FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Say hello to the new "Big Snacks," who said goodbye to his old snacks.
Nose tackle Damon Harrison, who earned the nickname three years ago when he made the New York Jets' roster as a small-school free agent with big dreams and a bigger appetite, reported to training camp with a leaner-than-ever body and a powerful belief in himself. He trimmed four percent of his body fat in the offseason, thanks to a strict diet that meant no late-night goodies. Instead of indulging in his favorite snack, squirting canned American cheese on a Ritz cracker, he opted for fruit and water.
"Grocery shopping, we didn't have any snacks for the past few months," he said during a break at camp. "Even my kids suffered; they didn't get a chance to have any snacks."
Harrison's transformation has been fun to watch. In 2012, he was an overweight rookie with unusual skill for a big man, but he was relegated to the bench, a quiet kid who learned by watching the veterans. His confidence has grown immensely. The big man is talking big, refusing to back down from a recent statement. In mid-July, he told NFL.com he's "the best nose tackle in football."
Reminded of that comment, Harrison smiled.
"It's a pretty bold statement, right?" he said. "But I do [believe it], I really do. I'm not saying it to be boastful or bragging -- I'm not trying to draw attention away from the team -- but I don't get up in the morning to consider myself top-5 or No. 2 or No. 3. I've put in the work. That's why I'm able to be confident in saying that. I'm not taking anything away from any nose tackle in the league, but I've been working my butt off."
It's no accident that, with Harrison in a starting position for 2013 and 2014, the Jets finished third and fifth in rushing yards allowed, respectively. He clogs rushing lanes more effectively than mid-day construction crews jam traffic at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Opponents averaged only 3.11 yards per rush with Big Snacks in the game, 3.81 when he was on the sideline, according to the NFL. The .70 differential was the highest among the Jets' starters last season.
But after last season, Harrison felt he needed to get better. Preparing for a contract year, his first chance to make a big score, he committed himself to changing his lifestyle and re-shaping his body. His fiance created a diet that included a lot of chicken, salmon and vegetables. He worked out like a mad man and reported to camp at 334 pounds. He didn't drop a significant amount of weight, per se, but you're talking about a man who once flirted with the 400-mark.
There's no shortage of financial motivation.
After three years of minimum salaries, Harrison will make a nice wage this season -- $2.4 million, the amount of his restricted tender -- but he will be one of the most attractive unrestricted free agents next March. The top nose tackles earn at least $4 million annually, so Big Snacks is in line for a big raise. The Jets have talked to his agents to discuss a potential deal.
Money, Harrison claimed, isn't what drives him.
"I could get a $500 million contract and I still wouldn't feel comfortable," he said. "That's just me. The moment you get comfortable, you get complacent and lazy. That's not in my DNA."
Former Jets great Wayne Chrebet, perhaps the most famous undrafted free agent in team history, always said the same thing. It's the underdog mentality; it never leaves you.
Harrison never will forget the final cuts his rookie year. He was "terrified" to walk into the locker room because he feared getting cut. He didn't want to be seen by The Turk -- aka the Grim Reaper, the person who breaks the bad news to players by telling them to bring their playbook to the coach.
A humorous postscript: Harrison has maintained a long-running joke with the Jets' staffer that handles that duty. When he sees him on cut-down day, Harrison will say, "Sorry, I don't have my playbook."
Harrison, 26, doesn't want to go anywhere. He wants to finish his career with the team that signed him out of William Penn University, an NAIA school in Iowa. But he also understands it's a business. His linemate, Muhammad Wilkerson, also is entering the final year of his contact. Can the Jets pay them both? It's a fair question.
Clearly, Harrison believes he's at the top of his profession. The feel-good, Cinderella story, no longer intimidated by his surroundings, has grown into a big-time talent.
"I didn't have the confidence a couple of years ago," he said. "I didn't have the résumé. I didn't have the film. If it's not out there on film, you're just blowing hot air. I feel like I've put together a pretty good résumé to this point."
The gee whiz is gone.
So is the Cheese Whiz.