N’Keal Harry Draws Motivation, Strength From His Grandmother and Her Sacrifices

One of the top wide receiver prospects in this year’s draft, Harry was raised by his grandmother, who taught him the power of hard work and sacrifice. Now Harry hopes to carry that work ethic into the NFL.
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Felna Harry has been to her home country just once in the past 20 years. She and her grandson, N’Keal, went back to their native St. Vincent and the Grenadines two Christmases ago to finally see their relatives after years of only constant communication over the phone.

She had wanted to go back to the Caribbean island long before this, but it wasn’t feasible with a nurse’s salary serving as the sole source of income for the two of them living in Chandler, Ariz. There were out-of-state football camp trips she had to pay for, the hotels, the shoes, the club team fees.

“I was in touch with home and I’m very much in touch with home, but I couldn’t afford the quality time to go home on a holiday,” Felna Harry says. “And when [N’Keal was living in Chandler] we ran up and down all over the place, and there was nobody else to do that at the time. I stayed here for him.”

The sacrifices made to go on all those trips and attend the camps paid off, of course. N’Keal Harry is a consensus top-five receiver in this year’s NFL draft with a chance to be taken in the first round. And wherever he’s selected, he’ll be the first Vincentian to ever make it to the NFL. The island has turned out a few soccer and cricket players—and even one Canadian Football League Hall of Famer—but no one from there has ever sniffed the NFL.

This is a pre-NFL combine story, so N’Keal’s measurables and strengths and weaknesses will all be dissected in the days to come. This is also an immigrant story, which by default means it’s a story of sacrifice and hard work.

And it’s a love story about how a grandmother’s support has never wavered and how she’s been his motivation all along.

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N’Keal was born in Toronto in 1997, but as soon as the infant was allowed, he boarded a flight to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. He lived on the main island—affectionately referred to as “the island”—until he was about four years old. At that point he joined his grandmother in the Scottsdale, Ariz., area for a life with more opportunity.

About two years earlier, Felna had traveled to Brooklyn to meet family and see another part of the world upon her early retirement. But the pace and noise and weather of New York wasn’t for her, so she took a friend up on her offer to try out Arizona, and stayed there—and that’s where a young N’Keal joined her.

The two didn’t last in Scottsdale very long. Felna had rented an upstairs apartment, and N’Keal was always running around with a ball. “The people downstairs were complaining bitterly,” she says. Figuring they’d have this issue in other apartments, she looked for a house in a more affordable area and settled in Chandler, about 20 miles south.

Since moving to Arizona, Felna has worked at Hospice of the Valley as a caregiver. She tried to study for college when N’Keal was younger, but the demands of a full-time job and being his guardian were too much to also take on the task of being a student again. Today, almost 20 years into her second career after briefly enjoying a well-earned early retirement, Felna says she hopes to “settle down and finish this job pretty soon.”

As a kid, N’Keal played every sport, but it became clear in high school that football was his future, even as he was breaking backboards in basketball games.

Going into his junior year at Chandler High, N’Keal went to a Rivals camp and earned his fifth recruiting star, which got him invites to more elite events. Arizona State, located just a 20-minute drive from Chandler in Tempe, had been the first to offer him, and offers from perennial top-25 schools came rolling in. N’Keal visited Washington and Texas A&M before committing to the Sun Devils his senior year and staying at home.

“I just factored in everything my grandmother did for me, especially that I was starting to get older and get more mature,” N’Keal says. “I felt like I kind of owed it to her to be able to see me play and come to a lot of my home games. I know she enjoys watching me play and being there for me. I just factored that in and wanted her to be there for me and see everything that was going on.”

Felna tried to talk him out of it. She told him this wasn’t about her. He needed to make the best decision for himself. He should go where best for him and she’d make the trips that she could.

“But that didn’t go anywhere,” she says. “He decided this is what he wanted.”

Both of them now know this was the right choice, and it has to do with more than his 213 career catches for 2,889 yards and 22 touchdowns.

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The number N’Keal Harry has in mind is 4.55. He’s looking to run the 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds or less this week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, and doing so would go a long way in cementing a spot in the first round of April’s draft.

At 6' 4" and 225 pounds—about 10 pounds more than his listed weight at ASU, but one at which he’s very comfortable—Harry is one of the biggest receivers in the draft. He’s specialized in the dig and fade routes, and his body lends itself well to in-breaking routes. The Sun Devils had the good sense to move him around in their scheme this year, making it tougher for opponents to key-in on him but also giving him more experience heading to the next level where so many rookie receivers are route-tree deficient.

Speed is Harry’s biggest question mark this week. He struggles to create separation—the biggest knock on his game—and a 4.55 40 at 225 pounds will help assuage some of those fears.

“I would argue he can create separation and he did,” says Charlie Fisher, Arizona State’s wide receivers coach. “He’s got really good feet for a big guy. He can separate and there are a lot of clips on tape of him doing that. As a big guy, there are not a lot of big guys who are flat-out 4.4 guys. But you combine 225 pounds and 6' 3½" with really good feet and he’s hard to beat on breaking routes, in or out.”

Harry is confident that with a fast 40 time, some NFL coaching and his own work ethic, separation won’t be an issue for him much longer. It’s lots of work, but he wants to make the effort, and those around him have described Harry as a hard worker. It must be something he gets from his grandmother, who worked for years as a full-time caregiver to provide for them both.

But hard work hasn’t always been N’Keal’s calling card. Felna says that as a child, N’Keal didn’t fully appreciate the hard work it took to get them what they had. It wasn’t until he was 12 or 13 years old, when one of Felna’s daughters came to live with them and study in America, that it began to click. When they went to her graduation, a young N’Keal saw the honor stole she wore, and he noticed not everyone wore one. Felna says he started piecing together all those late nights he watched her study led to her graduating with honors.

“As he got a little older, all the things we told him from earlier on started making sense to him,” Felna says. “When it came to sports, he was always all-in. But he was not able to connect the dots from sports to education, and he pushed one aside for the other. And naturally he would push the books aside. And as he went along he realized he had to connect the dots. So he just did that, but it took a few years to come.”

While he struggles at generating success separating, N’Keal excels at contested catches. There may be no one in this draft better at 50/50 balls than him. The standout grab—the one that today he can only chalk up to God—against Southern Cal may have been the best catch of the 2018 college football season.

This past season was filled with big-time plays but, more importantly, consistency. Only once in 12 games did N’Keal have fewer than 50 receiving yards in a game. Late in the season he posted at least 90 receiving yards in five straight games.

After each game, N’Keal and Felna would have a post-mortem. He’d tell her his true feelings and thoughts he couldn’t share with coaches or teammates. He’d know she had seen a big hit he absorbed and would always promise her he was fine. She went to every home game, and he’d regularly make the 20-minute drive back home to have a home-cooked meal. Felna admits she hardly had a chance to miss N’Keal because he was in and out so much.

“At that time I realized how lucky I was that he had made that decision,” Felna says now, more than three years after trying to talk him out of staying close to home.

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N’Keal is seven years old and running in a track and field meet at his elementary school. Felna, like always, is in the stands watching, waiting for him to come to the finish line.

When the meet is over, the kids congregate on the field to hear the results. Third place, then second place and finally first-place finishers from N’Keal’s race are announced—but N’Keal doesn’t place. Of all those kids on the field, N’Keal is the only one crying.

Felna, filled with embarrassment, calls to her grandson and they go to her car.

Why are you crying? Nobody else is crying! You’re the only child here crying.

N’Keal, crying uncontrollably: Granny! I wanted to make you proud. And I didn’t make you proud.

Felna’s embarrassment is overcome by her emotions. She shuts the car door and as she starts to tear up, she tells N’Keal:

Yes, you made me proud when you went there and ran that race. That was enough for me. You entered the race and you finished it. You didn’t come first, second or third, but the fact is you went in and you finished. I’m so proud of you.

“As time went on,” Felna says today, “I realized what he said at that early age, he meant.”

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