Joins “quite an elite fraternity”; local friends and fans celebrate
“I’m so proud of this guy. And he gets to stay in black and gold” – Antioch High School Principal Louie Rocha
“Najee Harris is…the kind of person the Steeler fans will embrace.” – Super Bowl champion Gordon Gravelle, Pittsburgh Steelers Tackle 1972-76 and 2018 Antioch Citizen of the Year
“It would be great to see another Harris in the backfield” – Super Bowl champion Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers Fullback 1972-83
By Luke Jonson & Allen Payton
Antioch High School alum Najee Harris was selected No. 24 overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL Draft on Thursday.
He was the first running back picked in this year’s draft.
Many draft experts predicted Harris to go to the Steelers. They had the least running yards in the NFL last season and their leading rusher, James Conner, left the team and signed with the Arizona Cardinals.
“I understand that they did finish last in rushing last year, but I feel through practice and hard work that can be changed,” Harris said during a press conference hosted by the Steelers on Zoom following the announcement by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “I don’t feel pressure at all to be honest with you. I’ve been put in a lot of situations with that type of stuff put on me, especially in college. I mean the NFL is different, of course, but I feel it’s nothing that I can’t do in time for sure.”
Harris won two National Championships with the University of Alabama. He rushed for 1,466 yards and scored 30 touchdowns (an SEC record) in 13 games last season. He also broke Alabama’s records for career rushing yards (3,843) and touchdowns (57). Additionally, Harris only had one fumble out of 718 career touches.
Harris was asked how he felt about playing with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — who many fans expect to be a future hall of famer.
“Oh man, that’s dope!” Harris immediately responded.
Harris is the 11th person to make it to the NFL from Antioch High. He’s also the first Antioch High alum to be drafted since 1999. The last time an Antioch High alum was selected in the first round was 1969.
Harris’ Mom Thanks His Mentors, Najee Flies to Pittsburgh Friday Morning
Earlier in the day Harris hosted a draft party for kids at a homeless shelter in Richmond. It was the same homeless shelter where he lived for a period of time in middle school.
It was shortly after that period of time when Harris and family moved to Antioch.
“From Antioch, God sent all those angels,” said Harris’ mom Tianna Hicks. “A whole lot of people were put in my life to give me stability.”
Hicks emphasized that Marcus Malu and Mori Suesue, Harris’ personal trainers, were the most influential “angels” on her and her family’s life.
He spent the evening waiting and then celebrating with his mom, family and friends, including his high school head football coach John Lucido, at Rob Ben’s Restaurant in Emeryville, CA, owned by Marshawn Lynch who has become Harris’ mentor.
On Thursday, just seconds after the Steelers were on the clock for their draft pick, Harris received a phone call.
“I was like, ‘Oh…! They’re about to call his name!’” Hicks said.
She said it was the best day of her life.
Hicks added that Harris is reporting for duty right away and would be on a flight to Pittsburgh early Friday morning.
Local Friends and Fans Celebrate
Antioch High Principal Louie Rocha was joined by Steve Sanchez, the school’s athletic director when Harris played there, and other fans to watch the NFL Draft at local sports bar Tailgaters. They were excited with the anticipation and the outcome.
“Knowing Najee, he will make the best of all his opportunities. He will stay in character,” said Sanchez who was notified just a few minutes before the announcement that Najee had received the call from the Steelers.
“Excited,” he added.
“I’m so proud of him,” Lucido wrote on his Facebook page Thursday night.
“Congratulations to the hardest working man in the world,” Antioch High assistant head coach Brett Dudley wrote, also on Lucido’s Facebook page Thursday night. “The @steelers got the best player and best person in the Draft.”
“On behalf of Antioch High School and our community, I’m so proud of the guy,” Rocha said. “And he gets to stay in black and gold.”
Coincidentally, Harris will be wearing the same colors in the NFL as he did in high school, black and gold. Ironically, however, he’s playing in Pittsburgh, which is the name of his rival in high school, Antioch’s neighboring city — except without an “H.”
Super Bowl Champion Gordon Gravelle Lauds Najee
Harris joins a very small group of just two Antioch residents to play for Pittsburgh. The last one was two-time Super Bowl champion Gordon Gravelle, part of the team when Terry Bradshaw was quarterback. The community’s 2018 Citizen of the Year for Lifetime Achievement and 30-year resident shared his comments about the newest member of the Steelers fraternity.
“First of all, Najee Harris is a great, young man and he has all the tools, personality especially, to do well,” Gravelle stated. “He’s respectful, he loves his mother, he takes care of his family. When he goes back to Pittsburgh that’s the kind of person the Steeler fans will embrace.”
“Franco Harris and I were drafted the same year in 1972. He was drafted in the first round I was drafted in the second,” Gravelle shared. “Franco made a comment the other day about Najee and said ‘it would be great to see another Harris in the backfield.’”
“We see each other once or twice a year and are good friends. So, to have him say something like that is really special. He knows what kind of guy Najee is. Besides that, he’s a great football player,” said Gravelle.
“I met Najee once, when Eddie Beaudin was having one of his crab feeds,” he shared. “He was very polite, very outgoing. I made a comment to him and asked, ‘is your head on straight?’ He said ‘yes sir, it is.’ He knew what I meant. That told me the kid will do well.”
“Fifty percent of the athletes who come into the NFL weren’t as good, physically as the guys that got cut in training camp,” Gravelle explained. “It takes so much more. I call it grit. It’s a combination of perseverance and passion. If you lose them, you have to leave the league. It’s hard work. It’s being you mentally. That’s why I asked Najee if he had his head on straight.”
Gravelle then offered some statistics about the game and the very few players who get to play.
“There’s over 1.2 million high school kids playing football. That goes down to about 70,000 playing college ball and that reduces to about 1,500 players in the NFL,” he shared. “There’s only 286 picks in the draft. The average player’s lifespan for playing football is 4.2 years. Only about 25,000 people have ever played professional football and that’s over 100 years. So, it’s quite an elite fraternity. And Antioch has had some good football players to come out of here, too.”
“I’ve never watched the draft before. The reason is these sports columnists all think they know what they’re talking about and they don’t know jack. So, I don’t usually care about the draft. It’s a showtime,” Gravelle said with a laugh. “But I watched, tonight up until Najee was chosen. That’s the first time I’ve watched in 20 or 30 years.”
“What I see in Najee is what I saw in Franco, and that’s a very talented athlete who worked very hard at his craft. That’s what made Franco great and what will make Najee great, too,” Gravelle added.
Apparently already receiving endorsement contracts, Harris appeared in a Progressive Insurance TV commercial, with other players in the NFL draft, immediately following his announcement. See the complete, almost 14-minute exclusive interview entitled Up All Night, in which Harris shows his custom pajamas which are part of his Young Naj clothing line, and new “hurdling man” logo, here.
The 2021-22 league schedule will be announced May 12.
Luke Johnson is an Antioch High School graduate and has been covering Najee’s football career since then.
Publisher’s Note: Congratulations, good luck and Godspeed in your career, Najee.