Fitness Phenom Rodney Harris Tackles Life Head On

July 12, 2010
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Rodney Harris returns an interception against Nebraska.

Rodney Harris returns an interception against Nebraska.

The following is Rodney’s story, and the best part of the story is, it’s not over yet. It’s still developing, and you, the reader, might even play a part.

It’s the story about the presence of God, and letting Him take over when your back is against the wall and your neck is broken. It’s about never letting anybody put the fire out in your quest to make a difference in this world. It’s a story about making Plan B work, when God says “No” to Plan A.

Rodney Harris was a kid from Compton who grew up in the mean streets of Los Angeles, near Jefferson High School. His loving mother had the foresight and courage to move the family out of the hood to Fontana, hoping to build a better, safer life for her children.

“A lot of things were happening there that a young man didn’t need to be involved in,” said Rodney, now 27. “Life is so uncertain when you live in those circumstances. Mom moved us out here to a more stable and less violent area.”

Although Rodney played Pop Warner as a kid, he hadn’t played a down of high school football until he was a junior at Fontana High School. Starting at cornerback all 11 games for Coach Bob Stangel, he was a team leader and a league standout.

The success and the transition, however, might have been a little too fast and easy. The big man on campus was soon to be a father. What should have been a great senior season was wiped out. He was another teenage statistic, another high school drop-out —  not because he didn’t give a damn, but because he felt he had to provide for his family.

“I just dropped out and started working because I knew I had a son on the way,” Rodney said.

So while his friends were suiting up to play under the Friday night lights, he was working stacking shoes inside a Sketchers big box warehouse in Fontana.

“That whole time I was upset at myself for making these bad decisions because I really wanted to be an athlete and play football,” Rodney said. Instead he was driving a fork lift in a warehouse to nowhere.

To his credit, he also enrolled himself in continuation school to try to complete his high school credits. Then one day, he got pulled out of class to take a phone call from Vinnie Fazio, a coach who had been an assistant at FoHi and was now coaching at San Bernardino Valley JC. “I thought I was in trouble for something,” Rodney recalled.

After beating around the bush, Fazio asked Rodney, “What’s your football career look like?”

“It doesn’t exist,” Rodney answered, explaining that he was focused on work because little Rodney, Jr. was on the way.

Fazio explained that Rodney didn’t need a high school diploma and that he could enroll in junior college right away to obtain his associate arts degree. He could play football, and if he excelled on the gridiron as he had that one year at Fontana, he could earn a scholarship to a major college.

Rodney Harris conducts a Fitness Results boot camp class at the Upland Arena.

Rodney Harris conducts a Fitness Results boot camp class at the Upland Arena.

Rodney was confused, but the lure of playing at the next level and getting another chance to prove himself was irresistible.

“I put my trust in him and rest of my life in his hands,” Rodney said. “So about a week later, I dropped out of continuation school and told my mom and my girlfriend Ebony that I was going to play football.”

Because he needed more flexible hours to take classes and start working out again, he quit Sketchers and began working the night shift at MacDonald’s from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Little Rodney was born in October 2002. Football would have to wait another season.

Although funds were in short supply, he allowed himself one extravagance. He bought a weight bench. He knew that if he was ever to make it back on the football field or get out of Fontana, he had to transform himself physically.

“All I’m focused on is being the best athlete ever made,” Rodney said. “That’s the mode I put myself in. I went into the dungeon and didn’t come out for six months. Nobody saw me. I was just lifting weights and doing these crazy workout routines. I was studying the body and getting tips on how to turn my body into a machine.”

His machine-like purpose helped him endure the pain and the isolation of his personal quest. From October, he packed on 20 pounds of muscle and an indeterminate amount of willpower. Until then, poor decisions had held him back. Now nothing was in his way.

“It was just a fire,” Rodney said. “I thanked God for my son. That brought a different attitude in me. Everybody could see the difference. I just wanted to provide for my family.”

By the fall of 2003, Rodney was ready for his coming-out party. From his free safety position, he led the team with 90 tackles. He had four interceptions, forced nine fumbles and blocked two punts, earning all-conference honors as a freshman, despite being out of football for three years.

“I just killed the JC level,” Rodney recalled. “God is so good, when he takes over your life, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Rodney immediately set his sights on his sophomore season at San Bernardino Valley College. Then he got a call from a school official, Colleen Calderon, who told him that he’d be stupid to play another season. She said he could send out his freshman tape right then and attract scholarship offers from major colleges, where he could play another three years, plus get a red-shirt year.

But Rodney was just feeling comfortable at Valley. He really wanted be at one school long enough to leave his mark. He liked his surroundings. He was established and he was a star.

So he didn’t listen to Ms. Calderon. The track coach wanted him to run track, and he did. But then he injured his groin pretty bad and was finished for the season. Now the decision was made for him. That spring, he applied to Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Utah and Kansas, but only Kansas said he could come in and play free safety. “So I chose Kansas,” he said.

It was a heady, delirious time for the Harris family. The kid from Compton, the high school drop-out, was heading to Kansas on a full-ride. He completed his AA units and was on his way to Kansas.

“Everybody was excited,” Rodney said. “It was just shocking to a lot of people, really. I had just dug deep inside myself. When they say anything is possible, I think my life is a prime example of that.”

While it wasn’t easy to leave Ebony, his mom and little Rodney behind in Fontana, he was on a mission. “She wanted to come, but I wouldn’t allow it,” he said. Rodney was 100 percent focused. There would no distractions, no matter how painful the separation. The family would have to understand, and if they didn’t, they would come to understand.

Again, to his credit, Rodney made an easy transition to major college life and his new home in Lawrence, Kansas. He was a Jayhawk.

“I just did it,” he said. “I just had tunnel vision. I continued to believe in God and myself. I’m not going to try to come up with some great quote. But I just felt something, and it felt stronger than me.”

In Lawrence, Rodney quickly became known as an incredibly hard worker. His nickname was “No Days Off.” Head coach Mark Mangino customarily gave the team Wednesdays off, but Rodney would have none of it.

“I would go in and work out, as I did every other day,” Rodney said. His behavior was contagious. Pretty soon, half the team was following his lead.

He had been in the dungeon before, so busting his butt in college was nothing new. “Hard work is always appreciated and it’s never underappreciated,” he said. “That was my niche. I kind of felt like I was in Michael Jordan or Kobe mode. You become better when you’re by yourself grinding and sacrificing and not hanging out with friends. Instead of wanting to have fun, I wanted to run sprints and lift weights and get better. I had that in me.”

During the season, he intercepted Vince Young, the quarterback of Texas. Against Oklahoma, he ran down current Viking great Adrian Peterson. Playing in stadiums with 80,000 screaming fans was an adrenaline rush. “I got to match up against so many great players; I was playing at that level,” Rodney said. In just his first year of Division I football, he was named all-conference second team.  He was also named the team’s Iron Man award, symbolizing the team’s hardest worker. He in turn gave the award to Mrs. Calderon, his old college advisor whom he affectionately called Mrs. C.

With all the acclaim, he felt closer than ever to providing a better situation for his family. In the spring of 2005, however, his brother called with bad news. His mother had suffered a stroke.

“The next thing I know, I’m smokin’ to California,” he said. Weeks turned into months, and soon there would be no junior year playing football for Kansas. Instead, he took classes back at San Bernardino Valley College. Eventually, his mother’s condition stabilized enough that Rodney could focus on football again. Coach Mangino, who told him to take all the time he needed, had held his scholarship for him.

Another season was lost, but Rodney’s name was now on the short list of NFL prospects.

Back in Lawrence for spring practice of his senior year, Rodney didn’t appear to have missed a beat. He was hungrier than ever.

“My name was on the map,” he said. “I had missed the previous season, so I was hyped up. I was killing the work outs. It was the first day of pads. We’re doing the Oklahoma drill, and I go in and I hit the heck out of this guy. I destroy him. I put him on his back. After that hit, I just felt a weird feeling down my spine.”

After practice, the team’s indestructible Iron Man told trainers about the pain in his neck. They scheduled an appointment with the doctor the next day. Rodney went in and didn’t come out for two weeks. He had snapped his vertebrae.

“Luckily, it snapped away from my spinal cord,” Rodney said. “Otherwise, I would have been dead or paralyzed.”

The doctor, the same surgeon who had operated on NFL stars like Troy Aikman, got his mom on the phone and then Rodney told her what happened. “I was in tears,” he admitted. “That was it. That was the end of my football career.”

After the surgery, he woke up with staples and pins in his neck, a halo stabilizing his head. Players and coaches streamed by his bedside. For Rodney handling physical pain was never a problem. He even overcame life-threatening blood clots in his lungs; coping with the emotional pain of never suiting up again, however, was almost too much to bear.

“I went from being a prime athlete to doing nothing,” Rodney said. Amazingly, he was released from the hospital a couple weeks later. He was the guy around campus with the neck brace. Life went on, so too the football season, which should have been Rodney’s tour de force.

For a while he helped mentor his replacement, but he wanted out of Kansas. “I’m angry, I’m snapping at people, it was just crazy,” he said of that horrible period of adjustment. He was offered counseling, but he said he could get through this emotional turmoil on his own. He was the iron man, after all.

“I told them I could handle it, I did good.”

Good was a relative term. Back in California, he now had two children to care for. Instead of being the center of attention on the gridiron, he was facing third and long in his own Fontana apartment.

“I was just depressed, man, not really knowing what to do,” Rodney said. “It was a hard time for me. I’m selling shoes, selling retail. I became a travel agent at one point. I was doing all kinds of stuff that wasn’t me. I was just trying to find life after football.”

Academics, never his central focus, now became important. He finished his history degree via correspondence classes. Although proud of his bachelor’s degree, he had no illusions about teaching or writing history. His classroom was the football field. That’s where he always felt most free and needed.

Sometime in 2007 – the months get fuzzy – Rodney took Rodney, Jr., now 6-years-old, to Ralph M. Lewis Sports Complex in Fontana to toss the football around and work out. He didn’t think much of it until little Rodney asked his dad two days later, if they could return to the park to work out again. Rodney drew up a work-out routine for his son, and they stuck to the routine three days a week. Other parents started to notice the father and son team and asked if Rodney could work with their sons.

“I thought this is something I could do,” Rodney said. “He formalized the training and started a physical fitness program for kids, giving it the name the FACTORY (Future Athletes Connected Through One Reality Youth Culture). Rodney, despite his condition, was still an athlete, and through his young children and his own recent trials, he felt more connected to the youth culture than ever before.

Rodney’s FACTORY has been working overtime ever since he founded it. His love for children, sport and fitness has been pouring out of him. “By giving back, I feel that everything I’ve gone through has not been a total waste,” he said.

“Instead of being focused on getting one person to be a professional athlete, I now have the opportunity to help hundreds, whether their goal is the NFL, NBA or college ball,” he said. “To take one out, and to put hundreds in, I would gladly go through the same neck injury again.”

Today, his work-outs for kids last about 75 to 90 minutes. Parents continue to sign up their children up ($10 a session, three times a week for groups of 10 or more) because they’ve seen the results, both physical and mental.

“Give me three months with a kid,” Rodney said. “If he comes in at a three, he will leave at least a six on a scale of one to 10,” Rodney said.

Foremost among all the qualities young athletes need, said Rodney, is consistency.

“These kids who are excelling aren’t just waking up, eating a bowl of Wheaties and becoming good, they are going out and developing their skills on a consistent basis,” he said.

When he was striving to make the NFL, Rodney didn’t need much in the way of equipment. He bought a bench and got down to work. Today, he has exercise bands and other training aides to challenge kids, but most important, he brings himself and his commitment to make the kids better.

“I just need 50 yards worth of grass, and some sweat and some want-to,” Rodney said.

Every kid that Rodney helps improve is Rodney’s ongoing therapy. He’s back in the game, being that leader and motivator that wasn’t always there for him growing up. When he sees fire in his young athletes’ eyes, he gets that same fire, that same resolve to make a difference.

Plan A for Rodney was to get to the NFL. Now, he’s clearly at work on Plan B. A freak accident sidelined his goal of playing on Sunday, but now he’s playing every day. Mr. “No Days Off” is back, making a bigger impact than if he had never suffered his life-altering injury.

And kids aren’t the only ones benefiting from Rodney’s experience and expertise. He’s an outstanding personal trainer for Fitness Results in Upland, Calif., helping clients from 18 to 88 lead healthier, fitter lives through a combination of customized cardio, strength-training and wellness programs. He is a wiser, more patient iron man, who loves what he does.

“Trust me, I mention physical fitness at least 100 times a day,” he said. “I’ll never stop reaching out to those who need help.”

To speak with Rodney about starting a personal training fitness regimen, call the Fitness Results studio in Upland at (909) 608-1780. To talk about upcoming FACTORY workouts for your son or daughter, call (909) 251-8102. Either way, make the call if health and fitness are important to you and your children.

One Response to “Fitness Phenom Rodney Harris Tackles Life Head On”


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