Sunday, July 22, 2007

Nebraska Football: Recruit from New Orleans is a mystery man

JULY 22, 2007

MARRERO, La. - Eric Harper didn't exist.

Sure, people around the way knew of Eric Harper. Those up in Ferriday, La., knew him, too.

But in Nebraska? No way. Out in Cyberland, where college football junkies flit through prospect lists like side orders on a restaurant menu, Eric Harper wasn't an option. The recruiting wonks, who make it their business to know every high school football star in the land and slap them with a star rating? No clue. Five stars? Try no stars.

"I'm like an undiscovered talent who came from behind the curtain," says the all-metro player who more than a few coaches watched on film and offered a scholarship before ever seeing him in person.

* * *
Ehret's Eric Harper has the perfect graduation present awaiting him in December, a football scholarship to play for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Harper, a tall, rangy performer who played seven positions in 2006 and earned All-Metro honors as a linebacker, verbally committed to play for Nebraska on Tuesday. At 19, Harper has exceeded the age limit to play in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, but he is qualified academically to receive an NCAA scholarship and will do so once he earns his high school diploma this winter, Ehret Coach Billy North said.

* * *

Yes, Eric Harper was born 19 years and some odd months ago, but as far as folks who follow college football are concerned, those words in the Times-Picayune the morning of July 11 were his birth announcement.

And that's just about right. They mark time here by the summer of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made sane men crazy, old women cry, and kids like Harper, well, disappear.

Now, as a faint heart beat returns in the Big Easy and the Gulf Coast, it is a player's future potential united with people like coach Billy North and a former Nebraska football player that have given a kid back an identity lost in a killer storm.

Harper's case needs no detective. Just a little time to sort it all out.


Drive the nine miles south out of the heart of New Orleans, past the Superdome and over the Mississippi River. John Ehret High School is nestled in this sleepy suburb. That's where you'll find North, a sturdy hometown product who built a program that has produced more Division I football players than anyone can remember, and six who went on to the NFL.

Pictures of former Patriots like Kordell Stewart, Reggie Wayne and other notable football alumni hang in his cramped office. If asked, North, who often punctuates his sentences with a bookend "Ya hear," would probably call this a cranny, but a comfortable one. Ehret High's been home for nearly 20 years.

Ask about a kid named Harper, and you get the feeling North might be clearing room on his wall someday for another picture. The storm had most to do with Harper's anonymity, North says. It sure wasn't due to lack of talent.

North's not big on measurables - the tools of the Web site wannabes. He's big on results. All you need to know is that after viewing a highlight tape, Nebraska defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt, previously an assistant at Alabama, expressed strong interest, North said. Not long after, Nebraska coach Bill Callahan's official scholarship letter arrived May 25. Before that, blind offers also came in from Texas A&M and Mississippi State.

The Times-Picayune article notes how Harper chose NU over those schools, as well as Auburn, Southern Mississippi, Arkansas, Tulane and Louisiana Tech, despite never making a recruiting visit to Lincoln. But the suitors continue to call.

Inevitably they ask, "How come I'd never seen you on (the Internet)?"

"A lot of things, I guess," Harper says.

After news broke of Harper's commitment to NU, a writer for a recruiting Web site called North asking how he'd missed Harper. "You know what I told him?" North said. "Fantastic, that means you guys don't have everything."


Barry Cryer missed him, too. Little did Cryer know that Harper didn't miss him.

As an Ehret High product, Cryer's picture hangs on North's wall. The jovial Cryer started on the interior of the Husker defensive line last season and is now preparing for training camp with the San Diego Chargers.

Kids like Harper listen to guys like Cryer, who visits his old school whenever he's back home. Hitting the weight room is a good way to stay in shape while attempting to persuade the current prep players to maximize their potential.

"Anytime I get some time to take off, I go back down there and hang out with the kids," Cryer said. "I work out with them just to let them know you can do something outside of the rough neighborhoods."

Go to school, play football and get an education, is his message. "I just let them know, (school's) where you want to be, and it's your life to live."

After Katrina, words of hope go a long way at Ehret High.

In his first meeting after the storm, North had five coaches and four players. A week later, the Patriots played their first game with 19 players and finished the season with 33. "We've been building from then on," he said.

But it's been slow. Last season, the Patriots still had problems with numbers. After having nearly 80 players on its roster in Cryer's day, Ehret had just 45 in 2006, meaning some players were playing on both sides of the ball in Louisiana's largest classification.

In Harper's case, he was playing all over the field. He saw time at defensive end, inside and outside linebacker, strong safety, wide receiver, tight end, running back, quarterback and kick returner. He was named to the Times-Picayune All-Metro team in New Orleans as a linebacker, and may have been the newspaper's defensive player of the year if not for the dominating season by teammate Drake Nevis, a defensive tackle headed to LSU who shared co-MVP honors at Ehret with Harper.

It was Nevis with whom Cryer talked most during his recent trips to the weight room, according to North. Cryer didn't really know who Harper was.

Turns out Harper was usually in the room listening to discussions between Nevis and Cryer, North said.

"I think Eric saw where Barry ended up as far as getting an opportunity to get into an NFL camp. Nebraska has done good things for Barry Cryer, and our community has seen that. And Eric is a part of that community. We've all seen what Nebraska's done for one of our kids, and I think that sold Eric on Nebraska's program.

"It means a lot when a kid from our school goes to an out-of-state college, comes back and says good things about that college. It seems like there's always a domino effect. We've had four kids go to Colorado. At one point, we had three kids go to Fresno (State). It seems like they always go in pairs or two or three years in a row because of the experience of our former players."


Before the storm, Harper and his family evacuated to Ferriday, an inland town of about 3,000 residents along the Mississippi and not far from a national wildlife refuge known as Frogmore Bayou. There isn't much in Ferriday once you pass the "Home of Jerry Lee Lewis" sign.

In all, Harper lived away from New Orleans nearly four months. He played for Ferriday High in 2005, a Louisiana version of a Nebraska Class C-1 or Class B school.

"I couldn't wait to come back to New Orleans," he said. Neither could his family, which includes three sets of twin boys. There is Eric and his twin brother Derrick, who are the youngest. Next in line are Marvin and Marlin. Terry and Jerry are the oldest.

"My mother didn't rhyme them, I swear," he says. "We are all named after male family members."

Harper's Katrina story is an everyman tale of New Orleans. Located just outside the city's West Bank, Harper's home wasn't near the levee breaches, which flooded 80 percent of the Big Easy. But when his family returned to survey the storm damage, ruined floors, broken windows and an unwanted sky-blue view greeted them.

"A tree from the back yard had gone through the roof. Birds were flying in and out," he said. "We took a little under a foot of water."

When Harper returned for the field for Ehret High for the 2006 season, his football resume wasn't long. He'd played sparingly as a freshman at Ehret, and then the small-school season at Ferriday as a sophomore.

That wasn't enough to put Harper on North's "Coach, you have to see this kid play" college list.

"I'm not going to lie. I had to see Eric really play first," North said. "I have some credibility here."

Harper was enrolled in pre-school at age 5. Now 19, he's too old to compete in 2007. Because of his age and the relocation caused by Katrina, last season was North's only chance to get a good look.

"When he first came to us (three years ago) ... he was a strong safety-type player. I didn't know he could throw the football, I didn't know he could catch the ball and I didn't know he could run from the fullback position at that time. Then in the Katrina year of '05, we didn't even have him. It took us some time to realize what he can do.

"Physically, we're 5-A football. We play the biggest classification in the state. It's very difficult to play both ways. That doesn't happen a whole lot in 5-A football here in Louisiana.

According to North, Harper's best football is ahead of him. North calls him "a skinny 220" and believes he'll be 20 to 30 pounds heavier while still running the 40 in 4.6 seconds by the time he's through.

"He's an exciting kid. He likes to make plays," North said. "His excitement will add something to the defense at Nebraska."


In a wired recruiting world where seemingly nobody falls through the cracks, Harper nearly did.

But he was savvy enough to not let it happen, all the while staying focused in the eye of a cataclysmic storm.

Academically, he is qualified with an 18 on his first ACT attempt. He wants to retake the exam even though a scholarship offer and a spot in school isn't dependent on a higher score. "I didn't meet my (own) standards," he said. "I know I am better than that."

He carries better than a 3.0 grade point average and will graduate a semester early to attend Nebraska beginning in January.

And even though coaches from LSU, Auburn and Louisiana Tech have all called within the past week, his allegiance to the Huskers appears strong.

"I've been ready for this," he said.

He doesn't own a winter coat, and he's never been to Nebraska. But he's comfortable with his choice.

Turns out, his tale isn't much of a mystery after all. He's just a too-old-to-play, displaced-by-Katrina kid with a load of talent and a lot of faith in his coach, a guy in the weight room named Barry Cryer, and ironically, the Internet.

"I typed Nebraska into Google," Harper said. "It showed anything you wanted."

National championships, academics, weight room, coaches - the Internet had it all, he said.

It just didn't have Eric Harper.

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