Chris’s body and mine, but more often between Chris’s hand and the ball.
I hit the ground once here. It happened very quickly, more as if the ground had hit me. I waited to hear an oooh from the onlookers, but nothing came. I guess only I recognized the play’s brutality. When I got up, Chris informed me that I had a bunch of black rubber turf pellets on my face. I nonchalantly brushed my nose and cheeks. Nope, still there, he said. And so I had to stop and tend to the whole matter. Chris declared it defensive pass interference. He didn’t come to this right away. Deep down I suspected the call was out of pity. But I decided not to think about it, and so officially a gain of about 17 and, of course, an automatic first down.
We battled a few more times. Somewhere in there I announced that I was taking it up a notch. However, there was no perceptible change in the action. When we finished, I knew Chris had outperformed me. But I also felt it had been much more of a battle than he’d anticipated.
* * *
I walked to the sideline feeling like I was returning from the beaches of Normandy, half-expecting some sort of hero’s welcome. But Chris’s friends and family only said things like “good job” and “you did well out there.” They meant it, but I could also tell they’d been carrying on casual side conversations while watching—something I’m sure they never do during Chris’s NFL games.
The harder I tried to not let this bother me, the more sheepish I felt. Finally, I gave in and asked Chris’s friend and financial advisor, Marque Baul, whether Chris had been going hard out there. Just hearing this question spill from my mouth made me feel about eight years old. And hearing Marque’s answer made me feel six.
“No man, he wasn’t going very hard,” he said. I could tell Marque thought I already knew this, and I was surprised to realize I didn’t.
“He wasn’t going hard at all?” I asked, now feeling five.
Marque said no in the affable way of a man too kind to lie. “If Chris didn’t want you to move, you wouldn’t have moved out there.”
Marque couldn’t see that my reticence was not from fatigue, but rather, embarrassment—some from learning that Chris had gone easy, most from feeling so crushed by that news. Laughing, Marque said, “Yeah, at one point, Leah, said ‘Oh that guy is just running around out there.’” Defensive, I wondered which route she’d said that about and then felt my soul sink at the realization it could have been any of them.
By now Chris was sitting on the bench, chatting with Leah. I was on the ground untying my cleats next to Chris’s one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Aria. I wasn’t surprised that Chris hadn’t gone all-out; I was surprised at how blind I’d been to this fact during the heat of battle. I needed more details. From the ground I called out Chris’s name three times before getting his attention. (The five-year-old now feels barely four.) I asked him how hard he had actually gone, what percentage of his effort he’d exerted.
“Maybe 20 to 30,” he said, before thinking a little more and then cruelly deciding on 20.
This explained why I felt like a child; Chris had been treating me like one. Going easy on me and in a way that I didn’t notice. Humoring me, you might say. Dumbfounded and wanting to feel anger, I instead settled on relief. Thank goodness he didn’t go hard. My 100 percent was apparently enough to catch one meaningless ball on 18 targets against Chris Harris’s 20 percent. What would have happened to me against Chris Harris’s 100 percent? Heck, even his 50 percent?
The math is all still very painful. And as an analyst who strives for integrity, I’ll try my best to ignore it when breaking down Broncos film in the future.