COLUMBIA - He brought his boy to work each morning, let him watch from the sidelines as summer turned to fall. They were father-son bonding sessions in the rarest environment. As Al Harris fine-tuned his skills as an NFL cornerback for 14 years, little Al Jr. was by his side.
Naturally, his boy learned how to play football. The lessons began before he was old enough for Pop Warner. Al Jr. copied his dad's every move, as sons are known to do. He developed quickly and saw what it took to be successful.
It didn't take long for his dad to realize something special was happening.
"It was coming naturally, without me telling him anything," Al Sr. remembers. "He was just over there doing it. He would pick it up so fast. He picked up stuff that took me a long time, reps and reps and reps to get better at."
Al Sr. doesn't remember when his son went from there to here. The years blur together. One day, his toddler ran around chasing footballs, stumbling and clumsy. The next, he was crouched in his stance, backpedaling and swiveling his hips.
The destination is a father's dream. Al Harris Jr. will be among the high school seniors to sign with South Carolina's football team Wednesday on National Signing Day. The three-star cornerback from storied St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has taken a long, methodical journey to this point. Al Sr. looks back now, and it's hard to know where the years went.
"I didn't have quite the opportunity that he has as far as what school to pick from," said Al Sr., who played college football at Texas A&M-Kingsville. "Parents say they try to live through their kids. He's just fulfilling everything that I didn't get to accomplish at his age. I get to live it through him."
The son of Al Harris wasn't going to be a wide receiver. It would have been unnatural. If Al Jr. caught passes, they were going to be interceptions. Not first downs.
When his son was younger, Al Sr. knew the boy was born to play cornerback. He would speak with youth league coaches, making sure they were on the same page.
"I hate to say it like this, but this is what he's been bred to do, is play corner," Al Sr. said. "This is what he understands. He sees things from the outside edges. So I kind of had a hint then that he had a feel for the position, and everything else he picked up."
Al Jr. doesn't mind. He's been around football his entire life. Dad never had to push him to get up early for offseason workouts. On his own, he made the commitment.
Al Jr. also admits it was dad's example he followed.
"He's the reason I play the position," Al Jr. said. "Watching my dad, him teaching me everything that I know and watching him succeed and how hard he works, he taught me a lot about how to carry myself on and off the football field."
Eventually, the comparisons were inevitable.
Even now, friends and acquaintances remark on the similarities between father and son. Last week, the Harrises were once again working out together, as they often do. A trainer thought Al. Jr looked like his father's "little mini-me."
"I can't really see it," Al Sr. said, "but everybody else can see it."
The resemblance carries to the field. Al Jr. calls himself a "physical corner," readily admitting he prefers press coverage, where receivers are jammed at the line of scrimmage and unable to run routes without resistance.
It's the same style that became Al Sr.'s calling card in the NFL. During seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Al Sr. started every game. He wasn't much of a ball hawk, though his game-winning interception against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2003 NFC Wild Card game is legendary. Hard hits earned him a reputation, sending him to two Pro Bowls. On the corner, he was feared.
The first time Al Sr. earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, he brought his son to Hawaii. After the game, he pulled Al Jr. from the stands onto the field. Al Jr. rubbed shoulders with the stars. His face lit up when he met Terrell Owens for the first time.
"I could just see it in his eyes, he was excited," Al Sr. said. "And I was excited for him. To grow up in that environment, that's all he knows. For that structure, and to grow up in that environment, I think it's huge for a kid - especially if it's what he wants to do with his life."
'Sky's the limit'
It's hard to tell when the dream took root. At some point, football became more than a game. It's Al Jr.'s passion and, if he's fortunate like his father, perhaps his future occupation.
Which made for some scary moments when the game was ripped away last fall.
In the early weeks of his senior season at St. Thomas Aquinas, a nagging hamstring injury wouldn't go away. Rest was the only cure. For a football player, off days are hard to find in September.
It was a minor injury. To prevent it from becoming more severe, Al Sr. made the unpopular decision to sit his son for the rest of the season. Al Jr. had hoped to help the team defend its 2012 state championship. That dream suddenly vanished.
"I decided that instead of him having to deal with it all through college, to pull the plug on (the season) a little early so that he'll be ready for college," Al Sr. said. "I called and talked with his high school coaches. They weren't happy, but they understood what I was doing. He wasn't happy, but he understood what I was doing.
"He'll look back someday and he'll be like, 'OK, I got it. That's why my dad was doing this, or why he did that.' That's all you can ask for as a father, that your kid understands you're trying to do the right thing for him."
Al Sr. knew it was a gamble for his son. The months leading up to signing day are a mad dash, stressful and chaotic. Without finishing his senior season, Al Jr. risked being forgotten.
South Carolina's interest never wavered. Even when Al Jr. stepped away from the field, the Gamecocks pursued. When his hamstring finally healed, other schools joined the hunt. With his dad's advice, Al Jr. rewarded South Carolina's loyalty.
"He always told me to just treat it like a business," Al Jr. said of his father. "Treat what I do as a business, always do my research. It all comes down to what you see on the field."
At South Carolina, Al Jr. saw opportunity. Cornerback is the thinnest position on the Gamecocks' depth chart. Late last season, defensive backs coach Grady Brown admitted next year's starters could come from high school.
Al Jr. doesn't shy from a lofty goal. He wants to start for the Gamecocks, sooner than later. Naturally, his father has full confidence.
"He can be as good as he wants to be. Sky's the limit," Al Sr. said. "He definitely has the confidence. His football IQ is high. He's been around the game, knows the game. So sky's the limit for him. If he works hard and does what he needs to do, he can fulfill his dreams."
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