Behind the Returns: Q&A with Dwayne Harris

Posted Jan 20, 2016 sits down with Wide receiver/return specialist Dwayne Harris for a look at his journey to the NFL

Wide receiver/return specialist Dwayne Harris just completed his first season with the Giants, and his fifth in the NFL. Harris began his career with the Dallas Cowboys, for whom he had 33 receptions in four seasons. This season, he had 36 catches. Harris was also the Giants’ leading kickoff and punt returner. He earned a spot in their record book by becoming the first player in the franchise’s 91-year history to score touchdowns on a reception, a kickoff return, and a punt return in the same season. He is the first player since Seattle’s Nate Burleson to have four receiving touchdowns, plus scores on both a punt and kickoff return.

Q: Where did you grow up?
Harris: “In Decatur, Ga., about 20-25 minutes outside of Atlanta.”

Q: Do you have siblings?
Harris: “I have three brothers. I’m the second-youngest of my siblings. My oldest brother (Shawn), he’s a tow truck (driver). My other brother (Dwight works at a company, I think it’s a coat company. My youngest brother (Derrick) moved up here with me, and works at the airport.”

Q: Your dad (Dwight) was in and out of jail when you were young. Do you look back at your childhood as a difficult time, or a good time?
Harris: “I look at it as just a learning experience for me, like all the stuff I’ve been through. It helped mold me into the person I am today. Not having my dad around, and seeing my mom struggle, it made me grow up fast, for me and my brothers. We became men quick, just because we had to look out for mom, and look out for each other.”

Q: Is your mom (Robin) a strong woman?
Harris: “Definitely. She had to raise three boys by herself (Shawn lived with a grandmother). So that’s hard and just to raise us, I know all the trouble I used to get into as a kid.”

Q: Were sports always a big part of your life?
Harris: “Yes, sports were a big part of my life. I think my first time picking up a ball was when I was about three years old. From there sports became just part of my life. I played every sport. My mom and my dad played sports, so they always kept me active in anything that was going on - basketball, baseball, football. So I was always doing something.”

Q: Did you have a favorite or was it whatever sport was in season?
Harris: “Growing up, I loved basketball. I wanted to be a pro basketball player. Then I stopped growing, so I had to cancel that out. And then football became my second love, and then baseball. I used to love baseball, too. Then the older I got with baseball I think the more boring it got, and then the more I fell out of love with it.”

Q: So by process of elimination, football became your game?
Harris: “Yes. When I first started playing football, I played at center. Then when I got the hang of the game, I started moving to tight end, played a little fullback, running back, and then I ended up eventually being a quarterback. From there, my whole career I was a quarterback from when I was probably eight all the way through my freshman year in college.”

Q: Can I assume you liked to have the ball in your hands every play, and be the one in charge?
Harris: “It was definitely fun, because as a quarterback, you knew you were getting the ball no matter. To make that transition from quarterback to receiver, it wasn’t difficult because, I’m an athlete. It was just difficult as far as I had to learn all the terminology, and learn how to run every route, and look at it from another perspective.”

Q: Did you like school? Were you good in school?
Harris: “I was an average student. I didn’t really like school, just because my attention span was kind of short. So sitting in a classroom, I would start wondering off and doing other stuff, and not paying attention. So I used to get in trouble a lot.”

Q: You played quarterback at Tucker High School. Were you on good teams?
Harris: “I was. A lot of people don’t know, I started out at Lithonia (High School) my freshman and sophomore year, then I transferred to Tucker my junior year. There, I only lost like two games my whole time there.”

Q: Why did you transfer?
Harris: “My freshman year we had a good season. My sophomore year they fired the coach who I was real close to, so I ended up leaving. It was a better opportunity for me to get looked at by colleges. That was my main reason.”

Q: Do you have good memories of high school football?
Harris: “Great memories. Friday nights was the best time ever. When you look at movies like Friday Night Lights and you look at high school there, I felt like that’s how my high school was. It was in one of those little towns where they shut down everything just for football. Everybody went to the game.”

Q: Were you a running quarterback or did you throw a lot?
Harris: “I was a little bit of both, but I didn’t like to run. So I was more of a passer than a runner. This is as a duel threat quarterback, so that’s like a run-pass quarterback. But I never liked to run. I used to love throwing the ball, though.”

Q: What’s your number one memory of high school football?
Harris: “My little brother played on the same team with me when I was a senior, and he was a sophomore. He played wide receiver for me. I remember one game we played in the Georgia Dome. We were playing against Americus, and I threw him two or three touchdown passes. The next day, they wrote a little article about brother to brother. It was a nice little article. It was fun playing with him for that one year. We had a good year that year. It was good to play with my little brother.”

Q: When did you start to think you might play in college? When did recruiters start coming around?
Harris: “After my junior year, a couple colleges called and said they were looking at me. That’s when I figured I could actually go to college and play in college. A lot of people always tell you as a quarterback you’re small, you might not be able to make it. A lot of people wanted me to go to D-2 schools. I was like, ‘Nah.’ I didn’t want to do that.”

Q: Were you confident you could play Division One?
Harris: “I was definitely confident that I could play D-1, just because I’m a competitor, and I like to compete. I like to push myself to the highest limit you could push yourself. Playing D-1 was what I wanted to do. It just depended on which college I wanted to go to. You grow up, you always have this one college in mind that you want to go to. For me, it was Georgia, I wanted to go to Georgia. Sometimes you just got to make business decisions for yourself, and I said ‘Georgia might not be the best place for me.’ I loved being at home, but this is college, so you want to get away from home and experience different things and see different stuff. I ended up going out of state (to East Carolina). A lot of people don’t know, I was supposed to go to Southern Miss. I was going to commit to Southern Miss on signing day, but they had the whole (Hurricane) Katrina thing. So when I called down to the office nobody picked up. I called like six times. Nobody picked up, so I ended up signing with ECU.”

Q: Did you go to ECU as a quarterback?
Harris: “Went to ECU as a quarterback, because that was the only school that was going to let me play quarterback, them and Southern Miss. I had a couple offers from other couple schools but they wanted to move me to receiver and I didn’t want to be a receiver at the time. So I wanted to at least get a chance to play quarterback. ECU was the first school that was going to let me do that.”

Q: You redshirted for a year. What was that like?
Harris: “It was a nice experience. It was good just to get in there and learn the whole college atmosphere, how everything works, the speed of the game. I’m glad I took that first year as an experience year for me, because it helped me grow.”

Q: Were you still a quarterback after that redshirt year?
Harris: “I played quarterback for about six-seven games. And then I told the coach I wanted to move to receiver.”

Q: What changed your mind?
Harris: “We had a two-quarterback system. I was more the option quarterback, and we had a guy who was a passing quarterback. I was like, ‘This is fun, but if I want to go to the next level, there’s no way I can be an option quarterback in the NFL. I’m 5-10. There aren’t too many 5-10 quarterbacks. So I told myself I could move to receiver, and my odds would be a little bit better. I said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ So I moved to receiver to see what happened. My first job was just being a punt returner. The rest of the season all I did was catch punts.”

Q: Had you ever returned punts before?
Harris: “Never. My whole job was to go back there and just catch it, they didn’t really want me to return it.”

Q: Did you listen or did you return them?
Harris: “I ended up getting on the All-Freshman team as a punt returner, so it worked out pretty good.”

Q: And then your redshirt sophomore year you started at receiver?
Harris: “Started at receiver. Started playing a lot.”

Q: Did you like receiver right away?
Harris: “I loved it right away. Just the fact that I could play physical. It just gave me a chance to play physical, and go out and hit people. As a quarterback, you don’t really get to hit people much. As a quarterback, you take a lot of licks and you can’t hit people, so I had a lot of built up frustration from that. It was just fun. Halfway into my sophomore season I ended up breaking my foot, so I missed the last four games.”

Q: Your junior year you had 83 catches, and as a senior you had 101, and made all-conference each season. How much fun did you have in those two seasons?
Harris: “It was good just for the simple fact that during the offseason I worked so hard trying to perfect the craft (of) route running. I worked on that more than anything. I perfected that and learned the offense the best way I could, the way I could find ways to get open, working with the quarterback in the offseason. And when I got comfortable with it, it just came natural. My junior year we had Skip Holtz, and he left to go to South Florida. And then we had got Ruffin (McNeill), who brought in coach (Lincoln) Riley, who (was) going to try to build the offense around me, like how they did Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech. So for my senior year, you couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”

Q: You caught 100 passes and still wanted to do all the returns?
Harris: “I did all the returns and that was fun, too. I had a good time doing that. They tried to get the ball in my hands as much as possible. I enjoyed it, even though I was sore after a lot of games. But I enjoyed it. As a playmaker, you want the ball in your hands. I took the responsibility on my shoulders and ran with it.”

Q: When did you start to think you could play in the NFL?
Harris: “When we used to go against all the ACC schools and play against North Carolina and the N.C. State and Virginia Tech. Half of these teams have NFL prospect corners and defensive players. I used to have big games against those guys, you can only think, ‘If these guys are D-1 prospects going into the league, projected anywhere between the first and fourth round, my dream is right there. The only person stopping me is me.’”

Q: What was your reaction to getting selected on the sixth round of the 2011 draft by the Cowboys?
Harris: “It was a great feeling just to get drafted. Then to go to a team with so much history behind it, it was another dream. I went later than I thought I was going to go, but just having a chance to go into the NFL and prove what I could do was a dream come true. And my whole family was ecstatic about it. We celebrated, we had a good time, and it was fun.”

Q: As a rookie, you played in only seven games. Was it like another redshirt year?
Harris: “Definitely. I went from being on the roster, playing the first four games, and then getting cut, going to the practice squad, and then they brought me back for the last four. It was a roller coaster ride for me, just seeing how the business side of it is real early. A lot of guys don’t get to see that side of it. It gave me the perspective of, ‘When I get back on the team, I’m going to give them a reason not to cut me. I’m going to find ways for them not to have my name on the board as a player who we can replace.’”

Q: In your second year, you got your first Player of the Week award and really made your mark on special teams. Did you tell yourself, “I’m not getting a lot of chances at receiver, but I can contribute on special teams?”
Harris: “Definitely. A guy in Dallas who put this little bug in my ear about special teams was Jesse Holley. He was one of the premiere special team players in Dallas when he was there, and he used to tell me a lot of stories about Sam Hurd and how he made a career out of special teams. So I put that in my mind as, ‘If I can do everything on special teams, there’s no way they can get rid of me.’ The more you can do, the better you are in the league. I took special teams and tried to do everything the best I could, and show everybody that I could play in this league until I got my chance to play as a receiver.”

Q: Last year, you caught only seven passes. As time went on, did you get a little more frustrated because you weren’t getting chances as a receiver?
Harris: “Of course, you get a little frustrated because you’re not getting a chance to go out and do what you know you can do. Every year in preseason I go out and have a tremendous preseason and show people that I can play, and I still don’t get the chance to even play; it just gets you a spot on the roster. And it got frustrating to the point where after a couple years I wanted to get traded and I didn’t want to be there anymore. And then after a while I just embraced the role and who I was and what my part was on the team, and continued to just play. I felt like, at the end of the day, everything else will take care of itself.”

Q: When you became a free agent, did you want to do to a team that would give you a chance to play receiver as well as special teams?
Harris: “That was the main reason I came here. The New York Giants, I think they were the first team that called me. They said that they wanted me. My agent and I talked about it. The thing that we really wanted was to get a chance to play in the offense, and go out and catch the ball. Also, I was going to do the same things when I was in Dallas special teams-wise. But I just wanted to get that chance to play receiver. New York said they would give that chance to go out and play receiver. That’s why I came.”

Q: How much have you enjoyed being a multi-faceted player this season?
Harris: “I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve exceeded my own expectations this year. I didn’t think I was going to get as much playing time as I’ve gotten. I’ve made the best of it. I had a lot of production as a receiver, and helped this team get wins, and help this offense get better. I think the guys and the coaches, they all appreciate that and my hard work, and how I help this team win.”

Q: This franchise has been around for 91 years, and you’re the first player to have a punt return, kickoff return, and receiving touchdown in the same season. Does that mean something to you?
Harris: “That just means a lot of guys aren’t doing punt return. Punt return is a whole different animal by itself. A lot of people don’t want to do it, just for the simple fact it’s dangerous.”

Q: But you like it?
Harris: “I love it. I’ve taken so many different kind of hits that now they don’t even really bother me as much. Any little nick injury, I’ll fight through it. So you just have to have a guy back there who is fearless. You have to want to do it, that’s the main thing.”

Q: You have a well-earned reputation as a player who is very tough. In New Orleans, you were carted off a couple of times, and came back to score two touchdowns. Is that a point of pride for you?
Harris: “It is. When I was growing up, anytime you had a sprained ankle or hurt yourself, my grandma, all they did was put a little red mud on it and tell you to get back out there and keep going. From when I was a little kid, my mom and dad never babied us. If we weren’t dying, they would never take us to the doctor. Growing up, that’s how it was. When I got to college I took a lot of beating. Now my pain tolerance is just so high. Little stuff doesn’t really bother me. Both my legs have to be gone for me not to be out there. I take a lot of pride in that. I want to be out there through the good and the bad, when my team is winning, when my team is losing. Because I know that we need the whole team to win. And when we have missing pieces, it’s hard to win.”

Q: How do you like living in New Jersey?
Harris: “I love living in New Jersey. I was kind of skeptical about it at first, because I hear the stories about how northerners and New Yorkers are rude. But then when I got here, I’m realized, ‘The people are nice.’ I just feel like people in New York always have somewhere to go, they’re always in a rush to go somewhere. You just have to get used to it. I don’t feel like the people here are rude, but if you’re not from here, it’s different. I love it here, I love the people here, I love the atmosphere, the city. It’s fun. There’s so much stuff to do, you can never get bored here.”

Q: Derrick came up to live with you?
Harris: “He was working in the airport in Atlanta, and he transferred his job up here. He’s always been around. When he was in Georgia he played at Valdosta (State University) for two years, then he transferred to East Carolina to be around me, go to school up there. When I moved back to the east coast, he wanted to come stay up here and get a job and work at the airport. I was like, ‘Alright cool.’ It’s good to have family around, because when I was in Dallas, I never really had that. My family was in Georgia, so I never really got to see them. To have family around is always good.”

Q: The wide receivers have dinner together on Thursday. What is that like?
Harris: “We just have a fun time. We go out, have a good time, eat a good meal. We talk about everything - football, life, whatever may be going on in somebody’s life. We sit around, we have a good time. We just talk. It’s good to know the guys who you work with. You’re close-knit with the guys you work with, I think it builds that bond to a stronger team.”

Q: What was behind your recent decision to become a vegetarian?
Harris: “Strange story. When I came up here to sign my contract we went out to a steakhouse in New York and I ended up getting sick. I flew back to Dallas afterward, and I was in the hospital for three days, and nobody could find out what was wrong with me. After I got out of the hospital I was like, ‘Man I’m done with eating meat.’”

Q: And how do you feel?
Harris: “I feel great, I have so much more energy. I told myself after the season I might start back eating chicken, but I’ll stay away from the beef. A lot of people don’t understand why I do it, because I play sports.”

Q: One of the most recognizable things about you is your hair. When did you start growing your hair long?
Harris: “I’ve always had hair, but I started growing my locks my sophomore year in college. The only reason I started doing it was because I didn’t like getting haircuts. I felt I was spending too much money on haircuts, because my hair grows so fast. I was spending $20 a week on a haircut. I was like, ‘I’m just going to grow my hair out.’ Now I get my hair done once a month.”

Q: Do your parents get to see you play?
Harris: “My parents come to a couple games every year. My family, they love watching me play. They make road trips out of the games. When I was in East Carolina, my family used to rent vans and come up and watch me play. When I was in Dallas, they used to take road trips to come watch me play.

“It’s fun, because my family loves sports. My whole family, we grew up around sports. When I was a little kid, we had football games and the whole family would be there all day cooking, hanging out, and all my little cousins, they’re all playing football. We all were in the same park, so we just sit there all day and watch football. My family is big on sports. And now that I’m in the NFL they get somebody to root for, somebody to come see, and I think that’s fun for them. It’s definitely fun for me.”