ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A player’s draft day is supposed to be a party -- relatives are called, food is cooked, the extra chairs are out and a celebration simmers, ready to boil over at the right moment.
But then things don’t always go that way in a complicated, inexact and sometimes maddening process for all involved. Which is why you’ll have to excuse Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. if he doesn’t get all warm and fuzzy about his entrance into professional football.
“Man, you don’t get picked, you don’t hear your name and your whole family, everybody is sitting there, watching it all happen on TV,’’ Harris said. “They don’t really know what to say to you, if they want to stand up, sit down, move around, leave, stay, whatever. They don’t know. I just remember all those names and none of them were mine.’’
Now it seems like a big mistake or gag gone bad as Harris has been sized for a Super Bowl ring, been named to two Pro Bowls and is considered to be among the best at what he does in the NFL. But Harris was not selected in the 2011 draft -- the year of the NFL lockout.
Fifty-three defensive backs were selected in that draft as 254 players were selected overall by the time the Houston Texans selected Rice defensive end Cheta Ozougwu to close the seventh round. And Harris, who believed he could be selected anywhere in the fifth, sixth or seventh rounds, had gathered his family to share in the moment that never came.
“I had all my family over, watching, pick after pick,’’ Harris said. “Everybody’s definitely down, it was supposed to be a party-like thing. I had coaches telling me I was going in, like, the fifth round. So you’re hoping, but I was just waiting for the last day (of the draft) and when it came and went and I didn’t get drafted, I just kept watching guys I didn’t think had my resume getting picked.’’
Harris was slightly undersized, he had volunteered to switch positions -- from cornerback to safety -- in his final season at Kansas “because we needed help there,’’ and he was not invited to the scouting combine.
Miscast in the month before the draft -- some scouts kept listing him as a safety -- Harris was a classic slip-through-the-cracks evaluation. He was also a late bloomer.
He also happened to be all of that in the draft that was the last NFL function before the lockout. So teams essentially stayed out of the football business until a new collective bargaining agreement was signed that July.
A day that was supposed to be a celebration of the future was, instead, one layered in disappointment and uncertainty.
“Everybody kept saying, ‘you’ll still get a chance, just have to be patient,’ and I did believe them, believe in that,’’ Harris said. “But at that time, I was thinking I’ve got to do something else, so I was looking around the internships, something like that, whatever I could. I was thinking if I don’t make it in football, I’ve got to find something else.’’
“Man, that’s crazy to think about now, when you see how he’s played, what he’s done,’’ Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said. “But you can see it in how he handles his business. He remembers.’’
The rest is now history. Harris got the last spot, and the last $2,000 worth of signing bonus money, the Broncos had designated for undrafted free agents that year. He showed enough that on the first day of training camp none other than Champ Bailey predicted Harris would carve out an NFL career.
And he signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract as the 2014 season drew to a close.
“Sometimes I think about how sick I felt that day,’’ Harris said. “I watch the draft now and see those guys in the green room, in the suits, and I just remember how I sat, with my family, watching guy after guy -- I watched the whole thing. I stayed right there and stared at the names at the bottom of the screen, pick after pick, and none of them was mine. So I feel for the guys who go through that now, but I tell guys all the time, I’m proof it ain’t the end of the story, no matter what anybody says.’’