Underdogs

Andrew Hancock/The Players' Tribune
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Kay Jewelers

Here are a few things I want my daughters to know:

  1. That Daddy loves them — always, no matter what, no exceptions.
  2. How the world really is — how to rise above all the hate and be a positive force for change in the world.
  3. How a man should treat a woman — so when they get older and start dating, they recognize when somebody’s doing them wrong. (That’s a bar I’m trying to set real high.)

Those are three of the big ones. There are obviously a lot more. It’s endless. That’s one of the things that excites me most about being a father. The impact I can have on their little lives is literally infinite

But one of the things that I’m most focused on teaching them seems like one of the simplest.

Hard work.

But it’s really not so simple. 

See, my little girls — Aria, Avianna, Aliyah and Amaris — are all six years old and under. And they already have a head start on their daddy. They’re growing up with advantages I didn’t have as a kid — advantages most kids don’t have. 

I don’t want them to take that for granted. I want them to have the same kind of drive that made me successful, so they can each be great at everything they choose to do in their lives.

Courtesy of Chris Harris Jr.

Growing up, I didn’t have to look far for motivation.

All I had to do was look in the mirror.

I’ve always been an underdog. My parents got divorced when I was five. I ended up living with my mom. I would stay at my dad’s house on weekends, so I still got to see him. But most of the time, it was just me, my mom and my little sister.

My mom worked her tail off to provide for us. She worked for the post office during the day and reffed basketball games at night. She left the house early and got home late, which meant I was forced to grow up early and be the man of the house. I had to make sure me and my sister got to school on time in the mornings, and, some nights, I had to make dinner for both of us. My dad helped out when he could, and we had some other family around, too. So, thankfully, we had some support. But life definitely wasn’t easy. For any of us. 

But we made it work … because we worked.

The work ethic I learned from my mom is one of the reasons I was able to earn a scholarship to the University of Kansas. And that gave me hope that I could one day make it to the NFL and change my family’s fortunes. Change our whole future.

But I was still an underdog. Even though I was one of the best defensive backs in Kansas history, the 2011 NFL draft came and went, and my phone didn’t ring. Out of 32 teams, not one thought I was worth using a draft pick on.

At the time, the league was in the middle of a lockout. So I wasn’t even allowed to talk to teams. I was just sitting at home, in limbo, with no idea what the future had in store for me.

That was when I started dating Leah.

Andrew Hancock/The Players' Tribune

I had known Leah a little bit in college. Her best friend had dated my roommate, Darrell Stuckey, who also ended up playing in the NFL. I was part of a young adults ministry, and one night they all came to a Bible study together. That’s when I first noticed her.

But after that, I didn’t see her very often. Whenever she’d come by our apartment with her friend to see Darrell, I was usually out, so we’d miss each other. It was just a timing thing. And I didn’t run into her on campus much, either.

She was like a hidden jewel.

Then, in June 2011 — a few months after we’d graduated and while I was still in lockout limbo — it just randomly hit me: I wonder what Leah’s doing now? 

So I looked her up on Facebook, saw that she wasn’t dating anybody, and shot her a DM. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something not-very-smooth, like, “Hey! Haven’t talked to you in a while. Just seeing how you’re doing, wondering if we can reconnect.”

And from there, we started hanging out pretty often.

I told her about the lockout and how I was really just waiting for an opportunity. I know she believed in me, but I don’t know if she understood what a lockout was, or how the NFL worked. So I’m sure somewhere in the back of her mind she was like, This dude swears he’s goin’ to the league, but I don’t see no teams calling him…. 

I wouldn’t blame her.

I’m sure somewhere in the back of her mind she was like, "This dude swears he’s goin’ to the league, but I don’t see no teams calling him…."

Chris Harris Jr.

Then, in July, the lockout ended. The very next day, I got an invitation to Broncos training camp. I had to fly out to Denver immediately. 

It was actually kind of bittersweet because, yeah, I was getting the opportunity I had wanted so badly … but I had to leave Leah behind in Kansas.

It was definitely a rough stretch. I was working hard to make the team in Denver, and when it got stressful — which was a lot — I would just call Leah. She was somebody I could talk to. Someone I could lean on. Over time, she became the core of my support.

Everything happened really quickly after that. I made the team and signed a contract. That September, Leah came out to Denver for a game, and that’s when we kind of locked in together. 

After the season was over, we got engaged. 

By that June — a year after I’d slid into her DMs — we were married.

Andrew Hancock/The Players' Tribune

Leah’s an underdog, too. Her dad was in the Navy and her parents met while he was stationed in the Philippines. So being from a military family, she had a very disciplined upbringing. She wanted to go to school for business, but she didn’t get a lot of scholarships or financial support from her family. So she paid her own way. She worked at different retail stores, a hibachi restaurant — she had like 10 different jobs when she was in college. 

That’s probably why I never saw her around campus. She was always grinding — studying, working, hustling, living that underdog life.

And she made it work.

Even today, she still has that underdog mindset. She still works hard, just like she did in college. She runs her own clothing business. Takes care of our four girls when I’m working and traveling. And she does a lot for my foundation — which is really our foundation, something we started together.

She was always grinding — studying, working, hustling, living that underdog life.

Chris Harris Jr.

I’ve said this before and I think it’ll always be true: The stigma of being undrafted, or being an underdog, stays with you. Even after you’ve made the Pro Bowl, won a Super Bowl — it doesn’t matter what you do. It’s always there, and people are sitting back, waiting for you to fail so they can say, “See! We knew he wasn’t for real.”

So when Leah and I started my foundation, we wanted to focus on something we both knew. What we both were ourselves.

Underdogs.

We work with kids — and adults — who are being overlooked or held back in some way from achieving their goals. There are a lot of young people with stories like mine who don’t make it through the difficult times or can’t escape their circumstances. We want to inspire those young men and women to rise above all that, but also give them the resources to achieve their goals and be successful. 

Because every underdog deserves a shot.

Leah is the one who makes the whole thing go. She coordinates everything. She’s always coming up with new ideas, trying to find creative ways that we can help people, setting up for events — she does it all. 

And if I can’t make it to an event or an outreach, she’ll go in my place.

For me, that’s pretty special. Because when she’s out there, she’s not just pushing my story. She’s telling her story, too. And the opportunity for her to do that and give more meaning and purpose to both of our lives has been an incredible blessing. 

Courtesy of Chris Harris Jr.

I’m proud of a lot of the things I have accomplished. But I’m most proud of the fact that — with Leah’s help — I have changed my family’s fortunes. Our girls won’t be underdogs like Leah and me. They’ll have all the advantages. We don’t want them to take that for granted. So we try to lead by example. We want to show our girls what hard work looks like, and that it’s in their DNA.

And we want them to learn that nothing is given. Everything is earned. You want a snack? Your room better be clean. You want Daddy’s iPad? Your chores better be done. We make them work for everything.

That’s how Leah and I got here.

We’ve been together for almost 10 years now, and it’s amazing to look at our daughters and see what we’ve built together. At the end of the day, we’re just a couple of underdogs. But when you put us together? We’re unstoppable. We really are a perfect match, greater than the sum of our parts. And the best part is that … we’re just getting started. Ten years in, we continue to grow together every day.

I’m just happy she chose to grow with me.