Former UNH star R.J. Harris settling in with CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks

  • Former UNH receiver R.J. Harris is breaking through in the CFL with the Ottawa Redblacks this season. BELOW: Harris became one of the most successful receivers in UNH program history, setting a school record in career receptions and tying David Ball’s receiving yards mark in 2014. Chris Hofley / Ottawa Redblacks

  • New Hampshire wide receiver R.J. Harris (15) heads downfield after making a catch while being defended by Lafayette cornerback Draeland James in the first half of an NCAA college football playoff game Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, in Durham, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)UNH wide receiver R.J. Harris (15) heads downfield after making one of his eight catches for 173 yards. Robert F. Bukaty

  • New Hampshire wide receiver R.J. Harris (15) runs after a reception during the first half of an NCAA football playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Orono, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

  • New Orleans Saints wide receiver R.J. Harris (19) works out during an NFL football organized team activity in Metairie, La., Thursday, June 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) Gerald Herbert

  • New Orleans Saints rookie wide receiver R.J. Harris (19) pulls in a pass during an NFL football organized team activity, Thursday, June 4, 2015, in Metairie, La. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)R.J. Harris makes a good first impression at the Saints camp, as the undrafted rookie receiver tries to land a spot on the New Orleans roster. Gerald Herbert

  • New Orleans Saints wide receiver R.J. Harris (19) works out during an NFL football organized team activity in Metairie, La., Thursday, June 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) Gerald Herbert

  • Chris Hofley—Ottawa Redblacks

  • Chris Hofley—Ottawa Redblacks

  • R.J. Harris’s girlfriend, Tiffany Grant, and their daughter, Malani Jae Harris, visit R.J. in Ottawa at least once a month. Malani will have her first birthday in September. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 8/7/2018 12:55:07 AM

R.J. Harris is feeling good about a lot of things these days.

After bouncing between practice squads in the NFL and CFL, the former University of New Hampshire standout wide receiver has found a home in Canada with the Ottawa Redblacks.

With a full-time job playing professional football and a family back home in Maryland – his daughter’s first birthday is in September – a lot has changed in Harris’s life since rewriting a couple of records at UNH and finishing up his senior season in 2014 with a CAA title and a trip to the FCS semifinals.

What hasn’t changed is his desire to play football. For three years, Harris was given a crash course in what he describes as the “harsh reality” of trying to make it at the game’s top level.

“It’s just a matter of being patient and waiting for that opportunity and being ready when that opportunity comes,” Harris said. “I’ve been on and off practice squads since I left New Hampshire and I’d never actually been activated.”

Harris received an opportunity with Ottawa in the middle of the 2017 season, and he played well enough on their practice squad to be invited back this year.

He was activated this season and made his professional regular-season debut against British Columbia on July 20. He made the most of his chance, pulling in four catches for 56 yards in Ottawa’s 29-25 win. That was Week 6 of the CFL season, which begins in the middle of June and runs through early November.

He continued to find opportunities in the following weeks: three receptions for 61 yards Week 7 against Hamilton and five catches for 73 yards last Thursday against Toronto, the defending Grey Cup champions. Ottawa was narrowly defeated by Toronto, 42-41, but the Redblacks held on to the top spot in the CFL’s East division with a 4-3 record.

After three years of being a “practice squad guy,” Harris is in a position now to contribute to his team on the field. He admits he was discouraged at times along the way, and his patience and confidence was tested.

“You just have to know your ‘why,’ ” Harris said. “Everyone’s ‘why’ is different, but you’ve got to know yours and stick to that. When I first got to the NFL, I lost sight a little bit.”

New perspective

The Wildcats finished the 2014 regular season as conference champions with an 8-0 CAA record and 12-2 overall. They sealed it with a 20-12 win over Maine in Orono and went into the playoffs ranked No. 1 in the FCS.

Their run ended in the semifinals against Illinois State, a tough 21-18 loss in Durham that kept UNH from its first appearance in the FCS championship game.

The ’Cats offense was second in the CAA in scoring, carried by senior running back Nico Steriti and Harris, the top two scoring threats in the conference that year.

Harris set a team record for receptions in a season (100) and broke David Ball’s career receptions record with 310. He tied Ball’s 2005 record for receiving yards in a season with 1,551.

Coming out of college as one of the top receivers in the FCS, Harris was confident about his football future. He went undrafted in the 2015 NFL draft, but the New Orleans Saints plucked him from free agency and gave Harris some preseason reps with a former Super Bowl MVP quarterback in Drew Brees.

Harris failed to make the team but was signed to the practice squad. Eventually he was cut in October of the 2015 season before going on to have a brief run with the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad to finish the year.

Relegated to practice squad status in the NFL, the then-23-year-old Harris altered his expectations.

“You think of football and the top guys, these dudes have 12-, 13-year careers and they’re superstars on their teams forever. But the harsh reality is everyone can’t be that guy,” Harris said. “I wasn’t that guy. I was a lower roster, practice squad guy trying to get his foot in the door, and rarely do those guys stick on one team for long. I had to wrap my head around that.”

The Saints brought Harris back in 2016 on a futures contract, and he stood out in OTAs and minicamp. He earned some praise from head coach Sean Payton, who said Harris played with more confidence after developing a better understanding of the playbook. Despite signs of improvement, Harris’s second stint with the Saints ended right before the season began as he was cut at the end of August.

Two years into his pro career, Harris was not meeting his own expectations and could feel his dream slipping away. Reflecting now, two years later, he says his experience was one many players go through in the NFL.

“Early on it was really discouraging,” he said. “I’m sure every athlete coming out of college – growing up, your dream is after you’re done with college you’re going to go and play football somewhere, be active, be a starter and have a major impact on the team. Once you face reality and get there, you realize very seldom does it work like that.”

The path Harris had laid out in his mind was changing course and heading north of the border.

Wildcats to lean on

It turned out to be the right place at the right time for Harris.

Chad Kackert, a former tailback for the Wildcats from 2006 to 2009, was wrapping up his pro career with the Argonauts when Harris signed onto their practice squad in February of 2017.

Kackert could relate to Harris’s experience in the NFL. After graduating from UNH with 2,587 rushing yards, Kackert signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2010, but was released prior to the start of the season.

His next move was to the CFL, signing with Toronto in February 2011. An injury opened the door for Kackert to take over as the starting tailback, and he went on to become the 2012 Grey Cup MVP when the Argonauts beat Calgary in the 100th edition of the CFL’s championship game.

Although Kackert had padded his resume for a possible return to the NFL, he chose to re-sign with Toronto in 2012. He played four seasons and retired in 2017, just a few months after Harris arrived in Toronto for rookie minicamp and his first taste of Canadian pro football.

“I had an extended conversation with Chad, just telling me what to expect and what was going on,” Harris said. “It was an eye-opening experience. It’s still football, but it’s a little different up here. The rules are different, the field is bigger, (receivers) get a running start, so transitioning to the rules took a little while.”

Harris also reached out to Ricky Santos, the former UNH star quarterback who mentored Harris as UNH’s receivers coach in 2014. Santos, a four-year starter at UNH from 2004 to 2007, spent five seasons in the CFL before returning to Durham to join coach Sean McDonnell’s staff in 2013. He left in 2016 to accept an offer as quarterbacks coach for Columbia University, where he continues to coach.

The experiences of his fellow UNH football alums encouraged Harris that a pro football life doesn’t have to be exclusively in the NFL.

“Once I got into the CFL, that’s when I really locked back in,” he said. “I was able to mature and see how it works. And now I’m just taking every blessing as it comes and working every day for the next opportunity.”

Finding the ‘why’ again

Harris doesn’t dwell on his short stay in the NFL. He’s not even thinking about a possible return someday. He’s busy enough in his present situation.

“The only thing on my mind right now is the Ottawa Redblacks and making sure I give them 100 percent every single day, working to be better day in and day out,” he said. “Whatever happens in the future happens. I’m living in the present right now.”

Harris usually gets to the Redblacks’ facility about 7 a.m. each morning for breakfast with teammates. He gets ready for practice, maybe a visit to the trainer’s room, and then heads into meetings for about two and a half hours. Practice runs for a couple of hours into the afternoon, followed by lifting in the gym, and then film study.

It’s a routine that Harris has settled into, one that allows him to focus on being a football player and not worry about where he will end up next.

His girlfriend, Tiffany Grant, and their daughter, Malani Jae Harris, visit every few weeks from their home in Maryland. They were in Ottawa for the game against British Columbia where Harris was activated.

“That love for the game is coming back,” he said. “I have a beautiful family now with my daughter. My ‘why’ now is making sure I can provide for my family and show my daughter one day that if you have a dream, you stick to it no matter what. That’s what’s most important to me right now.”

A lot has changed for Harris in the four years since he left the University of New Hampshire. Most importantly, he has found his “why” again.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)




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