Padecky: St. Vincent coach Herzog knew early that Najee Harris was special

The eyes are drawn, as if by some charismatic magnet. No encouragement is needed, not even a simple You-Gotta-Look. A stare begins. Quite often that will lead to a gawk, as the mouth drops. Seeing is supposed to be believing, but this is disbelieving. No one moves like this, so free, so effortless, so powerful. The person is human, but people swear they are seeing a different species.

Then again, not everyone has “IT,” and we’re not talking about a Stephen King character. And on that day in February, 2014, Trent Herzog saw “IT” for the first time. Herzog, the St. Vincent football coach, was and is a college scout, locating gems to provide intel to university football programs.

Herzog had heard about this kid from Antioch, Najee Harris, a freshman at the high school there. This Najee kid, Herzog was told, was someone special. Herzog took the praise with a grain of salt. Lot of people gush. More than once the gush turns out to a dry heave.

It was a 7-on-7 passing camp at Los Medanos College. Supposedly a nice display to see how well teenage athletes can walk and chew gum at the same time catching a football.

Faster than one can say “Run like a jail break,” Herzog began to stare. Harris was 6-feet, 195 pounds. He was 15. When he moved, Harris did so without strain or a jerk. Like the skill of a pickpocket, his motion was smooth, unhurried ... and then, poof, he was gone.

“I don’t know how to describe what ʽIT’ is,” Herzog said, “but Najee had ʽIT.’”

Before that day was over, Herzog found himself thinking the impossible, imagining Harris 25 years down the road, and somehow it didn’t seem ridiculous for him to think that this 15-year-old he was seeing ...

“Will be in (pro football’s) Hall of Fame,” Herzog thought, “if he stays healthy. He’s a 10-, 12-year running back in the NFL. I just saw the next Adrian Peterson.”

On Thursday, Harris was picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the NFL draft, the 24th player chosen. The first running back selected, Harris frankly was a success before the draft. And it wasn’t because he was a star at the NFL’s college football factory, Alabama.

Herzog wanted to know more about the kid, to see if his head was firmly attached to his body, full of something besides ego. Herzog wasn’t about to recommend a bubble brain to colleges.

Harris, his mom and four siblings had been homeless for a number of years. They had bounced from one city to another in Northern California. There was no fixed address. At one time, the Harris family lived in a car.

When drugs and gangs merge with living on the street, surviving is success. The simple concept of a good life is a moon shot to those finding dinner in a dumpster. Despair is your pillow, anger is your blanket, suspicion is your tent.

So Herzog started to ask questions, to dig deeper. He became close to Harris. Herzog found someone who could evade not only tacklers but crime as well. If the following might be surprising to read, it was the same for Herzog to hear.

“Najee always had a smile on his face,” Herzog said. “Every play he gave 110 percent. He would work out three, four times a day, just to keep himself out of trouble.”

Of course, the cynical analysis at this point would be to assume Herzog has to say such a thing abut his friend, especially when his friend was just picked in the first round of the NFL draft. But NFL teams have long abandoned taking a hunch on a risky pick. There’s too much at stake, and the historic flameout of Ryan Leaf always will hang as a bad smell on any NFL draft day.

The running back who has “IT” works with a huge asset and huge concern at war with each other.

Unlike any other position on the football field, the gifted running back offers more certainty to a scout because the skills are so easily displayed and recognized. The ability to evade, the ability to block, the ability to stick your nose between the tackles on a fourth-and-one, that’s as obvious as the name on the back of the football jersey. That’s the upside.

The downside?

“A running back is the most abused position in sports,” Herzog said. “If an offense is running 60 plays, the back is picking up the blitz, or running with the ball, or catching it.”

All with a running start, at full speed. No wonder of all those who handle the football, the running back has the shortest career lifespan in the NFL, 2.66 years according to a Wall Street Journal study. That’s why, more often than not, so few running backs are taken in the first round.

None of this trenchant analysis matters unless the running back has “IT,” the indefinable but immediately recognizable quality which the television camera loves. The naked eye — pardon the contradiction here — does not lie.

Harris has that same style of running Adrian Peterson has, the ability to slither through a defense. Everyone else is moving fast. Everyone is lunging, grabbing, falling. Everyone is twitchy, frenetic. Everyone is rushing like they have a plane to catch.

And then there’s Najee Harris, with his 4.41 speed in the 40, now 6-foot-2, 236 pounds, slithering, if it’s possible someone that size can slither.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys who went on to the NFL,” said Herzog, 10 years as a college scout, 28 years as a football coach. “Nothing comes close to Najee. His talent is God-given.”

Which explains why Herzog will never forget the first time he saw that gift. One never forgets “IT,” even though “IT” defies common description. Have to see it. Words will undervalue the impression, like saying a Navy SEAL is a good swimmer.

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