PLAQUEMINE, La. — First impressions tend to last the longest in the public’s eye. Unfortunately for Todd Harris, the impression many have of him is based on a misconception.
In the summer before his senior year at Plaquemine High, Harris indicated he was about to announce his commitment on social media. There was a photo of Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss hats on a table at Plaquemine High, creating a buzz throughout the football recruiting site-industrial complex.
To the dismay of those outsiders, Harris then announced he was committing to the Plaquemine Green Devils for the 2016 season. He was immediately derided on Twitter as an immature, me-first prankster who was disrespecting the sacred process of announcing which college he would attend. Even national media members got involved with the pile-on.
But that wasn’t the full story. Nor was that characterization an accurate description of the real Todd Harris.
The real Harris is far from me-first. In fact, he always looks to accommodate others — teammates, coaches and even reporters.
Harris recently stood patiently though an interview, talking with a reporter for several minutes right after he ran the final leg of a 4×100-meter relay — the fourth event of his track meet. He shook hands, and then promptly found a nearby garbage can in which he, well, deposited his lunch.
“I had to hold that back the whole time,” he said.
That unfailing politeness in the most uncomfortable of circumstances is the real Todd Harris. And this is the story of how he turned out that way.
An early riser
For Harris, every day begins early. He has no choice.
His family lives 45 minutes from the high school in a tiny town called Maringouin. The name is — no joke — the Cajun French word for mosquito, apparently in honor of the only original residents.
“It’s country, country, country,” Harris said thrice for emphasis. “Horses, four-wheelers, a lot of land, cane fields. It’s country. Like the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing to do. I sit in the house and watch Netflix all day.”
But when he was younger, Harris saw it as a place with plenty to do. He grew up on a dead-end street with boys around his age or older in pretty much every house. Competition was everywhere, and it was fierce.
“Our street was a lot of boys. Four-wheelers, backyard football, backyard baseball,” Harris said. “We’d fight sometimes. Play video games. They’ve got a lot of responsibility for me being competitive.”
So do his older cousins.
“I’m the youngest of my cousins, but I’m the biggest now,” Harris said. “I’d always try to hang out with the older cats. Sometimes I’d go back to the house crying and my sister would get on them, but it definitely made me tougher at a younger age.”
Like the rest of the kids on his street, Harris was supposed to attend North Iberville High School. But the school board voted to close it down in 2009 because of poor academic performance, forcing quite the hike to school for Harris and his neighbors.
“I’ll never forget that day as long as I live,” said his mom, Terri, who is the principal at North Iberville Elementary.
But even when it meant waking up at 5:10 a.m. during preseason training camp, Todd never griped about his commute.
“He’s never complained about it, even when he had to come to conditioning in the summer,” Mrs. Harris said. “I think he’s accustomed to it. And he’s the type of person who will do whatever to get the job done.”
It didn’t take long for Harris to get on the radar of college coaches. He started at cornerback as a freshman while recruiters had an eye on his senior teammate, defensive lineman Davon Godchaux.
“When I started as a freshman, guys on the team were like, ‘This is a big deal, take advantage,’ ” Harris said. “Davon Godchaux was like, ‘You’re going to get drafted.’ He was the one who told me about camps. The Rivals camps, the Nike camps.”
But Harris’ true breakthrough didn’t come until the state semifinal of his sophomore season. The Green Devils were facing Warren Easton, and Harris was assigned to the task of covering Tyron Johnson, a future LSU signee.
“Most definitely [that was] my breakthrough game,” Harris said. “That’s what set it off, lining up man-to-man with Tyron Johnson with all the scouts out there.”
Harris was hoping he’d have the opportunity to team up with Godchaux and Johnson next season, but sometimes life has other plans. Johnson transferred to Oklahoma State last summer, and Godchaux declared early for the NFL draft.
“I thought for sure I was going to suit up with Godchaux, but by the grace of God he got the opportunity to go to the NFL, and I look for him to continue to do great things at the next level,” Harris said. “Tyron Johnson is another player who will do some great things at Oklahoma State.”
“The Decision” was the moment when LeBron James went from a universally loved basketball figure to something else in the eyes of many. For Harris, his version of that moment opened him to public critique for the first time. But most of the people lobbing barbs didn’t know what really happened.
The stunt was the brainchild of Plaquemine football coach Paul Distefano, who tweeted at recruiting reporters that Harris was about to commit. Shortly thereafter, video was posted of Harris putting on a Plaquemine hat and committing to the Green Devils for his senior season.
“We had nine kids sign that day to play at Plaquemine High. The point was appreciate the things you have here,” said Distefano, who has a strong distaste for the celebrity culture of recruiting coverage. “You have a free education, three, sometimes four meals a day. A beautiful athletic facility. Everything you can imagine academically offered to you.
“They all want to be blessed to receive a scholarship, which becomes a distraction. It promotes individuality and jealousy. It makes kids — it’s ridiculous. Some of them want a scholarship offer but they don’t want to go to college. They just want to have the scholarship offer. So we tried something good. But it made national news.”
Among issues critics had was that they thought the media actually showed up to cover the event only to be hoodwinked. Distefano said only team members and families were present.
“I would never have a press conference without notifying the press,” Distefano said. “It was a team-building activity that ended up, in the words of Donald Trump, fake news. We didn’t have a single member of the press here when we did that.”
Though reaction was swift, as things are on Twitter, Harris was initially isolated from it. The team was about to go on a retreat to Mississippi and had no access to the Internet.
“I was at camp, so I didn’t know until I got my phone back,” Harris said. “People were telling me it was on ESPN.”
Without access to the fallout, Harris found it difficult to believe anything he did would warrant that kind of attention.
“I was like, ‘Man, whatever.’ ”
But his parents found out that the attention was very real.
“Oh, Lord. I saw a whole different side,” Terri Harris said. “My husband, he took that to the roof. [Todd] called and said, ‘Bring my hats,’ but I didn’t know what he was doing. My husband was mad because he thought I was a part of it, but I didn’t know what they were doing.”
Harris said he really did have the best intentions.
“I didn’t know that many people were keeping an eye on me. It wasn’t for attention or anything,” Harris said. “I just wanted to show guys that I was committed to the high school and I wasn’t putting college before my last year of high school. A lot of guys aren’t going to play at the next level and my coach thought it would be cool to show guys I’m committed to the team and not so much worried about college ball yet.”
It wasn’t until he got back from camp that Harris saw how much things really had hit the fan. His biggest issue with the whole hullabaloo was that people took shots at his parents instead of him.
“I got bashed on Twitter a lot, which I really don’t care about,” he said. “I got emotional about it towards my mom and them.
“I wouldn’t do it again just because of the consequences I faced after.”
Distefano still thinks those consequences say more about others than they do about Harris.
“I know there’s a market out there, but I think it’s kind of ridiculous that many grown men are interested in what a 17-year-old kid has to say six months before he even can sign a scholarship,” Distefano said. “He can change his mind. Who gives a [hoot]?”
Catching up at a crowded position
By merely being in high school, Harris is falling behind his LSU peers at safety. The other two members of his recruiting class at the position, JaCoby Stevens and Grant Delpit, are enrolled and dropping Ed Orgeron’s jaw this spring.
Harris is not fazed by the challenge he faces. He’s excited to join a group that’s overflowing with talent.
“I’m going to try to come in with a focused attitude and go out there with the mind of a savage and just compete every day,” Harris said. “At the end of the day, I know I’m going to a place with a lot of competition, and I don’t want to be the weak link.”
Distefano said that Harris’ physicality will give him a chance to contribute right away.
“Great speed, agility, quickness, all the tools required. But what stands out above the rest is his ability to hit. Make a tackle. He’s a very physical kid,” Distefano said. “Force equals mass times acceleration, and he brings all of his mass as quickly as possible, so it comes out to be a nice collision.”
One of his favorite stories to tell is of Harris’ white road jersey. Plaquemine only wore it four times last season, but Harris’ was practically in tatters by the end of the season because he was involved in that many plays.
“He ruined a jersey he only wore four times,” Distefano said.
If Harris adds enough weight to his frame — he played at 181 pounds as a senior — Distefano thinks he could even be moved to outside linebacker as the Tigers did with Corey Thompson.
“I think he has a little chip on his shoulder going in because they signed a couple other safeties, but I think they’ll find a way to put him on the field,” Distefano said. “If not this year with special teams, something. I guarantee, with his ability to hit and tackle — it wouldn’t surprise me if he ended up an outside linebacker [someday].”
No matter what the coaches ask Harris to do, he’s willing. Even the moment people have tried to use against him is proof of that. And as a result of that trait, opposing ball carriers might be the ones getting the most accurate impression of Todd Harris in the future.