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St. Francis’ Harrison: Big Time Dreams for Small Town Kid

Photo by Cal Phillips

One day, late in the spring of his sophomore year, Marcus Harrison was pulled out of a math class at St. Francis High School.

Harrison was puzzled to be summoned during the middle of a class by head football coach Jerry Smith. He arrived at Smith’s office, where University at Buffalo tight ends coach Ron Whitcomb was waiting for him.

Whitcomb was there to inform Harrison that UB was offering him a full scholarship with the Bulls— his first college offer.

“I’m an outdoors guy,” Harrison recalled last week in an interview at St. Francis. “When I got my first offer, I was shaking, like when I killed the biggest buck in my life. I was almost in tears. I thought, ‘It’s starting now. My dream’s starting.’ And it only went up from there.”

To UB’s chagrin, it went up quickly, to the highest levels of college football. By his junior year, after a summer of dedication and hard work, Harrison had taken a leap forward and was being recruited by some of the top schools in Division I.

For a while, his No. 1 choice was Wisconsin, a perennial national contender in a major college town. Then last May, Harrison committed to Georgia, the two-time defending national champion. Yes, he had gone to the very top.

Harrison, a 6-8, 345-pound offensive tackle, visited the campus in Athens and fell in love with the place. It offered the agriculture business program he wanted as an aspiring farmer. It felt like home, which might seem odd for a kid coming from Western New York.

“I’m not from Buffalo,” he said. “I’m from Iowa.”

Harrison’s entire family hails from Iowa. He grew up in the Quad Cities region in the southeast corner of the state. His grandfather owns a farm in Cherokee, a city of 5,200 souls in the Little Sioux River Valley in the northwest part of the state.

When Marcus was in the sixth grade, his father Clint moved the family to Erie County for his job with Arconic, an aluminum distribution company. He has an older sister, Madelyn, who plays college volleyball at St. Peters; and a younger brother, Mason, an eighth-grader on the Hamburg football junior varsity.

Marcus also played for Hamburg in the eighth grade. But he and his father, who played football at Western Illinois, had larger aspirations. One day, they attended a game at nearby St. Francis, where Clint Harrison had a conversation with the long-time Red Raiders head coach, Jerry Smith.

“I mentioned that I knew he was from Iowa,” Smith said. “I told him that I played college football at William Penn in Iowa. That was a nice connection. He ended up coming here.”

Smith started Harrison at right tackle as a varsity freshman. There was no mistaking the kid’s size, athletic ability and boundless potential.

“I told him, ‘Right now you’re just a big body that has all the potential in the world’,” Smith said. “‘You just have to work throughout the week and all the years to get to the level (of the elite football linemen)’.

“He’s worked extremely hard to be where he’s at today,” said Smith, now in his 36th season as Red Raiders head coach. "A lot of people say, ‘Oh, this guy’s just a natural athlete’. They have no idea the amount of work and effort that went into it. He’s got the natural size and stuff, but he’s been working at this.”

Harrison knows he won’t be ready to play games at the SEC level, the most demanding in the college game. Like most freshmen, he’ll probably redshirt while adjusting to the physical rigors and academic standards in Athens.

“I know I’m not good enough or strong enough to start my freshman year,” he said. “It’s very unlikely for a lineman to go in there and just start.

“Yeah, I’m a decent player. I’m not stronger or faster than all of them. I give myself a year to build on what I have now. I think they want me around (345 pounds). They’re going to want to drop me and then put muscle on me.”

Harrison said Smith has been honest with him and helped him aspire to a higher standard. Smith said there’s no chance Harrison will coast as a senior after committing to the top college program in the nation.

“No,” Smith said. “His dad played at a high level. His mom (Erica) was a good athlete, too. His dad keeps him really grounded, because he knows there’s a lot of work for him, and a lot more work to do. To go to Georgia and make an impact, he knows he has a lot more work to do.”

Smith said Harrison has a good, healthy edge to him. He can be tough when he needs to. This year, the Red Raiders’ schemes will require him to be more aggressive, more “violent” in the parlance of offensive line play.

“This year, I’m emphasizing on him to finish, meaning pancakes and stuff,” Smith said. “In our first game, he was pretty violent. He’s got to get more violent in what he does. He’s got it in him and it’s come out. It’s a positive thing, not that he’s trying to hurt somebody or be cheap. But he’s definitely getting aggressive.

“He’s very comfortable with who he is. He knows if he wants to, he can grab somebody by the throat and tell them to shut up. He’s not that type of kid. He stands up for himself in the right, proper ways. He’s a very good young man. His parents did a great job with that, I’ll tell you that.”

Harrison certainly isn’t lacking self-confidence. He knows where he wants to go in life. He understands the importance of education, both in the classroom and in the playbook. He said he has a GPA of around 93 at St. Francis.

“I study a lot,” he said. “I study a lot of film. I’ve never been complacent, because I know I can always be better. I don’t try to say I’m better than everybody, because I’m definitely not better than everybody. In practice, I get beat sometimes. I’m not perfect. On run plays sometimes that’s my weak spot.

“I would say that I’m always going to outwork everybody. I’m always the last one here, working, always studying. I just know to keep grinding and pushing through, trying to beat everybody I can.”

He hopes it will lead him to the very highest level of football, the NFL. It’s hardly an outlandish goal. Stacy Searels, the Georgia offensive line coach, has sent 14 players on to the league.

“I think I connected with (Searels) a lot,” said Harrison, who throws shot and discus for St. Francis' track team. “He’s got that grit that a lot of coaches have. The guys, they’re all just animals. They just get after it. You can tell from the way they talk that they know they’re great, and they’ve perfected most of it.”

Harrison grew up in the suburbs, but he’s a country boy at heart. When he wasn’t working out over the summer, you could often find him napping in a hammock in the woods. Fishing or playing golf, too.

“Fishing is a love-hate relationship with me,” he said. “Same with golfing. I suck at most of it, but it’s fun when you do good once in awhile.”

The outdoors is his true love. His grandparents own a farm in Cherokee. That’s what he plans to do after football, buy a farm and live back home in Iowa.

“I’m going to study business agriculture with a minor in Ag,” he said. “So after all my football career is done with, hopefully the time in the NFL, get all that money and invest it in that.

“It’s my goal. That’s why I picked Georgia. It’s the best, my dream come true.”

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