Football player Toni Harris in Toyota Super Bowl ad: 'I've never been a big fan of assumptions'
Antoinette "Toni" Harris won't be on the field Sunday for Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, but the free safety could be one of the biggest stars to come out of the annual extravaganza.
The 22-year-old Harris, one of the first women non-kickers on a college football roster, will be featured in a powerful commercial for Toyota's RAV4 Hybrid on Sunday. Narrated by CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz and celebrating Harris and the car for challenging perceptions, it seems destined for viral status.
Harris is no stranger to making headlines or history. The Detroit native played on the football team at East Los Angeles College, a junior college in California, for the past two seasons. She has received multiple scholarship offers to NAIA schools and is weighing her options before deciding on her next step.
Her goal is to become the first woman to play in the NFL.
We caught up with Harris, who is "exhausted but beyond excited," on Thursday to talk about her star turn, what's next for her and her love for crime dramas on television.
espnW: How did the commercial come to be?
Toni Harris: I was getting ready for an away game this season, probably in late October, and I see an email from Toyota. In it, they said they wanted to interweave my football story with the RAV4 because we were both shattering perceptions.
espnW: What did you think when you read that?
TH: I thought it was a prank! I didn't know what to do, and so I went over the email a couple of more times and then I took it to my head coach. Ultimately we both decided that it would be something very interesting to do. That was on a Saturday, and they needed an answer by Monday, so it all came together very quickly.
espnW: When did you learn it would be a Super Bowl commercial?
TH: They said from the start it could potentially be a Super Bowl spot. And that's so big, right? Not everyone gets that opportunity.
espnW: Was that intimidating at all? Had you ever done any acting before?
TH: I was excited! I hadn't done any acting before, unless you count being in school and church plays, but actually, during that commercial there really wasn't any acting. I promise you it was all authentic. Toyota put me to work, but it was good. The whole shoot took a few days, and we did so many things for it -- playing football, tackling, driving. I had fun with it and I wish I could experience it again, but I was tired at the end. I felt like after we finally wrapped, I had played a full game.
espnW: What was the best part?
TH: I loved shooting the scene where I caught the interception. And when I'm tackling, I'm always a big fan of that. I love hitting so much. We actually got most of those right on the first take, but then would have to do it a few more times, just to get different angles and things like that. Those aren't my real teammates out there, but it felt like they were. They were all just so supportive and yelling words of encouragement the whole time.
espnW: What did you think when you saw the final cut?
TH: My first thought was just, wow. Everything happened so fast. They reached out at the end of October, we shot everything in mid-December, and here we are now. I couldn't believe how absolutely beautifully everything turned out considering how quickly it all came together. And I didn't even know Jim Nantz was going to do the voiceover until I saw it. I couldn't believe it.
espnW: Jim Nantz is a pretty big deal. And for a football player, that must have felt pretty incredible.
TH: [The team at Toyota] told me how he said he wanted to be a part of something great. It felt so amazing to hear that, and to watch the final product. He does such a beautiful job, he really knows what he's doing. I'm so proud of what Toyota has done with this commercial.
espnW: What would it have been like if you had seen a commercial like this when you were a kid?
TH: It would have meant so much. She would have been a big inspiration to me, and probably to people all around the world. There's so much backlash that comes with doing something -- like a woman playing football. Not everyone can handle what comes with it. I feel like God put me in a position to be strong, to be that trailblazer and that role model for little girls everywhere to tell that this is something that they could possibly do. Whether it's football, wrestling, basketball, whatever they want to do, it's not impossible. You just have to have your faith to keep persevering through it.
espnW: I'm guessing you hear from young girls regularly. What do they say to you?
TH: I do, and it's great. A few years ago, a teammate sent me this quote: "Be so good, they can't ignore you." That quote has stuck with me ever since. Be good enough to where there's not one person around you who is going to deny you your talent, and you will get your chance. That means a lot to me and I try to share that motto. I actually have it tatted on my right wrist, next to an NFL football.
espnW: When did you start playing football?
TH: I started watching my cousin when I was 4 or 5 years old, and I knew it was something I wanted to do. At first no one would give me a chance, but a few years later, when I was old enough to make my own decisions, I made sure nobody was able to stand in the way of what I wanted to do. I've been playing ever since, and loving every minute.
espnW: I know you've gotten a few college scholarship offers, have you decided where you're going to play next season?
TH: I haven't decided yet. I'll be making that decision sometime over the next few months, before May. I want to make sure the school is athletically and academically a fit for me. I don't want it to just be about publicity or anything. I want to make sure that where I go is the right place for me in every way.
espnW: What schools are you considering?
TH: There are a couple of schools I'm thinking about. Mostly NAIA. It's pretty cool, and flattering, to have these places say they want to be a part of their roster, but it's also a little scary. People have hidden agendas and the recruiting business is another world. (Editor's note: Unlike the NCAA, NAIA rules allow student-athletes to appear in commercials and to be compensated for their work. Toyota would not comment if Harris was compensated for her appearance.)
espnW: So what's the No. 1 thing you're looking for in a school?
TH: Academics. I love football to death, but I want to major in criminal justice, so a school has to offer that. I won't even consider a school that doesn't have that major. I want to get my bachelor's degree, and then my master's.
espnW: What do you want to do after college?
TH: Well, the NFL is the dream. I'm going to be working toward that until the death of me. Whether I go drafted or undrafted, I'm pretty sure I'm going to keep my faith and God is going to take me there. But I also want to be a homicide detective with a background in forensics. I watch all the shows. My favorite is probably "Person of Interest" but I honestly watch them all.
espnW: Football star by day, homicide detective by night.
TH: Exactly! You have to have a Plan A and a Plan B, and I want to be ready for all of it.
espnW: Lastly, where will you be watching the game on Sunday?
TH: I was supposed to be watching with my family, but there are some other arrangements now in play, so we'll see what happens.
espnW: Does this mean you're going to the Super Bowl?
TH: [Laughing] Maybe! We'll see. It's possible, I think, and of course I hope I go, but I really don't know.