By CHRIS HOBBS
CATAWBA – He left before the season began to chase his dream, but tonight would’ve been one that’s right up Justin Harper’s alley because he loves football and especially a big football game.
Void of a sudden phone call with a great opportunity to resume coaching college football and focus on reaching his ultimate goal, Harper would have experienced – for the first time — lining up against his alma mater in the stadium he starred in.
He left a position as associate head coach at Hickory — which visits Bandys for a 7:30 p.m. non-league game tonight in the schools’ fifth all-time meeting and their first since 2008 — to coach wide receivers at Central State University in Ohio.
Harper’s football career took him from Bandys, where he played two varsity seasons (2001, 2002), to eventually Virginia Tech and, after being drafted in the seventh round by the Baltimore Ravens, to the NFL.
He spent the better part of three years on the Ravens’ practice squad, got into the lineup in two NFL games, and spent some time in the Canadian Football League before leaving the game and coming home.
Harper spent some time coaching at Lenoir-Rhyne University, then guiding wide receivers at Virginia State. From January of 2016 to May of 2016, he was the interim head coach at Virginia State.
When he left for Ohio, he told me what he has often told me – in his heart he wants someday to be a head football coach in Catawba County.
“I have to be honest with myself,” Harper, now 32, said in our last conversation. “I came home in 2013. It hasn’t been that long and I feel when my times come… I’ll be ready,” he said of taking the coaching spot in Ohio.
I can remember first meeting ‘Harp’ – that’s what I still call him – when he was a sophomore in high school, back when he (and everyone else) thought his best potential for success was in basketball.
He played hoops for Aron Gabriel, now assistant superintendent of the Newton-Conover City Schools, and at first they were like oil and water.
Gabe was focused on trying to get his kids to play the way he did – with strong fundamentals, with passion, with purpose – and Harp was very skilled and liked to make sure he displayed that in every game.
The two of them knocked heads and Harp, being young, was often stubborn.
But Gabriel refused to give up on Harp, finally getting the light bulb to go off, and I’m not sure I have seen a student-athlete (at least not many of them) mature so much over their last two years of high school.
Football helped bring that understanding to Harp, and the success he had was impressive. As a junior, he had a modest 25 catches for 361 yards and four touchdowns. The next year, when Bandys reached a state title game, he and quarterback Zach Elliott pretty much hooked up when they wanted.
Elliott hit Harper with 60 passes for 1,112 yards and 18 TDs, numbers that had college football coaches courting Harper.
Based on sheer size (6-foot-4, about 205 pounds), Harp had all the physical skills to develop into a dynamic wide receiver at the next level.
One of my memories of Harp that will never fade was at a basketball game when he came to a scorer’s table to say hello. He had enrolled at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, where he was playing football, and was home for a visit.
He sat down beside me while the teams were warming up and said, ‘Hobbs, you’ve been around a long time… do I have what it takes to play at the next level?’
I think he meant college, as he didn’t yet know he’d end up at Virginia Tech. But I tried to stress to him that he needed to think even higher.
“Harp,” I remember saying, “you have the height, the athleticism, the hands and all the tools you need… My only question is will you hit those books, be disciplined and understand what is within your grasp and make it happen?’
‘Son, I have seen Natrone Means and a lot of the kids I’ve covered reach the NFL. You can play in the NFL.”
On the NFL Draft Day in 2008, Harp invited me to visit with him and his family and watch the draft so I could write a story.
Part of that day was sitting at the kitchen table with Harper and his beloved granny – the late Oddie Harper, for whom Harper named his Oddie Cares Foundation – and having great appreciation for her relationship with her grandson.
As we sat there, just after the Ravens had called and Harper’s name and picture appeared on TV, I think it all began to sink in for Harp.
As he talked about how excited he was, how much he was ready to go to Baltimore and make his mark and how focused he was going to be and how he was going to be on his best behavior and seize the opportunity, Oddie reminded him of the context he needed to keep everything in.
I can still hear her voice and see that smile as she told Harp to remember that he would never be too big (or too old) for her to turn him over her knee for a spanking.