Oregon Track Stars Go Long for the Seahawks

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August 31, 2011

The University of Oregon has never been a school to shy away from experimentation on the football field over the years. Keeping in mind Oregon’s ability to be innovative and think outside the box, it shouldn’t be surprising that over the past three decades the Ducks have had repeated success in taking sought-after track athletes and converting them into quality wide receivers that have excelled in the NFL.

Starting with JJ Birden in the 80s, leading into Ronnie Harris and Patrick Johnson in the 90s, and Samie Parker and Jordan Kent into 2000 and beyond, the NFL has reaped the benefits of Oregon’s extensive efforts to take pure track athletes and convert them into wide receivers.

But what is it about performing in track & field that compensates for lack of football experience and gives student-athletes a direct path to a professional football career? For these track stars-turned-football players, all except Jordan Kent had actually played football in high school, but that didn’t necessarily mean that colleges were pursuing them initially for the gridiron.

Harris200_02_0831At Valley Christian High School in San Jose, CA, Ronnie Harris was an accomplished multi-sport athlete despite not looking the part at first glance.

“I didn’t look like a football player,” said Harris. “I never played football until I was 15, the coach talked me into playing. I was the kicker for the football team and goalie for the soccer team, played basketball and ran track. Soccer was my main sport, I was MVP of the varsity soccer team.”

Harris was blessed with incredible foot speed and a long stride, deceptively able to cover a lot of ground for someone of his stature. One day Harris was approached by the football coach and asked what his 40-time was, when Harris responded 4.5, the coach flipped out and demanded he play football.

“He taught me the game, he’d put me outside and say, ‘Now just run as fast as you can down the field and we’ll throw you the ball.”

Harris was recruited heavily by Washington, but they canceled his recruiting trip to the UW campus at the last minute because they were closely recruiting another player at the same position, so instead Harris chose to visit Oregon and ended up signing a letter of intent to play football with the Ducks.

“I chose Oregon because of Eugene and the family atmosphere, a college town that rallies around its school, everything it offered in 1988 was really cool to me. I came to Oregon to play football, track was just a bonus. I ran against a lot of athletes in high school in California. I had a good track career, but I didn’t think it would be the main deal for me. I came into Oregon hurt, on crutches because of a hyper-extended knee, and then right before spring ball freshman year I pulled my hamstring, but still ran a 4.3. I hadn’t really talked to anyone about track as I was there with a football scholarship, and I was barely getting by in that as the 6th or 7th wide receiver.”

A phone call from Oregon decathlete Mohammed Oliver would change Harris’ planned football-only career at Oregon. Some athletes on the Oregon track team had been injured, and Oliver asked Harris to run in a meet vs. Nebraska. Harris agreed.

“It was so much fun, I decided that I wanted to do both football and track,” said Harris.

Harris played football sporadically in his first two seasons at Oregon, often injured and still learning how to play wide receiver, and always working with the coaches to learn the finer details of football. Harris received a blessing from head coach Rich Brooks to join the track team full time. Harris spent many hours with coach Radcliffe fielding punts in Autzen Stadium and running routes, while improving his running technique with track coach George Walcott.

“I remember in high school I had an opposing coach tell me that I was the fastest guy he had ever seen that can’t run,” said Harris. “I was fast in spite of myself. Over time once I started running track I was able to improve my body mechanics, become a more proficient runner, learn how to improve my momentum. It really helped in football immensely. The first couple years in football were tough on me because I was hurt and not playing much, and I took it so seriously. The dynamics of football vs. track are so different though, it’s a team effort but you’re also out there alone as an individual. I tried to adjust the pressure on myself, and running track taught me to relax and I was able to apply that to football. It made me a better football player.”

Harris350_0831Harris’ training efforts in both sports would finally pay off in his junior year at Oregon, with veteran wide receivers and sprinters graduating, suddenly opening up opportunities for Harris to shine in both sports.

“Early on I was playing hurt a lot and it would set me back, I’d get moved down the depth chart,” Harris recalls. “You only get so many opportunities, and it comes down to what happens in a particular given opportunity, do you maximize on your chance?”

Harris did just that, becoming a go-to wide receiver and runner for the track team on the 4×100 team. Harris, not looking the part of a typical wide receiver, would repeatedly torch cornerbacks for long plays over-the-top on deep slants and posts for 40+ yard touchdowns with his long stride beating guys deep.

“I’m a white, skinny guy with a long stride, so yeah, nobody gave me much respect,” said Harris. “I didn’t have the big physique, I looked like a regular dude. But once I started doing really well in football, other guys started going out for the track team too, seeing if they could also improve their speed and technique.”

Harris became the Ducks primary punt returner his senior year in 1992 after an injury opened up a spot, and he took full advantage. As both a wide receiver and punt returner, the deceptively fast Harris became the primary deep threat for Oregon.

Following his senior year, Harris signed a free agent deal with the New England Patriots.

Harris200_0831“My track experience was 51% of why I was in the NFL,” said Harris. “At that level they still look at how they can take a raw talent guy and make them better.”

“Teams took a chance and tried to develop me. I had to prove myself every year to make the team as a receiver, even though my whole career I didn’t play much receiver. I also had to do other things like cover kicks and punts. You have to be sustainable; I learned to become a better receiver in the NFL knowing that I needed to do more than that to stay.”

The versatility and training paid off, as a seven-year career in the NFL was to follow with the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, and Atlanta Falcons until his retirement in 1999.

Just like in high school and college, Harris didn’t fit the part, but through hard work, raw talent, and training he proved the doubters wrong.

Kent200_0831Jordan Kent had never played organized football at any level. He was a local product from Churchill High School and the son of Oregon men’s basketball coach Ernie Kent. Yet after two years of playing basketball and running track for the Ducks, the constant nudging of Oregon coaches to try out for football convinced him to do so. He had never even put on a football uniform prior to 2005 when he became one of only a handful of athletes to letter in three sports at Oregon: the first since World War II and the first in the Pac-10 since 1970.

As had been done with his predecessors, coaches worked extensively with Kent teaching him the fundamentals of football. Recognizing his pure athletic abilities, they trained him on how to run a route, how to catch, how to block, how to take his track and basketball abilities and apply them to the game of football.

By mid-season of 2005 Kent was ready, and against Washington State the third catch of his career would be a long touchdown that proved key in Oregon’s narrow victory over the Cougars in Pullman.

Kent’s contributions during the 2005 season were minimal, but his speed and athleticism shined when he was on the field. In 2006 he dedicated his efforts to football, choosing to not participate in basketball.

Kent led the team in receptions his senior year in 2006, and was a lethal deep threat, going from raw athlete to talented veteran receiver.

Kent200_03_0831On the track Kent was a four-time All-American, anchoring the 4×100 relay team and 4x400m relay, and as a runner in the 200m. His relay team finished 3rd in the 4×400 and 6th in the 4×100 at the 2005 NCAA Championships, and Kent was named an All-American. In 2006 the track team would return, becoming Pac-10 champions in the 4x100m relay, and finishing 7th in the 4×100 and 6th in the 4×400 at the NCAA Championships.

Once again the NFL immediately took notice. The Seahawks drafted Kent in the 6th round of the 2007 draft, and he played several years with the Seahawks and Rams.

Jordan Kent hauls in a 68-yard TD pass against the WSU Cougars.

Now whenever Oregon’s football recruiting classes are announced it’s an expectation that many of the wide receivers, running backs, and cornerbacks will also compete in track & field for the Ducks. Track athletes in turn are occasionally nudged to perhaps give football a try as well. Oregon coaches encourage the overlap to refine their athletic skills. The NFL has taken notice, with more Oregon athletes entering the professional ranks than ever before.

The tradition established by Ronnie Harris and Jordan Kent, among others, will continue for the foreseeable future.

(Ronnie Harris is a youth pastor in Bothell, WA, who remains close to the Oregon Ducks and travels to games with his family. Jordan Kent continues to pursue track aspirations while working as a trainer with Edge Combines, and co-hosts ‘Talkin’ Ducks’ on Comcast Sports Net.)