Nov. 21, 2002
On November 16, 1996, the University of Virginia faithful got an early look at the impact Antwan Harris would make on the gridiron over his next four years when he returned an interception for a touchdown to start the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in school history. With the Cavaliers trailing the sixth-ranked Tar Heels 17-3 at the start of the fourth quarter, Harris intercepted a third-down pass by UNC quarterback Chris Keldorf and raced 95 yards for a touchdown with 10:02 to play. With that change in momentum, the ‘Hoos rattled off another touchdown to tie the game and then place-kicker Rafael Garcia connected on a 32-yard field goal with 39 seconds remaining to boost the Cavaliers to the upset over the Heels.
Harris, who was named the ACC and the ECAC Rookie of the Week for his performance in that game, still points to that moment not only as a favorite football memory for him but also a sign of arrival. Six weeks later, he capped off his freshman campaign in the Carquest Bowl by returning a blocked punt to the Miami one-yard line, setting up a Cavalier touchdown. Over the next four years, Harris continued to make an impact for the Cavaliers, earning honorable mention All-ACC honors in 1999. He was drafted by the New England Patriots in the sixth round the following spring.
While the games were obviously a major part of his career at Virginia, Harris also remembers fondly the times with his friends off the field as well. “We would think nothing of throwing a cookout one evening on the spur of the moment,” recalls Harris. “[Patrick] Washington, [Thomas] Jones and I would grab some food and turn on the grill. Word would get out and it would turn into a big gathering.” For Harris, those kinds of bonding activities were a major highlight of his undergraduate career at Virginia and forged friendships that are still in place today. “Random people would come over and it really made it part of a great Virginia family,” says Harris.
When Harris joined the pro ranks in New England, it was like moving into a new family all over again. Harris admits the transition to the NFL was a bit of an adjustment, but “it made me a stronger person,” he says.
Harris is very complimentary of Patriots head coach Bill Belichek and the rest of the staff. “I am very appreciative of what Belichek has done for me,” said Harris. “He wanted me to be a part of the Patriots’ family and I knew what I had to do to show that.”
“It’s great to be a part of this team,” says Harris about his association with the Patriots. “There is a great core of guys on the team and we really seem like a family.” It was just this belief in each other that was at the core of the Patriots’ Super Bowl title in 2002, which came at the expense of the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams. “We hung in there together and won as a team. Playing in the Super Bowl was definitely a memorable moment,” recalls Harris. “We wanted to treat it like a regular game, but we knew it was much more than that.”
For Harris, it was a moment of personal triumph. “My father [the late Melvin Antwan Harris] shared my goal of playing in the NFL. While he couldn’t be there with me physically that day, I knew he was looking down over all of us. When the anthem was finished, I was psyched and ready to play.”
Play he did, notching a tackle and helping contain the league’s top offense to a scant 17 points. When the Patriots’ Adam Viniateri punched through a 48-yard field goal as time expired to give the New England faithful their first professional football title in over 70 years, the transformation was complete. Antwan Harris was a world champion.
The post-game parade upon the Patriots’ return to New England was “an amazing scene,” remembers Harris. “Seeing all those people lining the streets and supporting us was incredible. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the cookouts we used to have [at UVa] when a bunch of friends were just enjoying each other’s company and the random gatherings that brought a lot of people together.”
Off the field, Harris is currently working to develop a couple of programs that are community oriented and dedicated to the importance he places on an education. The first one is a scholarship program for students in his home state of North Carolina. “It’s important for kids to understand the importance of getting an education and sticking with it,” states Harris. Students will be identified and if they maintain at least a B-average during their scholastic years, they will receive a scholarship for higher education. “It emphasizes both scholarship and perseverance,” says Harris of this important initiative.
Another project for the Cavalier alum is a charity drive to support ambulances in his adopted home state of Massachusetts, where he lives as a member of the Patriots. “It’s a part of our daily life that many people don’t think about,” says Harris.” Support like this for rescue workers and their vehicles, the people who are often behind the scenes, is very much in line with Harris’ ideals of working hard and making an impact for others. Harris continues to make an impact in whatever he does, whether it is on the field with his team or off the field with friends and the community.
Article written by Chip Rogers