Mark Harris periodically meets with each one of the 240 young men and women serving as church missionaries under his supervision in Georgia.
During one such interview, Harris was surprised when a missionary pulled out his NFL player card and requested an autograph.
When he asked where the missionary found his football card, the young Latter-day Saint elder said he bought it online for $1.70.
The card was more valuable than Harris would have guessed, but what the missionary said next astonished him even more.
“Here’s the good news, president,” the missionary said. “The same collection was selling Jerry Rice’s card for $1.50.”
Harris smiled and signed the football card. It would not be the last.
“I have signed a few playing cards and will occasionally slip into ‘Uncle Rico mode’ and tell a football story to kind of make a point,” said the 51-year-old Harris, referencing a character who is known for telling football stories in the film, “Napoleon Dynamite.” “In a way they are my equivalent of object lessons and parables. There have been some good opportunities to share knowledge from those days.”
About two decades before he was called as a mission president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Harris played college football at Stanford University and was a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, suiting up alongside the likes of Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens.
Despite his college and four-year NFL career, when the world tunes in to watch the Kansas City Chiefs play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV this weekend, Harris’ attention will be focused elsewhere as he and his wife, Sarah, preside over the Georgia Atlanta North Mission, one of the church’s nearly 400 missions worldwide.
Almost didn’t play
After graduating from Brigham City’s Box Elder High School in 1988, the 165-pound Harris didn’t receive a lot of attention from recruits. He briefly attended Southern Utah University but didn’t play football before serving a full-time mission in Barcelona, Spain.
Following his mission, Harris almost didn’t play college football. His original plan to was to attend Brigham Young University as a regular student, but the football program at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) persuaded him to play on a half-tuition scholarship.
By then Harris was more physically mature. Standing at 6-foot-4 and weighing about 200 pounds, he was bigger, stronger and faster and could do things he couldn’t before. Despite missing the 1991 season with an injury, Harris had a breakout season in 1992 and was named a junior college All-American.
The receiver’s feats on the field caught the eye of then-Stanford assistant coach Tom Holmoe (now BYU’s athletic director) and head coach Bill Walsh, who offered Harris the chance to play for the Cardinal, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
From 1993 to 1995, Stanford records show Harris caught 107 passes for 1,746 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Cardinal. But former teammates remember him more for his impact off the field.
Along with being viewed as the team’s oldest player/“grandfather,” Harris was known for his work ethic and magnetic personality, said Josh Madsen, a friend and safety at Stanford in mid 1990s.
“If I had the opportunity, I would switch places with guys to match up with Mark,” Madsen said. “It was good competition. He always made you better and he always made it fun.”
Blaine Maxfield, a former Stanford offensive lineman who arrived as Harris was graduating (but still got to know him), said the tall receiver from Utah was a joy to be around.
“What I remember is he had such a great attitude and was a great teammate,” Maxfield said. “He was always trying to bring the best out of others and make them feel like they’re awesome. He was able to do that.”
4 preseason plays
After leaving Stanford, Harris signed as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys but was cut after a few weeks of training camp. He then signed with the 49ers late in the preseason.
Harris said the “most transformational event of his NFL career” came at the end of San Francisco’s final preseason game at Jacksonville.
As he hustled onto the field in the final minutes of the game, Harris was struck with the stark clarity that these plays could mark the end of his career. He was determined to make each one count.
“It was this great realization that this was going to be it,” he said. “So if I’m going out, I’m going out doing the very best that I possibly could on those four plays.”
With the clock ticking down, the 49ers unceremoniously ran the ball. On one play, Harris managed to knock a defensive back to the turf. On another play, he sprinted down field to block another defender “like he was my worst enemy,” he said. When the game was over, he walked off the field satisfied with his effort.
As expected, Harris was cut later that week. He was back in Utah and considering graduate school when he received a call from George Seifert, then San Francisco’s head coach. Seifert offered him a spot on the 49ers’ practice squad because he appreciated the receiver’s effort at the end of the game.
“It was fairly shocking. ... I didn’t even know coach Seifert knew who I was,” Harris said. “I have often reflected on that — what would have happened if I had mailed it in on those last four plays? It’s an important reminder to always give it our best, no matter what the circumstances, and let the Lord take care of the rest.”
Harris spent the 1996 season on the practice squad and was called up for one game before making the official team roster for the next three years.
He never played in a Super Bowl. He joined San Francisco one year after Steve Young led the 49ers to a win in Super Bowl XXIX and later came within one game of playing in the Super Bowl when San Francisco lost to Green Bay in the 1997 NFC championship. His career ended with only 13 catches for 186 yards, but Harris relished being part of the 49ers’ organization and playing with some of the best players in the game.
Mission to Georgia
About a month ago, a missionary returned home to California after serving under President Harris and his wife, Sister Sarah Harris, in the Georgia Atlanta North Mission. President Harris recommended the missionary reach out to Josh Madsen, his old Stanford teammate and fellow Latter-day Saint, which he did, and the two had lunch together. The missionary’s love for President and Sister Harris was evident, Madsen said.
“He was in tears as he said what a great influence President Harris had on his mission,” Madsen said. “What a tribute.”
Mark and Sarah Harris were called to preside over the Georgia Atlanta North Mission in 2020 and started last July. They are expected to serve for three years.
The Harris’ are the parents of five daughters: Isabelle, Abby, Lydia, Susie, and Natalie. Abby Harris is currently serving a mission in Independence, Missouri.
Madsen and Greg Clark, who played with Harris at Stanford and San Francisco, both agree that much of their friend’s life success should be attributed to his wife, Sarah.
Sarah Harris is the daughter of Joel and Diana Peterson. Her father Joel is the former chairman of JetBlue Airways, a consulting professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the former chairman of the board of overseers at the Hoover Institution, as well as an author.
“If Mark is phenomenal, Sarah is amazing. She needs props,” Clark said. “She’s the magic that makes Mark Harris who he is. They are a great team together.”
Despite challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, social and political unrest and more in the last year, the couple agrees that serving in Georgia has been an experience full of growth, joy and fulfillment. They feel blessed to serve with resolute members and missionaries. In the process, their faith has grown.
“We are all doing things we’ve never done before and to watch the hand of the Lord in our lives is incredible,” Sarah Harris said in an email. “We have been placed out of our comfort zone so often that it has become necessary to rely on the Lord more, which is an amazing experience.”
Sarah Harris believes the rigors of her husband’s football career taught him the value of work ethic, resilience, mental toughness and teamwork, which prepared him well for his current assignment.
“To this day, I think his favorite thing is to be united with others in a common goal,” she wrote.
The biggest lesson President Harris has learned in his first year of service is the need to rely on divine guidance.
“More often than not, when I’ve relied on my own way of thinking and personal gifts, I’ve frankly been less effective than when we rely on the enabling power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ,” he said. “So it’s been awesome to realize how much I need my Savior.”
Super Bowl Sunday
Do President and Sister Harris have plans to watch the Super Bowl?
No, they do not. President Harris will be conducting missionary interviews during the game, but said he will definitely check the score at some point and may even record it to watch later.
Is the president pulling for the Chiefs or the Buccaneers?
He’s officially remaining neutral, but did say he’s a fan of Kansas City coach Andy Reid. Several friends of his have played for coach Reid, and he has great admiration for the man.
“I’m a huge fan of coach Reid,” President Harris said. “He seems like a gifted and inspired coach. He has a real knack for appreciating and connecting with his players.”
On the other hand, like the rest of the world, President Harris wonders if Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady can “pull off what seemed impossible at the beginning of the season and win a Super Bowl with an entirely new cast of characters.”
“I would be pretty happy with either outcome,” President Harris said.
He’s also looking forward to Super Bowl Sunday for another reason.
“It’ll be interesting to see how productive our missionaries can be when a lot of people are focused on other things,” he said.