National Champion Alabama Running Back
By Luke Johnson
Antioch High graduate, Alabama standout and 2021 national champion, Najee Harris is expected to be drafted into the NFL on Thursday. He will be the school’s first player in the NFL Draft in decades.
The last time an Antioch High alum was selected in the NFL Draft was 1999 when the Dallas Cowboys picked tight end Mike Lucky. In fact, five players from Antioch High made it to the NFL in the 1990s: Lucky, Jeremy Newberry, Mark Butterfield, Frank Beede and Evan Pilgrim.
So how does a high school football program go from putting five players in the NFL in one decade to zero players for more than two decades?
We’ll get to that. But first, let’s talk more about Harris, who won the Doak Walker Trophy for being the best running back in college football last season.
He set new records at Alabama, arguably the most prestigious program in college football, for career rushing yards and touchdowns. He also shattered almost every record imaginable at Antioch High — records many experts say will never come close to being touched. For example, the previous career touchdown record at Antioch High was 32 by Brian Boccio. Harris surpassed that mark in a single season (twice!) and finished with 99 career touchdowns. His 100th was actually called back by a holding penalty.
“The kids look up to him because he’s this mythical creature to them,” said Brett Dudley, Antioch High’s assistant head coach. “He’s almost like a comic book character or an action-movie star. He’s just this larger than life character that obviously everyone knows about.”
Antioch pro wrestling legend Ferris Anthony said he knew Harris was going to be a star when he “first saw him walk on campus.”
Anthony was the freshman football head coach at the time and remembers watching campus security escort Harris to practice on a golf cart. Anthony quickly responded, “You’re taking him to the wrong team! He’s gonna hurt somebody playing over here!”
Harris was 6-foot-2 and a chiseled 185 pounds with wide shoulders and a big frame. Within just a few weeks of joining Antioch High’s football program, Harris was pulled up to varsity as a freshman.
He had a breakout performance that season against a Freedom High team led by senior running back Joe Mixon, who now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. Not only did Harris rush for more yards than Mixon, but he scored his first varsity touchdown and also had three solo tackles on Mixon — including a forced fumble.
Almost eight years later, Harris now awaits to be the first Antioch High alum drafted in the NFL since the new millennium.
Why has it been so long? There are two key factors.
One factor, other high schools opened in the area in the mid-90s.
When Deer Valley High School began operating on the other side of town in 1996, it essentially cut Antioch High’s football team in half. Since then, Deer Valley alumni Taiwan Jones, Sterling Moore, De’Ondre Wesley and Nsimba Webster have made it to the NFL.
Freedom High School also opened in 1996 — which took away many student athletes from Antioch High who lived near the Antioch-Oakley border. The aforementioned Mixon played for Antioch Youth Football, lists his hometown as Antioch, but played at Freedom High.
Another factor, De La Salle High School established its dominance as a national powerhouse in the 90s — which compelled many star athletes from Antioch to commute to Concord for high school. This list includes three-time All-Pro Maurice Jones-Drew, Super Bowl Champ TJ Ward and many others.
Nine players from Antioch have made it to the NFL since 1999, but none of them attended the city’s oldest high school.
Antioch High head coach John Lucido said many high school teams tried recruiting Harris, but he stayed loyal to Antioch High because he believed in the school and the city when not many people did.
In his freshman year, Antioch High went 1-9. However, by his junior year, Antioch High went undefeated and won a league championship for the first time in 31 years.
“He’s very loyal. He knows he could make a difference and that’s what he wanted to do within the community and his school and his teammates,” Lucido said. “He wanted his teammates to get more exposure and go to Division-I schools and that’s what he did.”
Most NFL Draft experts project Harris to be picked in the late first round this Thursday. He is often slated to be selected No. 24 by the Pittsburgh Steelers in mock drafts, but predicted to go as high as No. 16 by the Arizona Cardinals.
Marcus Malu, Harris’ long-time personal trainer, said he thinks Harris fits best with the Cardinals, because his skillset compliments their quarterback Kyler Murray’s playing style. Lucido said he’s intrigued by the Buffalo Bills potentially selecting Harris, because he thinks Harris could be the missing piece to take the team to the Super Bowl within the next few years.
The 6-foot-2, 232 lb. running back has a 6.46 draft Prospect Grade, the 16th highest ranking and is one of 58 players to participate in the draft, according to the NFL.
The only Antioch High alum to be an NFL first-round draft pick was Ron Pritchard in 1969, who was an All-American linebacker at Arizona State and inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame. The last alum to be drafted in the second round was Newberry in 1998.
Malu said this is a moment he and Harris have been getting ready and “grinding” for almost nine years.
“I told him you have to be the best in high school. Then you have to be the best in college to have a chance to play in the NFL,” Malu said. “His football IQ is off the charts. His work ethic is off the charts.”
Harris is having a draft party — with limited guests — at Marshawn Lynch’s restaurant Rob Ben’s in Emeryville on Thursday.
Just a few months ago, Harris signed with Lynch’s Beast Mode Marketing and is currently working on a deal with Nike.
He debuted his “Young Naj clothing line” earlier this week with costume-made pajamas on “Up All Night” by Progressive insurance. They featured a logo inspired by Michael Jordan’s “jumpman” which resembled a hurdling football player, because those are the type of plays by Harris that dazzle the fans the most.
The NFL Draft will be broadcast on NFL Network, ABC, ESPN and ESPN Deportes on Thursday, April 29 at 5:00 PM Pacific Time (PT), Friday, April 30 at 4:00 PM PT and Saturday, May 1 at 9:00 AM PT.