There are rare occasions when Mark Harris, the kid from Utah, allows himself to surrender to awe for a moment and fully appreciate this dream come true he's living with the San Francisco 49ers.
He was trotting off the field during a game a couple of weeks ago when he realized that the first person to reach out to him and offer advice was a teammate - named Jerry Rice. After catching a touchdown pass in a preseason game, he looked up in the stands at 55,000 people and suddenly realized they were cheering for him AND the San Francisco 49ers, the team he cheered for as a kid. And then there was the moment after his first regular-season catch, when he thought about keeping the ball because here he was, "a little kid from Brigham City," catching a pass.Harris, the guy who almost gave up football while serving a religious mission, a guy who sat on the bench for Southern Utah, is playing football for the San Francisco 49ers and is just one win away from the Super Bowl. Just don't pinch him. This could be a dream.
"Sometimes, if I think about it like this, I'm just blown away by it all," says Harris. "It's unbelievable. My mother comes to the games and cries."
Greg Clark, his teammate and alter ego, another Utah boy, knows how Harris feels. "This is great," he said Friday at the Niners' training facility. "This is Utah's team. Everyone in Utah follows the 49ers, mostly because of Steve (Young, the quarterback). This is the team to play for."
It seems only fitting that the team that is unofficially known as Utah's team - and admit it, you knew that, didn't you? - actually has a pair of Utah natives on the field. On Sunday, Harris and Clark will play in the biggest game of their young careers when the 49ers meet the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Cham-pion-ship.
It also seems fitting that Clark and Harris should share this moment since they share so many other things. Both were born in April. Both were raised in Utah and attended Utah high schools. Both stand about 6-foot-4. Both are receivers. Both served Mormon missions and took circuitous (read: long) routes to get to the NFL.
Both went to Ricks College. Both were recruited to Stanford. Both were psychology majors. Both were late bloomers who were skinny high school players and didn't put on weight until years later, which is why both were ignored by college recruiters. Both have fathers who were college athletes. Both back up perennial all-star players. Both of them play for the team they cheered for as kids.
"There are a lot of similarities," says Harris. "We laugh about it."
Both also have benefited from uncanny timing. On Sunday, both players likely will get increased playing time because of an injury to All-Pro tight end Brent Jones, the 13-year veteran. Clark, who has been splitting time with Jones this season, could find himself in the starting lineup of the NFC championship game. Harris, who began the season as the team's fifth receiver, could be the third receiver on Sunday, depending on the status of often-injured Iheanyl Uwaezuoke.
Neither Harris nor Clark ever had visions of grandeur in their youth, never dreamed that they would go so far. That came only much later, almost as an after-thought.
Harris, whose father Darwin played basketball at Utah State and whose mother was a fine golfer and tennis player, was too skinny (at 165 pounds) to be taken seriously by recruiters. He wound up attending Southern Utah for a quarter but didn't play a down. Little did he know that it would be four years before he played in a football game again. Harris left school and served a two-year Mormon mission in Barcelona, Spain.
When he returned, he decided he was finished with football and planned to attend BYU. "I was ready to move on," he says, but then Ricks College offered to pay part of his tuition if he walked on. He accepted the offer but only because he had friends at the school and not because he was serious about football. At Ricks, he sat out another season with an injury, and then a curious thing happened when he started playing football again.
"Suddenly I realized that I had abilities that I didn't have before," he says. "Maturity caught up with my body. I was bigger, stronger and faster."
Harris, now approaching 200 pounds, earned junior college All-American honors and won a scholarship to play for guru Bill Walsh at Stanford. He caught 35 passes his first year with the Cardinal and during the next two seasons was a standout receiver for the team. Eight years after graduating from high school, he completed his senior season and moved on to the NFL.
Undrafted, Harris was signed as a free agent by the Dallas Cowboys in 1996 and then cut during training camp. Three days later he received a call from a college coach saying the 49ers were trying to find him. They signed him as a free agent. He spent last season on the practice squad. Last fall he cinched a spot on the roster by catching seven passes for 82 yards and a touchdown in an exhibition game. During the regular season he caught five passes.
Clark took a similar rout to the 49ers. He played virtually every position on the field for Viewmont High, but the scouts thought he was too skinny (190 pounds) to be a tight end and too slow to be a wide receiver. Instead of playing football, Clark served a Mormon mission in Illinois. Over the next few years he gained 10 pounds annually, topping out at 260 pounds, and yet he lost none of his speed. Clark, whose father Jay Dee played football for BYU and Weber State, played for Ricks College and earned All-America honors, giving him his pick of schools - USC, UCLA, Ohio State, Texas, Arizona State. Walsh helped sign Clark, then resigned, and Stanford turned to the running game. A pass catcher at Ricks, Clark became a blocker. The Niners chose him in the third round of the draft.
Clark's ferocious blocking has been widely credited for the 49ers vastly improved running game this year, although it irks him that it has tagged him as a blocking specialist who can't catch.
"I can catch the ball, and the Niners know it," he says.
Coaches gush about his blocking, but they also say he'll be as good as any receiving tight end they've had except Jones. Jones will retire after this season. Clark, the heir apparent, has played one-third to half of the plays this season despite a cracked rib, but most of the passes have been thrown to Jones. Clark caught 12 passes.
The 49ers have been a good fit for Clark, at least in part because of the presence of Harris. They first met while at Stanford. Harris was his official host on his recruiting visit, and they played one year together for the Cardinal. Since then, they have developed a fast friendship. They room together at training camp, hang out together on road trips and double date.
"It's nice to have him around, because we have so much in common," says Harris. "There is a lot of diversity on this team. The Utah guys all like to hang out together."
The other "Utah guys" would be Steve Young and tackle Tim Hanshaw, both BYU grads and LDS players. The night before a game, the four of them gather in a hotel room and hold a church service, literally breaking bread together. One of them is assigned to give a sermon, another the prayer. Then they sit around and visit or talk about the game.
"During a week like this it's hard not to get excited," says Harris.
Especially for the little kid from Brigham City.