John Harris, an All-State running back from Bishop Diego High School, has tackled plenty of new challenges during his first two football seasons at New York’s Columbia University.
They included 15 of the ball carriers who came his way on the defensive side of the ball during his first collegiate start last year.
“It was weird getting used to defense … It took a few months,” said Harris, who started six games last season as a sophomore middle linebacker. “But I love it now.”
It’s a little trickier, however, to grasp the latest change: The postponement of his upcoming season with the Lions.
Columbia’s conference, the Ivy League, voted Wednesday to postpone all fall sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It set no date for the resumption of competition. Harris, a 6-foot-1 and 205-pound junior-to-be, expects to remain home in Carpinteria to take his fall courses online.
“As time went on, I was getting more and more mentally prepared for this happening, but it’s still hugely disappointing,” he said. “I guess if they’d attempted to play this fall semester, just the logistics of it would’ve been incredibly hard to manage.
“If one player gets sick halfway through the season, then you have to quarantine the whole team for a few weeks. It would’ve been a nightmare.”
He was a nightmare for opponents to corral during Bishop’s run to the 2017 CIF State Division 3AA championship. He rushed for a county-record 34 touchdowns and a school-record 2,263 yards to lead the Cardinals to a 15-1 record.
Harris’ 5,126 career rushing yards fell just 20 short of the county mark set by Napoleon Kaufman of Lompoc High.
Kaufman carried on to the University of Washington and the NFL’s Oakland Raiders. Columbia’s coaches, however, took the ball out of Harris’ hands before the start of his freshman season by switching him to defense.
“In all honesty, there were a lot of life changes for me that freshman year,” he said. “Getting used to living on my own was the weirdest one.
“The school and homework were all fine, the football was fine, but living on my own was the toughest thing.”
He has also dealt with several academic changes. He started out majoring in biomedical engineering before switching to industrial engineering. He’s now pursuing a degree in economics.
“The course load in premed is pretty insane for a football player,” Harris explained. “The academics in the Ivy League are hard, but you get as much out of it as you put into it.”
He played mostly on special teams as a freshman. He got his first start last fall after the Lions’ starting middle linebacker suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during the third game against Princeton.
Harris responded by making a team-high 15 tackles including eight solo stops the next week against Central Connecticut State.
He missed the next game with his own injury but was still able to finish third on the team with 53 tackles. He ranked 11th in the Ivy League with 5.9 tackles per game. He made 3.5 tackles for a loss of yardage and 1.5 quarterback sacks, recovered a fumble and forced two others.
“I did have to get used to the tempo of the college game,” Harris said. “The tempo in practice when you’re on the scout team is one thing, but there’s always a learning curve when you get into the actual games.”
He’s still learning about life in the big city.
“I’ve been down to Times Square, Chinatown, Little Italy — all the major spots — but I’m definitely not yet a master of the concrete jungle,” Harris said. “I do love it on Columbia’s campus.”
He was living on campus last March with a half-dozen of his teammates when the coronavirus began to spread throughout New York.
“We were at first talking about it in just a joking manner,” he said. “I remember really doubting that it would affect my staying at Columbia. And then, three or four days later, we were sent home.
“It all developed really quickly.”
Columbia’s players and coaches stay connected by computer with weekly Zoom meetings.
“A lot of the guys are bummed, going back to what they say is a boring lifestyle during all this time at home,” Harris said. “But I’m not too disappointed being back in Santa Barbara.”
He’s been working out at a Carpinteria gym and reconnecting with old Bishop classmates.
“I was texting coach Robles just yesterday,” he said, referring to Steve Robles, who coaches Bishop’s running backs. “I think about those days all the time. They’re impossible to beat.”
But Harris also can’t wait to tackle what’s next. He hears rumors of football season resuming next spring.
“We had a lot of young guys who got experience last year,” he said. “I started six games, and a freshman started at the other linebacker spot for the majority of the season. You could see how much potential this team has.
“We’ve got a lot of experience coming back.”
But the question remains: When do they get to come back?