No. 1 Backup

By Sean Ostruszka

“Hey coach, have I been Wally Pipp’d?”

Standing in Huskie Stadium before a practice last year, NIU’s A.J. Harris had to know if his hunch was right.

Running backs coach DeAndre Smith stood in front of his player. This was someone he’d coached for three years, but he didn’t know what to say.

Finally he just told him, “Yeah.”

That was it. With one word Harris had lost his job as the starting running back. He took the news without showing anything and headed out to practice.

While his body went through the drills like nothing was wrong, his head was swimming with questions, hurt and anger.

How could he lose his starting job so quickly? He had missed only one game.

Practice let out and Harris left the stadium with his head still in a haze. It wasn’t until he got home that he finally had time to sit down with his thoughts.

In 1925, a New York Yankee named Wally Pipp asked for a day off because of a headache. A starter for 10 years, Pipp came back a few days later only to find a rookie named Lou Gehrig had replaced him.

This is where Harris found himself: replaced. Sitting in his apartment, Harris decided to embrace his new role. He’s never had a problem since.

“I knew I’d just have to keep working,” Harris said. “I’d seen how Garrett [Wolfe] had performed and I decided to try and be the best leader I could be.”

The next day at practice he didn’t whine or make a scene. Harris went about his business and handled his new role with class and dignity, NIU coach Joe Novak said.

No. 24 went through the rest of the season supporting Wolfe and making the best of the chances he got. Harris finished the season with 822 yards, capped off by a 120-yard output in the Silicon Valley Football Classic.

And while his accomplishments may have been overlooked, his attitude wasn’t.

This spring, Harris’ teammates cast their ballots for who they wanted as captains. Harris’ name topped the list.

“I was really excited when I was named,” Harris said. “It’s one thing I really wanted and it’s a great feeling to be named by your teammates.”

But despite being a senior and a co-captain, three games into this season,

Harris’ role remains the same. And contrary to what many think, he’s fine with that.

Most guys don’t root for the guy who took their job, but Harris does every day. He’s become one of Wolfe’s biggest fans and the two always are helping each other excel.

“There is no person who is happier for me,” Wolfe said. “He’s been nothing but supportive and we have such a mutual respect for each other.”

No matter what happens with the rest of this season -his last at NIU – Harris just wants to look back say he did everything he possibly could.

When Wolfe looks back at the past two seasons he’ll remember the player who pushed him.

“No disrespect to the other players,” Wolfe said, “but there is no other player I’d rather have behind me. I’ve been blessed to play with a guy like A.J.”