GREEN BAY – Luckily for the Green Bay Packers, DuJuan Harris was an abject failure as a car salesman. It appears his future as an NFL running back is considerably brighter.
After he spent five games in Jacksonville as an undrafted rookie free agent last season – Harris rushed for 42 yards on nine carries in his limited engagement – the Jaguars brought him back for training camp this summer. But they cut him on Aug. 25, and although the Pittsburgh Steelers claimed him on waivers, he was released again on Aug. 31, leaving him out of work for nearly two months, before the Packers signed him to their practice squad on Oct. 24.
Unsure of his football future – although unwilling to give up on his NFL dream – Harris figured he’d better get a real-world job in the interim. A friend got him an interview at the Mercedes-Benz dealership in Jacksonville, but Harris was less than thrilled with one of the job requirements.
“They asked me if I would consider cutting my hair. I was like, ‘No, I know my career in football is not done,’” said Harris, who has long dreadlocks. “If I was at the end of my career and actually needed to work and that was my last resort, then, yeah, I wouldn’t mind cutting my hair. But that wasn’t the case at all. So (I said), ‘No, I’m not going to cut my hair.’”
While Harris said that wasn’t the reason he didn’t get the job, another friend connected him with the local Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge dealership, a football player-friendly workplace that “pretty much hired me right on the spot,” Harris said. While he took mild offense to being asked to take a urine test – “I was like, ‘Really, I have to go take a (urine) test? I’ve got to be clean to do workouts for the NFL,’” Harris said he told his would-be employers – he did it, and got the job.
“I had to wear a shirt and tie,” Harris said. “I was never used to coming to work in a shirt and tie unless it’s for game day.”
It lasted all of a week.
“I didn't sell a (single) car. I came close. I came close a few times,” Harris said with a laugh. “I was doing the business but – I don't want to say I was nervous, but – people would ask me about the cars and I didn't know much about it. I was just like, ‘Man, I'm not going to sell the cars.’”
The way it’s looking as the Packers prepare for Saturday night’s NFC Wild Card playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field, Harris won’t have to worry about shirt-and-tie gigs for a while.
During Sunday’s 37-34 loss to the Vikings at the Metrodome, the Packers coaches decided Harris had the “hot hand” they’ve been talking about – veteran Ryan Grant had it the week before against Tennessee, when he ran 20 times for 80 yards and two touchdowns – and fed him the ball. In return, they got 70 yards on 14 carries, and he didn’t have a single carry for negative yardage or no gain. He also had two receptions for 17 yards, and of his 87 all-purpose yardage, 57 of it came after contact, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
While he’ll have to prove to the coaches that he should be the go-to guy again on Saturday night, he’s certainly done enough to merit the opportunity. Against the Vikings, Grant’s two carries went for 2 yards and no gain; Harris’ went for 9 and 8. By game’s end, Harris had played 35 snaps to Grant’s five.
“It’s going with the guy that’s hot. Nothing against Ryan’s two attempts there last week – he didn’t have a real clean look on either one of those runs. (But) we got into the second quarter and we knew we wanted to get DuJuan in at some point,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt explained Wednesday. “(We) kind of felt like that was a playoff-type atmosphere that he hadn’t been in yet. I thought Ryan would handle that a little better (than Harris) and (so we) let (Harris) kind of sit back and watch that first quarter and get a feel for the intensity and the volume of the noise there. Then he came in and sparked us right away with two good runs. Once that happened, we went with the hot hand at that point.
“It’s just a feel thing, really. … It might go back and forth more than it did last week, but once he started, made some good cuts and some hard runs, then we decided to just go ahead and roll with him.”
Listed at 5-foot-8 and 203 pounds on the Packers’ official roster, Harris is unlike any of the Packers’ other backs, all of whom – James Starks (6-2), Grant (6-1), Alex Green (6-0), John Kuhn (6-0), Cedric Benson (5-11) and Brandon Saine (5-11) – are taller than he is. But to call Harris small would be inaccurate; he is simply short. Another thing he is: Powerful.
“I think he’s kind of a Transformer; there’s more than meets the eye with DuJuan,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. (Whether the NFL MVP knew the car salesman connection when he made the car-turned-robot reference is unclear.) “He’s a very tough guy. He’s got great athleticism, agility; he makes some great jump cuts. He had a couple really, really good runs in the game that could have been losses for us, and a couple runs where he ran through arm tackles, broke tackles, yards after contact.
“He’s a little guy, but he’s tough. Again, another guy we didn’t have here at the beginning of the season -- a guy on the practice squad, played his butt off, got activated. He’s done some nice things for us. You have to give him a lot of credit. He’s learned the offense the last few weeks and studied, obviously, and the package for him is just going to continue to grow.”
Harris, who was promoted from the practice squad on Dec. 1, four days before Grant was signed, made his Packers debut against Detroit at Lambeau Field on Dec. 9 and ran seven times for 31 yards, including an 11-yard run on his first carry and a 14-yard touchdown to cap his night. In that game, though, Harris played exactly seven snaps, so every time he was on the field, he got the ball.
The coaches obviously didn’t like the idea of being so predictable with him, so as Harris became more comfortable with the playbook, the coaches were willing to increase his role. But being undersized, he also had to prove to Van Pelt, offensive coordinator Tom Clements and coach Mike McCarthy that he could handle the two most important jobs for a Packers running back: Ball security, and pass protection.
“His hands are huge and I think that plays a big part into his ability to secure the ball. He’s got ginormous hands. As a team, we work on it a ton. I think we all feel comfortable with his ability to secure the football,” Van Pelt explained. As for blitz pickups, “He was impressive (last Sunday). He had two blitzers that he was responsible for and stepped up and did a good job in pass protection. It’s an area where we weren’t concerned, but we hadn’t seen it a lot on live tape, so it was a chance for him to show us that he can step up and be a protector.”
While Van Pelt said he realized Harris might be something special “probably (during) the first week of practice, watching him work against our defense,” Clements said he never had any concerns about Harris’ lack of height because he showed good power almost immediately.
“For a back, the height is not that big a deal, really. He's powerful guy, strong. He does well in protection,” Clements said. “If you look around the league, there are a lot of guys who are not tall but they're very productive backs. So that wasn't a concern.”
Something else that isn’t a concern for the coaches: Harris’ ability to be productive on a sloppy January field. Although it’s Grant who has the “mudder” reputation – and still figures to be in the backfield mix Saturday night – Harris won’t be eliminated from consideration based on the conditions.
“I don’t see the field or the weather being an issue at all,” Van Pelt said. “He’s fearless. He runs quickly through the hole and there’s not a lot of dodging going on. He showed that the first carry he got out here when we tossed him the ball against Detroit and he ran over the safety. I think he’s got a good mix of speed and toughness and the ability to run through arm tackles. Really, we haven’t seen the quick move where he makes a guy miss in space, but we’ve seen it on the practice field.”
Harris grew up idolizing Barry Sanders – he was born the year Sanders won the Heisman Trophy (1988) and wore Sanders’ No. 20 at Central High School in Brooksville, Fla. – and tried to pattern his running style after him as well. And as of right now, while he doesn’t have to worry about calling his childhood hero for a job at Sanders’ Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge dealership in Stillwater, Okla., Harris isn’t ruling out a return to the sales lot in the future.
He just isn’t anticipating joining the shirt-and-tie crowd anytime soon.
“Maybe my (sales) skills would tighten up a little more once I got to know the business a little better. It’s definitely something I’d go back to,” Harris said with a chuckle.
“It just shows you that God has a plan for you. You’ve just got to be patient and let Him work his magic. That’s what I did. I had an opportunity to show what I could do and it was a privilege.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.