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Macho man

After some extreme highs and lows, Bombers defensive back says he's never felt better

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p> Victor 'Macho' Harris

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Victor 'Macho' Harris

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/7/2016 (839 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s a noticeable sense of tranquility to Victor “Macho” Harris. Even when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive back openly discusses inflicting pain on an opponent, there's a calmness to him.

“I want them to tense up because they know I’m coming,” Harris, unable to hold back a smile, his arms and shoulders now formed to a hitting position just minutes into an interview at Investors Group Field, said earlier this week. “Because I’m coming.”

To understand where Harris is coming from, you must first know where he's been.

It’s a story – better yet, a journey – that, simply put, could be described as a road to hell and back, a long and winding path with encouraging highs and crushing lows. A difficult childhood. An improbable rise to football stardom. The sudden loss of his mother.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/7/2016 (839 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s a noticeable sense of tranquility to Victor "Macho" Harris. Even when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive back openly discusses inflicting pain on an opponent, there's a calmness to him.

"I want them to tense up because they know I’m coming," Harris, unable to hold back a smile, his arms and shoulders now formed to a hitting position just minutes into an interview at Investors Group Field, said earlier this week. "Because I’m coming."

To understand where Harris is coming from, you must first know where he's been.

It’s a story – better yet, a journey – that, simply put, could be described as a road to hell and back, a long and winding path with encouraging highs and crushing lows. A difficult childhood. An improbable rise to football stardom. The sudden loss of his mother.

At the age of 30, Harris, devoted to his faith, has always discovered the good in the bad, even at times when life bordered on the unexplainable. 

"I’ve always believed things happen for reason," he said. 

One of eight children born to Victor Harris Sr. and Maritza Harris, he was best known as Macho, a nickname his father gave him at the age of two because of his penchant for causing trouble.

"I used to ride my little tricycle over peoples' feet," quipped Harris.  

Growing up in the Puerto Rican community, Harris spent a good part of his childhood roaming the streets of New York City. Living in East Harlem, the negative influences of violence and drugs lurked at every corner.

With his father serving time in prison, Harris' mother did everything she could to provide her family with a decent home.

Harris recalled one time he was caught in a blizzard with his mother; complaining his hands were cold, she gave him her gloves and told him to walk behind her as she shielded him as they walked another two miles.

"The world could go upside down on her, and she would never quit," Harris said. "My mother, she was the rock of the family."

But with little money, there were times where his family went without food. Unable to afford new clothes for school, Harris often wore the same shirts for days at a time.

"I can remember us just trying to survive for the next day," he said. "That was just life."

Life would eventually take a turn for the better. With his father out of prison, the family packed up and moved to Richmond, Virginia. It was there Harris was introduced to the game of football, signing up first with the Pop Warner program.

A quick study, it became clear early on that Harris was special player. By the time he finished his senior season at Highland Springs High School – a year Harris rushed for an impressive 2,346 yards and 27 touchdowns – the entire town knew his name.

Ranked the state's No. 1 player, Harris became one of the country’s most recruited high school prospects, with full scholarship offers from almost every top program in the country.

"He couldn’t walk down the hallway without grown adults – teachers, principals, coaches or custodians – telling him where to go to school," said Scott Burton, Harris’ coach and mentor at Highland Springs, in a phone interview. "He could go anywhere. He just smiled and handled it so well."

For the first time in his life, everything had gone exactly to plan.

TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Lin-J Shell (14) gets in the face of Macho Harris, then a Saskatchewan Roughrider, in the first half of the Banjo Bowl in 2015. </p>

TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Lin-J Shell (14) gets in the face of Macho Harris, then a Saskatchewan Roughrider, in the first half of the Banjo Bowl in 2015.

Harris said he couldn’t help but soak up the moment.

"I can remember thinking to myself, 'Man, this is really happening,'" recalled Harris. "Everything was just flowing for me."

It was the evening of Dec. 15, 2004 and Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer and assistant Jim Cavanaugh had scheduled an in-home visit that night in hopes of convincing Harris to join a steady Hokies’ defence. At six feet and 200 pounds, Harris had made a switch from running back to cornerback at the end of high school, a move Burton called a "business decision, so he could play the game longer."

For the occasion, Harris’ mother planned to make a special dinner. Still in need of a few things, she headed to the store, yelling for Macho to look after his three younger siblings while she was gone.

Still daydreaming, Harris sat unaware of the nightmare brewing downstairs; the silence soon broken by a piercing scream.

"Macho, there’s a fire in the kitchen!" his sister yelled.

Harris ran downstairs to see a room engulfed in flames. His mother had accidentally left the stove on high, burning a pot that had been filled with oil to cook French fries. By the time Harris got to the kitchen, the fire had spread to the cupboards and floor.

"I had never seen the house so bright before," Harris said.

Knowing he needed to salvage the house, Harris tried the fire extinguisher but it didn’t work. Running out of time, he wrapped a towel and blanket around his hands, grabbed the burning pot and headed for the back door as flames whipped by his face.

Once he got to the door, Harris tossed the grease-filled pot onto the yard. But as the scorching liquid ripped through the air, a gust of wind pushed some of it back, causing third-degree burns to both his forearms and lesser abrasions to his face. When Harris finally made it back inside, there was coach Beamer waiting at the front door.

"On the front porch people were jumping around and I thought they were just happy to see us," said Beamer, in a phone interview from Oregon, where and he his wife are on vacation. "We ended up going to the hospital - one of my more unique home visits that was."

At the hospital, Harris and coach Beamer talked for hours. Beamer shared his own history with burns – at the age of seven he underwent dozens of skin grafts after a can of gasoline exploded, burning his chest and neck – and by the end of the night Harris had been so touched by what was said, he committed to Virginia Tech.

"That night was some type of confirmation – a sign," said Harris.

Mark Taylor / THE CANADIAN PRESS files</p><p>Macho Harris (left) runs the ball for a touchdown after an interception against the Montreal Alouettes in September 2015.</p>

Mark Taylor / THE CANADIAN PRESS files

Macho Harris (left) runs the ball for a touchdown after an interception against the Montreal Alouettes in September 2015.

With his future settled on Virginia Tech, Harris sat down with his family for Christmas dinner 10 days later. More than two dozen people were there – brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles – to enjoy a meal put on by his mother.

But as great as things were, Harris could feel something was wrong. His mother, he said, wasn’t her usual, upbeat self. Something was off.

"I remember I got a little note from her in a card and it said: ‘No matter what, I mean no matter what happens, I’ll always love you,’" said Harris. "So before I left I looked at her and I said, ‘Mom, I love you. I really love you.’"

Not long after, Harris would get a call from his little sister. His mom had fainted and blood was running from her nose. She needed him home, now.

"I’ll never forget her voice," said Harris. "I just knew."

His mother had suffered a brain aneurysm and died hours later.  Harris admitted he could have crumbled. Instead, he stayed strong for his brothers and sisters. Through all the pain, he saw a purpose.

It was his turn to be the rock.

"I knew that’s what my mother wanted me to do," he said. "To be that heart, that soul of the family."

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Harris during practice at Investors Group Field in June.</p>

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Harris during practice at Investors Group Field in June.

Harris went on to have a successful career at Virginia Tech, appearing  in 53 games over four seasons with the Hokies. He would eventually track the eyes of NFL scouts, with the Philadelphia Eagles selecting Harris in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

"As a football player, he was never an excuse-maker, he always practised the way he played," said Bud Foster, the defensive coordinator at Virginia Tech. "He made people around him better. Just really a complete guy."

Harris played parts of two seasons with the Eagles, Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers. He spend four seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders before signing a contract with the Bombers in February.

Now in Winnipeg, Harris said he couldn’t be happier with his new football family. Recently engaged to the love of his life, Harris said he’s never been in a better place, both mentally and physically.

As for his family back home, they’re constantly sharing messages, he said, talking daily in a group chat on his phone.

"I always think about how we just came together and just stayed tight to this day," said Harris. "It really is a beautiful thing."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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