Stanford wide receiver Mark Harris is an eighth-year senior, which puts him - almost literally - in a class by himself.
He's eight years older than some of his Cardinal teammates, and when he began his college football career, Barry Sanders and Deion Sanders were still playing college football. He's married, he's 25 years old, his teammates call him "Pops" or the "Old Man." As Justin Armour's successor to a starting wide-receiver spot, Harris is three years older than the current NFL player he replaced.There are several Division I players older than Harris, including backup Cal cornerback Rich Richardson, who is 26. But when you add in the fact that Harris started at a Division II college, where he wasn't good enough to play as a freshman, and then experienced a four-year period where he didn't play a single football game, you've got a rather unusual route to Stanford's starting lineup. Oh yeah, he spent two years in Spain on a religious mission too.
"When I'm walking off the field funny after a tough practice, some of the guys say I should find an old-folks home," said Harris.
Generally, Harris experiences no generation gap with his teammates, even though some were in fifth grade when he was graduating from Box Elder High School in Utah in 1988. But unlike the Cardinal's freshman recruits, Harris was ignored by big-time colleges. Air Force and Utah were the only Division I schools to offer him scholarships, and Utah later reneged on its offer.
The problem? At 165 pounds, Harris was not what Pac-10 teams had in mind. So he attended Southern Utah State, a Division II school, and sat out as a redshirt freshman. The next year he began his two-year Mormon mission in Barcelona. Only one day a week was allowed for physical activities, the rest of the time spent trying to spread the Mormon word.
"It was a lot of people slamming doors in your face and spitting at you," Harris said.
Adversity was not a stranger, but football was. When he returned home, he planned to attend Brigham Young but not participate in sports. NCAA rules provide a student five years to complete four years of athletic eligibility, but a religious mission halts that five-year clock for the duration of that mission, so he still had four years left. It didn't seem to matter.
"I didn't feel football was that important," he said.
But a coach from Ricks (Junior) College in Idaho called, saying he could get $400 of his tuition paid if he played ball at Ricks. Still, he didn't get back on the field, a finger injury sidelining him for all of the 1991 season, an injury that allowed him to petition for another year of eligibility. Harris made his name in 1992, his first year of NCAA competition, becoming a JC All-American. Later, while Stanford assistant Tom Holmoe was at Ricks looking for a tight end, Harris' name came up as another player to check out.
No longer a 165-pound pipsqueak, Harris grew to nearly 200 pounds, a wide receiver in Armour mold, and so it was off to Stanford. He made 35 catches as a Stanford sophomore and 15 more last season as Armour's backup.
Now he's a married man (although his wife is living in Tahoe - "We're used to long-distance relationships, so it's no problem," he said) and is a key part of Stanford's offense.
His journey offers more fuel to the argument about whether the Mormon mission situation - and the NCAA rule that allows that not to count against eligibility - is an advantage or disadvantage for athletes. Some completely lose interest in sports, and never fulfill their potential.
"But it my case, it was a definite advantage, because I was a late bloomer," said Harris, who is, officially, a sixth-year senior.