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.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A CEO, Commissioner and Ambassador walk in...

Tournament Players Club Louisiana
July 2007

, La.
(20 minutes from Downtown New Orleans)

Dear Family and Friends--

Norman has big eyes, the kind kids with something to believe in have. He’s 15, and I’ll bet he believes he can win the U.S. Open someday. Fantasies like these make kids great—and unaware of suits and slacks, shakes and waves, the day to days of grown-up business.

The PGA TOUR’s Commissioner, the CEO of Zurich Financial Services and the Former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland addressed hundreds of Zurich Classic of New Orleans advocates and donors the other day. They announced the agreement to keep Zurich title sponsor of the professional tournament until 2010. Tournament organizers also announced that over400,000 will be given to charity from the 2007 event.

Chad, Chris and Norman are products of the First Tee program, whose mission is to give non-traditional junior golfers an opportunity to learn and play the game so many admire.

“Who has the best golf game?” I asked.

“I do,” they all said.

“We’ll have to see about that,” I said.

So Norman, Chris and Chad followed me to a hole on the green. “Ok, right here, six feet,” I said.

Chad, 10, was the sure underdog. He had a training set of clubs. Chris, 11, was also new to the game. But Norman? He dedicates his free time to golf.

Chad sinks his first, but goes one for three from six feet. Chris hits his first putt 12 feet, his second putt four feet, but nails the last.

Norman leaves his first two attempts short. “Oh man, I can’t lose to you kids,” he says. He makes his third attempt.

“Sudden death.” I say. “Oh yeah,” Chad says.

But Chad misses. Then Chris misses. Norman makes his putt with a “you’ve got a long way to go kids” smile on his face.

I gave them a wave and walked off the green. I had to do grown-up stuff. On the putting green, fantasy still rules. It’s the best thing about being young.

You can be a U.S. Open champion, someday.

Inside, suits and ties, microphones and cameras fixated on lottery-style checks and heartfelt words from a few very important people. A CEO, Commissioner and Ambassador--three dreams come true, I’m sure.

But they have to wear suits. And rarely get big trophies.



Thursday, July 5, 2007

Face #2: The New Orleans' Mental Health Crisis

To view 70 second video in Full-Screen click inside picture, it will take you to YouTube.

Column below:

Duncan Plaza
City Hall
New Orleans, La.
June 2007

Dear Family and Friends--

“Raven, are you hungry?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said in a waning rasp.

Who knows what happened to his clothes, but the hospital gave him scrubs--four days ago.

Usually, scrubs like these are worn outside the hospital by only by chic high school and college kids. They are, in many ways, the new sweatpants. For Raven, however, it had become his wardrobe.

Senator Barack Obama came to New Orleans today. He spoke at the Essence Music Festival, the country’s largest celebration of African American culture.

Obama said everyone should be able to access health care. He didn’t however specifically address the mental health problems of New Orleans. He didn’t go into detail about his plans. But, for the 30,000 in attendance, his candor and general promise seemed to be enough.

I wonder what the next administration will do for the Ravens of New Orleans and the country. In many ways, KATRINA still claims people every day. People like Raven. He didn’t tell me why he was in the hospital. And I must confess, I’m making an assumption that his mental health was less than stable. But in a City where 9 of 10, rich or poor, black or white, have been affected by depression or post-traumatic stress, federal aid is a necessity not a “It’d sure be nice.”

When police find our mentally unstable on the streets, they take them to jail when psychiatric beds are full. And in Post-K NOLA, psychiatric beds have fallen by over 80 percent. This is not a statistic that should be ignored.

Mental health is not as stigmatized in New Orleans as it is in the rest of the country. People are open. People tell stories. And people cry. They say how hard it is. Many are not veiled in secrecy in New Orleans because, “We all went through it,” one of my friends said.

But in a City where it seems the residents are ready to speak; where people are open to their new existence, those trained to help are rare.

The mental illness spectrum in New Orleans is large. Some are unsavable. They have frequent bouts of psychosis. But what about the blue-collar man fighting through what he thinks must be the blues?

Will they come forward? Who knows. Right now, we aren’t prepared even if they wanted to.



Sunday, July 1, 2007

St. Bernard Parish: New Orleans' Overlooked Neighbor

St. Bernard Parish (County)
Orleans’ Overlooked Neighbor
, La.

June 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

People are drawn to the places they’ve lived. I couldn't imagine returning home to devastation. Still today, sunglasses block eyes, but not tears. For the residents of St. Bernard, many approaching year two in FEMA trailers and frequenting restaurants not quite like they remembered, every day is a struggle for attention.

New Orleans became the crown jewel of KATRINA’s seedy remains and attention. The Big Easy is the high school quarterback in the post-KATRINA competition for love and affection.

It’s made St. Bernard Parish feel like the last kid picked for dodge ball.

Murphy Oil, based in Chalmette, La., failed to properly hurricane-proof one of its massive storage tanks. Twenty-five thousand barrels spilled on the parks, streets and homes of St. Bernard parish. St. Bernard's road to recovery has and will continue to be an uphill battle given its proximity to Orleans Parish.

A friend of mine and fellow AmeriCorpsian, John Haley, is stationed in St. Bernard Parish. He lives in a FEMA trailer. The digs are nice but small. They remind me of a studio in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

John took me on a tour of St. Bernard. Born out of white-flight during segregation, most Chalmettians are white working middle-class citizens. Pre-K population of St. Bernard was 67,000 according to the 200o Census. Locals estimate about 27,000 are there today.

The homes are suburban renditions of the Lower Ninth Ward. Two and 300,000 dollar pre-storm properties sit gutted and vacant block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.

One high school is open. So is one major grocery store. And one entrepreneurial Domino’s franchise owner operates out of a trailer adjacent to his flooded business. The delivery guys take pizza through a makeshift drive-thru window.

Massive FEMA camps are the new neighborhoods for many Chalmettians.

When a visitor, developer wants to volunteer or help in the gulf-coast they think, “New Orleans, here I come.

It’s only natural.

Overlooking St. Bernard could be fatal for the parish, New Orleans’ neighbor to the east.

Many St. Bernard residents, according to John, are optimistic about their Parish’s future. And in America, the last kid picked for the game usually grows up to be the Doctor of the group.