When Josh Harris walked off the field in Knoxville on Sept. 3, after the Montana Grizzlies lost to Tennessee 42-16, he was ecstatic.
Although you probably couldn’t tell.
Even with an imposing 6-foot-6, 251-pound frame, the University of Montana junior and Kalispell native doesn’t express a lot of emotion – “Josh isn’t one for words,” his coach said – but the opener in Knoxville was sentimental nonetheless. For the defensive end, the season opener against the Volunteers marked his return to the gridiron after a season-ending knee injury during an August 2010 scrimmage.
Coming off an impressive first season as a redshirt freshman in which he played in all 15 games, Harris was expected to start at one of UM’s two defensive end positions last year. But that all changed on Aug. 21.
Halfway through the second scrimmage of the season, while rushing the passer, Harris felt a screeching pain in his left leg and fell to the ground.
“I didn’t know what happened at first, but it felt like someone hit me in the back of the leg with a baseball bat,” he said.
As Harris lay there, yelling in pain and grabbing at his knee, his father Greg looked on from the sidelines.
“It looked like someone shot him in the ankle,” Greg said. “I knew something serious happened … because he doesn’t just go down.”
As medical personnel ran onto the field, Josh knew his season had just ended; two days later he had surgery for a torn Achilles tendon.
For the first time in his life since he could remember, autumn would pass without football. It was devastating for a football player whose life, and family, revolves around the game. Greg played for the Grizzlies in the early 1970s before going into the NFL for two seasons, playing for the New York Jets and the San Francisco 49ers before being sidelined with injury. Josh’s older brother Tiger played for Flathead High School before graduating in 2004 and his younger brothers Caleb and Andrew both play for Glacier High School.
“I’m pretty tough on them in sports, but if they didn’t have the ability for greatness, I wouldn’t push them,” Greg said. “But they have the genes; they have the talent.”
That talent has always been apparent in Josh, who while playing for Flathead High School was all-state during his senior year, had 47 tackles and was the team’s defensive MVP.
“Josh has a real natural ability and he can do anything he puts his mind to,” Greg said.
Recovering from his torn Achilles, Josh said it was strange to spend last season watching from the stands. Following the surgery, he used crunches for seven weeks and said it was frustrating to have all the preseason work “stripped away.”
“I don’t know how to explain it … It’s just tough to lose something you love so much,” he said.
For almost nine months, Josh was unable to run or train and at times it seemed like his recovery had stalled – his injury getting worse before better. At one point, he even questioned if he would play again.
Josh relied on his friends and family for encouragement – especially his father who knew what it was like to lose the game he loved. But even if Josh questioned whether he would return to the field, Greg never did.
“It was devastating and the first thing I did was try and pump him up,” said Greg.
It wasn’t until this past July that Josh felt confident running and performing drills. He said it has taken some time to get his “football legs” back – an analysis shared by the Grizzlies defensive line coach Legi Suiaunoa.
Suiaunoa said he is impressed with where the defensive end is at early in the season. But there is still room for improvement.
“Fundamentally and technique-wise he had a ways to go to get back what he lost,” Suiaunoa said. “I’m pleased where he is right now, but I’ll be disappointed if he stays there.”
Suiaunoa said Josh was impressive in Knoxville and during early season practices. If he continues to progress, there is a chance he will earn a starting position before the season is out.
“Our starting defenders can’t be too comfortable, because if one of these guys have a bad week, they know Josh is right behind them,” Suiaunoa said.
Josh has high hopes for this upcoming season and the Sept. 3 game in Knoxville gave him a chance to see where he’s at in his recovery and how he’s improved.
He liked what he saw, regardless of the final score.
“There was a lot of excitement just to be back out there,” Josh said. “I was excited to be part of the team again.”
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