Humble beginnings motivate DT Damon Harrison

Posted Mar 11, 2016

Undrafted in 2012, Damon Harrison worked hard to become a sought-after free agent in 2016

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Damon “Snacks” Harrison has unpleasant memories of being a player no one wanted, which made the Giants’ pursuit of him this week that much sweeter.

The Giants wasted no time when the free agency signing period opened to secure Harrison, a 350-pound defensive tackle who is considered one of the NFL’s best run defenders. He will team with Johnathan Hankins to give the Giants a rugged interior up front.

But Harrison wasn’t always so popular. After his lone season playing football at Lake Charles (La.) Boston Academy, the only coach who showed any interest in offering him a scholarship was Steven Miller at Northwest Mississippi Community College. “I got cut, pretty much because I wasn’t ready.” Harrison returned to Lake Charles to work as a night stocker at Wal-Mart.

But when Miller moved to William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa, he brought Harrison with him.

“It was a culture shock, out of this world,” Harrison said. “I had never seen snow before in my life, I had never been colder than 40 degrees in my life. When I got there it was snowing and I didn’t know I was just supposed to let the snow fall. I was literally trying to wipe it off my jacket.

“I learned to enjoy it, and it calms you down. It’s a Quaker school, a small town. I learned to be more reserved and just kind of sit back and just let things flow. I enjoyed my time there, and I wouldn’t be the man I am today without going through that. As well as the player, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.”

Harrison started all 44 games he played at William Penn, and was credited with 224 tackles, six sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries and was selected an NAIA All-America as a senior.

But just as it was when he left high school, interest for his services at the next level was negligible.

“I thought I had a chance to get drafted,” he said. “I had a couple people telling me I was going to get drafted, a couple of GM’s that I won’t name. Just from being the small town kid, I wasn’t used to all of that. I saw on the internet I was projected to go as high as the third round on one draft board, and one blog that I read said I was as low as the seventh round. I just knew I was going to get drafted at some point.”

But he wasn’t. Two hundred fifty-three players were selected in the 2012 NFL Draft. Damon Harrison was not one of them.
“Yes sir, it was frustrating,” he said. “I turned my cell phone off so my agent couldn’t get through to me. I was with my college coach, or two of my college coaches, and my good friends. It was supposed to be this whole draft party at Buffalo Wild Wings and then it never happened. The ride back home was a long one.”

After returning to Oskaloosa, Harrison turned his phone back on and quickly learned a few teams were interested in signing him. He chose to go to the Jets, because then coach Rex Ryan had a history of playing undrafted players. But Harrison knew he was longshot to make the final roster.

“When I came into the league I was pretty much viewed as a camp body, somebody who they brought in to see if I could play,” he said. “I made it through the rookie mini-camp, and the expectations were low. Every day I feared walking into the locker room or walking into the building and having a guy ask me for my playbook. I want to say for the better part of a year that fear sat with me and it forced me to work hard each and every day, on the field as well as off the field, to where now I’m more of an established player.”

It didn’t happen overnight. Harrison played in just five games as a rookie. But he started all 16 games in each of the last three seasons, and now has 222 career tackles (126 solo), 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. In 2015, he finished fourth on the Jets with 72 tackles (39 solo), and had a half-sack and a forced fumble. Along the way, Ryan stuck him with the nickname Snacks, because “he said every time he saw me, I was eating something.”

But Harrison still has that chip on his shoulder that so many undrafted players carry throughout their careers. Signing a lucrative contract with the Giants didn’t change that.

“A lot of people think this is my crowning moment, signing a big contract and going from where I was to where I am now,” he said. “I, by far, don’t think I’ve made it. I’m not patting myself on the back, I’m not happy with where I am. I want to be great. I want to be considered one of the best undrafted free agents that will play the game, one of the best defensive linemen ever. I don’t relax. I’m mad at every team that didn’t draft me. I’m mad the Giants didn’t draft me back then, or the Jets, or anybody. That’s something that I have with me every single day and it’s not a joke.

“Trust me, I don’t think I’ve made it at all. In comparison to where I was then to where I am now, it’s night and day. But I still have a lot to prove.”