Just before the 2019 NFL season began, it hit Deonte Harris what he had just accomplished.
Harris, a Middle River, Md., native and Archbishop Curley graduate, had just made the New Orleans Saints’ 53-man roster as a returner and receiver. A product of Division II Assumption College (Mass.), the 5-foot-6, 170-pound Harris had beaten the odds after going undrafted. And not only had he made an NFL roster, he was joining a Super Bowl contender.
It all hit him the morning after he received the news that he had made the team.
“The next morning, I woke up at like 5 o’clock in the morning and I drove to the practice facility,” Harris said on Glenn Clark Radio Jan. 15. “I sat in the parking lot for probably like 20 minutes just sitting there like, ‘This is a dream come true. This is what I always wanted to do since I started playing football when I was 4 or 5 years old.’ That was the moment I realized.”
But Harris’ feel-good story hardly stopped there. He returned 36 punts for 338 yards and a touchdown. He returned 24 kicks for 644 yards and a long of 51 yards. After the regular season, he was named the first-team All-Pro punt returner by the Associated Press, and on Jan. 26 in Orlando, he’ll be rubbing shoulders with the best players in football at the Pro Bowl.
Harris, who played at Assumption from 2015-2018, owns a litany of school records, including career touchdowns (45), all-purpose yards (6,173), punt return touchdowns (eight) and kick return touchdowns (six). He also has the career return touchdown record in all divisions (14).
With Harris’ help, the Greyhounds went 37-11 from 2015-2018. Assumption won the Northeast-10 Conference twice and appeared in the NCAA Division II tournament three times during that period. The 2015 season marked the Greyhounds’ first-ever foray into the tournament.
So how did Harris end up at a Division II school? It helped that Assumption had two of Harris’ former Curley teammates — defensive back Kyle Barnes and offensive lineman James Logan — already on the team.
“I was kind of already plugged in,” Harris said. “As far as just going to a smaller school and making it to the next level, I always try to tell people, ‘It’s not about where you go and play, it’s about what you do with that opportunity.’ Everybody’s path is different, so you’ve just got to make the most out of every opportunity that you get. God helped throughout this journey. I was just blessed to make it to the next level.”
Harris admits he believed the chatter when he was a freshman and sophomore at Assumption that he was too small to play professionally. That mindset changed, though, during his junior season with the Greyhounds, when he had eight return touchdowns, a single-season school record.
“People started telling me, ‘You can make a career out of this on special teams.’ As I got older, I started to realize that everybody’s path is different,” Harris said. “You’ve just got to make the most out of every opportunity that you get. As I got to my junior year, I realized I could take what I do on special teams to the next level. But early on in my college career, I doubted myself.”
Now, the question for Harris isn’t whether his return skills will translate to the NFL — he passed that test with flying colors. The question is whether his speed and shiftiness can make him a productive slot receiver with New Orleans. He caught six passes for 24 yards with the Saints during the regular season, and in the Saints’ wild-card game against the Minnesota Vikings, he caught a 50-yard pass from Taysom Hill that led to a touchdown.
“I try not to really worry about it as much,” Harris said. “If it comes, it comes. But I just try to help my teammates the best way possible. If that means more snaps on offense, then that’s what I’ll do and obviously I’ll accept my role. If it continues to grow, I’ll just continue to try to help my teammates any way possible.”
For more from Harris, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Michael C. Hebert/New Orleans Saints