METAIRIE, La. -- Erik Harris was such an NFL long shot that he was working in a potato chip factory four years ago.
The 26-year-old, first-year safety for the New Orleans Saints didn’t even get a tryout with an NFL team coming out of California University of Pennsylvania in 2012. But he didn’t give up hope. He went back to school to get his degree, then he landed a job with the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats after traveling to Buffalo for a free-agent workout.
It was in Canada where Harris met one of his closest friends -- and one of the best inspirations a long shot could hope for -- Delvin Breaux.
“Us rooming for those first two years, it was just like, ‘He’s not in my life for no reason.’ You just kind of felt that, you know what I mean?” Harris said of Breaux, the Saints cornerback who made his own remarkable NFL debut last year at age 25 -- nine years after breaking his neck in high school.
Breaux had to fight through semi-pro leagues, arena football and the CFL before he finally got a shot with his hometown Saints.
And Breaux’s positive attitude throughout that journey was every bit as inspiring to Harris as Breaux’s breakout performance last year as the Saints’ top cornerback.
“He’s such a positive person. He’s such a great person to be around And I always try to put myself around positive people,” Harris said. “It was a blessing. And, just, life’s all about making relationships and running into people.
“I would’ve never thought I’d be playing again with him, but it’s been awesome. It’s been amazing.”
The reunion is hardly a coincidence.
Breaux talked up Harris to everyone from the Saints’ equipment guys to the trainers to coaches and scouts, which helped earn him a tryout this past spring. And the Saints liked what they saw enough to sign the 6-foot-3 Harris, who is listed at 225 pounds but said he is closer to 215.
Harris said he really refined his game in Canada, learning to play in space while trimming down from about 230 pounds. He had a total of 79 tackles, three interceptions, three sacks and four forced fumbles in three years as a linebacker/safety with the Tiger-Cats.
“Just being back on the same field as this guy is just tremendous,” Breaux said. “He’s a team player, smart. He helped me make plays just talking and communicating. .. And he plays on special teams.
“So I said, ‘Get his ass down here coach, he’s gonna play for you, he’s gonna work his butt off and he ain’t gonna leave the field until his job is done.’”
Naturally, Breaux also showed up at Harris’ tryout for support -- which Harris said made him even more nervous than the NFL audition itself.
“I mean, I told him to be there. But he put his name and reputation out there, so that meant a lot. I just didn’t want to make him look bad,” Harris said.
So far, Breaux’s scouting skills appear to be as on-point as his coverage skills.
Harris has made a quick impression on the Saints, playing both safety spots and rotating in with the first-string defense often in two- and three-safety sets during OTAs and minicamp.
Of course, the Saints were without projected starter Jairus Byrd during those practice sessions. And they later signed veteran Roman Harper -– who brings a similar skill set. But Harris’ versatility and special-teams ability should give him a good chance to crack the roster.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We had success with Breaux, and Delvin felt really strongly about the player. ... He (runs) well and has good instincts. He’s receiving work at the free, he can play the strong, he’s versatile. That’s been a good add for us.”
Breaux and Harris roomed together for two years in Canada -- including an entire week before their first Grey Cup appearance. They talked about big-picture stuff, like their NFL dreams. They also talked about the differences between Breaux’s hometown New Orleans and Harris’ home state of Pennsylvania.
“That was my best friend in Canada. We went everywhere together. We were on the field, played next to each other. Man, that’s my guy,” said Breaux, who has tried to help Harris adapt to the city as well as the team, giving him advice on where to live and where to eat.
“We tried crawfish one day,” Breaux said. “He wasn’t really a big fan of it. But you gotta work him in.”