Hanging Tough

amar Harris could have given up a long time ago.

He could have stopped showing up to school. He could have thrown aside his shoulder pads and forgotten he was ever a football player. He could have walked away.

Despite numerous opportunities to cast aside his aspirations, Harris continued on, continued going after what he knew he could achieve.

Perseverance has gradually paid off.

From a 1991 season in which he sat out for weight problems to moving one notch up the depth chart each year since then, Harris is now the Wildcats' starting tight end, a key position in the Arizona's short-route passing system.

"Up until this year, I think I've had a horrible career here," said Harris, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior. "I knew I could do the job but then I came out and didn't do it just because other people didn't expect me to. At times, the better I do, the madder I get about the past."

Harris would show up to practice frustrated that he wasn't the starter. He got tired of watching someone else get to run routes with the first team. But eventually, his attitude changed.

The attitude adjustment began last year when he accepted his role as the backup to Rod Lewis, now a tight end for the Houston Oilers.

"That was my biggest year as far as sucking it up and being a man about it," Harris said. "I told myself that this guy is better than me and just started learning from him."

After taking in about a third of the tight end duties last season, it looked like everything was in place for him to take over the starting role. But then something else happened, something scary that had nothing to do with being a football player.

Harris almost didn't live to see the 1994 season. He was struck with a bullet during a drive-by shooting last spring at the Green Dolphin, a since-closed down bar on Park Avenue. It seemed like a coincidence that two football players, Harris and wide receiver Cary Taylor, were both shot. Several months later, that incident is sometimes in his thoughts while the bullet remains lodged below his collarbone.

"It made me realize your life can go so quick," he said. "You can be here and then be gone. I was lying on my hospital bed thinking how unsatisfied I was with my life and how quickly it could have been over. From then on, I decided I'm going to take control of my life."

That has meant extending his options. He recently began a student-teacher position at Tucson High School, his alma mater, which gives him a possible career after graduation in December.

"I think it will be good getting back to the kids just some of the things I've learned growing up," Harris said. "I thought it was so weird that a potential dropout there is now a potential employee. It's just such a turnaround."

He enjoys devoting his time to help youngsters and likes to see the kids gather near the tunnel when the Wildcats leave the field at Arizona Stadium.

"I get such a thrill out of young kids looking up to us," he said. "It's better than anything better than football or anything I'm doing right now. That's the reward for me."

The trek through hard times has become easier with the help of relatives. Lamar is the uncle of linebacker Sean Harris and defensive back Kurt King.

As Lamar sat out games, he would offer encouragement and suggestions to Sean, even if everyone else was praising Sean's performance.

"When I was on the field and he was on the sideline watching, I felt bad because I wanted him out there too," Sean said. "He's gotten back on the field and shown people he can play and he's not a waste of a scholarship."

As the UA's' second-leading receiver (nine catches, 83 yards) in a more tight end-oriented offense this year, Lamar has also caught the accolades of his coaches.

"He's not only a good blocker but he's developed as a receiver," tight ends coach Jim Young said. "He's had several key catches to keep drives going.

"Flexibility is the key to his position. On a sweep, he has to provide an important block. On passing plays, he runs a short route between linebackers as a secondary receiver."

Said Harris: "I'll do whatever's going to give us the edge. If I catch no passes for the rest of the season and I end up being a blocker, that's fine with me. I want to do well in whatever they tell me to do."

On Saturday against Oregon State, he grabbed a short pass and ran it into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown, the first of his UA career.

"I've made a complete turnaround with my life and I'm proud of myself for that," he said, "but there's a lot more to be done."

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