It should have been the first road game of their final season at Georgia – a key battle between the Bulldogs and South Carolina to kick off SEC play.
Instead, Kenneth Harris and Brannan Southerland sat on a couch in their living room, watching the game on television – Southerland’s foot in a protective boot, Harris’ ankle taped and swollen.
“It’s not the way you script out a senior year,” Southerland said.
In five years at Georgia, little has gone according to script for Harris, the 6-foot-3 wide receiver from North Carolina.
Both players eventually made it back onto the field, and both chipped in with a few productive games. But, while Southerland already had a well-appointed resume of success as one of the nation’s top fullbacks, Harris’ senior season was one more lost opportunity in a career spent in the background.
As a redshirt freshman in 2005, Harris showed a glimpse of his potential, including a 40-yard touchdown reception in his first college game.
While he remained productive in the seasons that followed, Harris would wait another 1,147 days before catching another touchdown — the second and perhaps the final one of his career.
In the time between, he has battled injuries, fought his way up the depth chart, made a handful of spectacular plays and become a calming voice of stability in the locker room. What he hasn’t done is become a star, something Harris might consider a disappointment if that ever had been his goal.
“My numbers don’t really show I was All-American or All-SEC, but as a player I grew and as a person I grew,” said Harris, who has 11 catches for 116 yards this season. “I feel like I grew from a boy to a man here, and I don’t know if you’re ever really ready for the real world, but I know I’m better prepared than I was before.”
If it’s real-world preparation that was the primary goal of Harris’ career at Georgia, then there may not have been a more productive player in the locker room. If adversity is the best teacher, then Harris has learned more than his share of lessons.
For three years, Harris worked to find his niche at Georgia — something more than a third or fourth or fifth receiver on the depth chart. When called upon, he made plays, but just as often he was nursing an injury or blocking downfield on a play designed to put the ball in the hands of another player.
His senior season, however, was supposed to be different. Harris entered 2008 as Georgia’s starting wide receiver, opposite fellow senior Mohamed Massaquoi. This would be the year he would show the Bulldogs fans how good a player he could be.
As it turned out, however, he didn’t make it through the first game before the injury bug bit him again in the form of an ankle sprain. He would miss the next three games, during which time a true freshman with better speed and more natural ability would endear himself to the Georgia fans the way Harris had hoped he would have done.
By the time Harris returned to the lineup against Alabama, A.J. Green was a star, and Harris was once again the backup.
The journey, however, has provided Harris with an almost Zen-like appreciation for the moment – something he has managed to do with flawless consistency throughout his career.
“As a human you take a step back and just wonder, if I hadn’t gotten hurt, what might it have been,” Harris said. “If I hadn’t gotten hurt in that game, maybe I could have caught a couple more passes or had a couple more touchdowns. But there’s a reason why I got hurt, and I don’t like to second-guess a lot of things. If you start doing that, it’s really going to mess you up for the future. You can’t worry about what happened in the past, you just have to move on.”
Down the road
That mind-set has been the catalyst for the success Harris has enjoyed at Georgia. The injuries, the bad games, the missed opportunities – they’re in the past.
With each practice and each game, Harris is concerned with when his next chance will present itself.
“He doesn’t play a lot of what-if games,” Massaquoi said. “He goes out there and does his work, and he’s ready for whatever they throw at him.”
After Georgia’s season ends with the Capital One Bowl against Michigan State on Jan. 1, Harris doesn’t plan to spend a lot of time reflecting on his career with the Bulldogs either. Once again, He has his sights set on bigger things down the road.
While he knows he won’t be viewed as a future star by NFL scouts, he does think he could be a diamond in the rough, so he is hoping to be selected in the 2009 draft or catch on with a team as a free agent.
“I feel like I’ve gone five years and had a pretty decent career,” Harris said. “It won’t hurt to give it a try, and if it doesn’t work out, I graduate Dec. 19, so I’ll have my degree and be ready to go.”
That’s the lesson his five years at Georgia have taught him: To lament the loss of one chance might force you to miss your next one.
The only obligation he has to the past, Harris said, is to learn from it, and that’s one opportunity he hasn’t missed.
“With an end always comes a new beginning,” Harris said. “I’m looking forward to the game on Jan. 1, but I’m also looking forward to moving on to other things.”