KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — From the moment that Demetrius Harris arrived on campus, UW-Milwaukee basketball coach Rob Jeter had this feeling in the pit of his stomach that Harris was playing the wrong sport.
Sure, he’d been a decent high school player, even though he’d only played a couple of seasons of organized basketball. Harris fared well enough at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Mo., to warrant a scholarship offer from Jeter to play Division I basketball for the Panthers.
But when Jeter watched Harris, with his soft hands and prototypical size and uncanny ability to get up and down the court, he couldn’t help but think maybe he’d be better off playing football.
“We always looked at him like a football player trying to play basketball,” Jeter said. “We even talked to him about that when we recruited him. We knew he was a pretty talented football player.”
Well, Harris is getting his chance to showcase that talent.
After nearly signing with an agent and playing hoops overseas, Harris has spent the past month with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he’s trying to follow in the footsteps of ex-basketball standouts such as Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham by becoming a tight end in the NFL.
“It’s been a blessing,” Harris said before the start of this week’s minicamp. “My coaches at UW-Milwaukee helped me get this opportunity and now I’m just trying to run with it.”
Already, Harris has made an impression on Chiefs coach Andy Reid.
He was asked recently who had caught his eye among undrafted free agents, and without prompting, the first name that Reid mentioned was Harris. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound tight end has rapidly moved up the depth chart, quickly becoming one of the Chiefs quarterbacks’ favorite targets.
“He’s just gotten better and better every day,” Reid said. “You see him out here making plays. I’m proud of him for the way he’s worked. That’s not an easy transition.”
It’s a transition that Jeter knew his former forward could make, though.
His uncle, Tony Jeter, played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and his father, Bob Jeter, was an All-Pro defensive back for the Green Bay Packers. Football happens to be in his blood.
So in the quintessential right-place, right-time scenario, the Jeter family happened to know a former Packers linebacker named John Dorsey who had been hired just this spring as the Chiefs’ general manager. Dorsey liked what he saw of Harris on film and arranged a private workout for him, and the numbers that he put up in the 40-yard dash and vertical jump raised eyebrows.
Word got out and Harris ended up working out for several teams around the league. He ended up signing with the Chiefs in part because Dorsey was the first to give him a shot.
“The kid only worked out for seven days, but he runs a 4.53 40, his vertical was off the charts, and it was like, ‘Wow, the kid really wants it,'” Jeter said. “We were in contact with him daily. For most people, the opportunity never comes, so we knew this was an opportunity of a lifetime for him.”
It’s not that football is entirely foreign to him.
He actually played more football than basketball in high school, and wanted to play football for Arkansas State. When he didn’t qualify academically, he headed to junior college, and still intended to play football once he finished. But somewhere along the way, his passion for basketball took over, and Harris was willing to shelve his football potential for a chance to play hoops.
He averaged about 10 points and five rebounds as a senior, but showed the kind of toughness it takes to play football when he came down with the flu before his final game. Harris rushed to the hospital that morning, received an IV that gave him just enough strength to get on the court, and then played 26 minutes in a loss to Green Bay in the conference tournament.
“The best way to describe him is he’s just oozing with potential to be something really good,” Jeter said. “I think he has all the tools to play football. Now it’s just a matter of focusing.”
Things haven’t gone perfectly, of course.
Harris has had to relearn just about everything that comes with football, right down to basic blocking and route-running techniques, all while digesting an NFL playbook. And early on, he admitted that he questioned whether he would ever be able to handle it.
“My confidence level was down and I was frustrated because I wasn’t doing well, and I was messing up the plays, but the coaches keep telling me to just let everything go,” Harris said, “and if I mess something up, do it at full speed. So that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Make no mistake: Harris has a long way to go to make the team.
The Chiefs signed free agent Anthony Fasano and drafted Travis Kelce in the third round this offseason, and they still have Tony Moeaki under contract. But there’s always a place available on the practice squad, which would give Harris time to keep developing his newfound craft.
“This level is real tough,” Harris said, “but I came in here thinking like, ‘I’m not ready,’ so that’s what is slowing me down. I came in thinking, ‘I’m not ready, so I’m just going to lay back and sit.’ But now, I think if I just let everything go and just play, I can be really good.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.