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Despite a late start in football, former Lake Charles-Boston Cougar Damon Harrison has beaten the odds to earn a roster spot with the New York Jets as a free-agent rookie. (New York Jets / Special to the American Press)

Despite a late start in football, former Lake Charles-Boston Cougar Damon Harrison has beaten the odds to earn a roster spot with the New York Jets as a free-agent rookie. (New York Jets / Special to the American Press)

Lake Charles' Harrison tackles Big Apple

Last Modified: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 5:47 PM

By Warren Arceneaux / American Press

After being cut by two middle school teams, playing one year of high school football and getting a chance to play in college only after sending out a series of emails from the Lake Charles-Boston High School library, Damon Harrison has taken a most unlikely path to the NFL.

Harrison is a rookie defensive lineman for the New York Jets, making the team in training camp as an undrafted free agent from William Penn University, an NAIA school in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

Training camp was just the latest example of Harrison beating the odds.

In junior high, he moved to Lake Charles from New Iberia, where he was cut from his middle school team. The same thing happened at Reynaud Middle School. Upon arriving at LC-B, Harrison focused on playing basketball until suffering a knee injury. While slowed by the injury, Harrison gained 20 pounds and decided to give football one more shot his senior year — but was initially told by the Cougars coaching staff that he couldn’t play.

“They didn’t think I was serious, that I just wanted to be on the team to be with my friends,” Harrison said.

James Kelly, LC-B’s head coach at the time and now an assistant at Barbe High, said he tried unsuccessfully to recruit Harrison.

“We had asked him to play a couple of years because he was pretty big, but he said no, then he asked us and we thought he was just messing with us,” recalled Kelly.

“He was raw at first, but it did not take him long to catch on,” Kelly said. “He had good feet and good hands from basketball. He had the size and he was strong for a high school kid. His fundamentals were good. He liked to play a lot of practical jokes. One time there was a fight in the principal’s office and he helped to diffuse the situation. He was a good kid. I knew he had the potential to play college football.”

Harrison did not get any college offers.

So he shopped himself using a library computer to contact a host of college coaches. He got one response, from Northwest Mississippi Community College. Harrison spent a semester there but did not like it.

A Northwest alum, Steve Miller, was hired at William Penn and helped get Harrison to Oskaloosa, where Harrison’s luck and body changed.

“I started lifting weights for the first time,” Harrison said. “I lifted five times a week and was just eating consistently.”

In four years at William Penn, Harrison grew from 252 pounds to as much as 370 before getting down to 355.

On the field, Harrison started every game for four years. By his junior year, the possibility of playing pro ball started to emerge.

“During the spring of that year, scouts starting coming around for interviews,” he said. “They said I had potential for someone that had not played much. They liked that I was a big, strong, physical guy.”

After a stellar senior season, Harrison said he expected to be picked in the NFL draft this spring, but wasn’t, despite working out for several teams.

“I thought worst case I would be a seventh-round pick,” he said. “I was disappointed, but then I was blessed to have a chance with the Jets.”

Immediately after the draft, 12 teams called Harrison to invite him to camp, but he was set on New York.

“I thought they were a perfect fit,” Harrison said. “Rex (Ryan) is a players coach and they had just brought in (former LSU player) Karl Dunbar as the D-line coach.”

The long odds undrafted free agents face did not bother Harrison.

“I just used that as motivation,” he said. “I had always been told that I was not good enough. I thrive in the business of proving people wrong.”

Harrison made one tackle in each of the Jets’ first two preseason games, then made five over the last two. On the day final cuts were made, Harrison was not sure of his status until being called over by Ryan.

“I was nervous, just like any other rookie, probably more so because the Jets have a great defensive line,” said the man the Jets nicknamed Big Snacks. “I didn’t know if I had made it, and Rex called me in and asked if I was surprised I had made the real team, not just the practice team. That is a moment I will never forget.”

Harrison said Jets coaches told him they were impressed with his physical style and work ethic. He was on the inactive list for the first two Jets games.

Harrison said he is trying to use his journey to the NFL teach his young cousins some life lessons.

“I tell them to never say never,” he said. “You have to believe in what you can do.”

Harrison was a member of the final LC-B graduating class. He said being one of the last Cougars brings mixed emotions.

“It feels good being a Cougar, but it is kind of bittersweet,” he said. “I think there could have been a lot more to make it, both before me and after me if the school didn’t get closed.”

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