CUYAHOGA FALLS: The moments spent thinking about what if are canceled out by the moments of dealing with what is for Cuyahoga Falls senior Chris Harris.
Dealing with adversity and personal tragedy has been a harsh reality for Harris, a standout two-sport athlete.
Harris’ mother, Tiffany Harris, passed away in a house fire in East Cleveland when he was 10 and she was 27. He has never met his father.
Despite tragic circumstance, Harris has stayed strong and put together a life of which any parent would be proud.
“It is pretty amazing how much he has accomplished considering the things he has had to deal with,” Cuyahoga Falls boys track and field coach Keith Nelman said. “There is a kid somewhere out there at one of the local schools who can relate to Chris and could go the path Chris has or go another route.”
Harris lived in East Cleveland until age 12, when he moved to Cuyahoga Falls. Six years later, he will graduate after a career that has included three letters in football and four in track and field.
Fire changes everything
Harris was at his grandmother’s house when the fire took his mother’s life.
“When I was young it was pretty difficult for my mom to take care of my sister, brother and I,” Harris said. “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about that. We stayed at my grandma’s house a lot because she took care of us when mom went to work.
“Then one day, my mom decided to go somewhere. She fell asleep when she was cooking. She threw pillows out the window and jumped out the window, but fire got to her lungs and she died. That devastated me and I didn’t really want to do anything after that. I had done a lot prior to that. I played football and did track and field in middle school, but after that I didn’t want to do anything else. I just stopped doing everything.”
Being there for his brother and sister became a priority for Harris.
“After that what was going through my mind was how am I going to take care of my sister and my brother? I never had a dad. I never knew my dad and I still do not know my dad to this day. I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “Basically, the only thing I did know to do was make sure my brother and sister stayed strong through the entire thing. Now, I am a stronger person from living with my sister’s dad. He has taught me how to go through life and be a man as myself.”
Harris lives with two families. Sometimes he stays with his stepfather/guardian, Omaro McKinney, and Falls sophomore half-sister, Tarmisse, 16. Other times, he lives with Falls teammate and close friend, junior Siddiq Samad, 17, and his parents, Rachel Salters and Jeramie Salters, and siblings Sirajj Samad, 15, Jera Salters, 4, and Jaiden Salters, 3.
“They call me their oldest son,” Harris said with a laugh. “It makes me happy when they call me their son. When they call me that, I think to myself: ‘I wish my life was like that sometimes, but not everything can go my way.’ ”
Harris’ half-brother Darmisse, 10, lives in East Cleveland with an aunt.
“I know I have to be strong as I go through my life,” Harris said. “Most of my friends have their father and mother, and I still look and wish my mom was there so she could see me run, but there is nothing I can do about it right now. I just go on every day and be strong.”
Harris carries with him childhood memories of his mother caring for him and his siblings as he maneuvers through school. He came to Cuyahoga Falls at age 12 and attended Bolich Middle School.
“It has helped me a lot living in Cuyahoga Falls,” Harris said. “Everybody has helped me be more responsible and take my school work more serious.”
Star athlete develops
Harris met Nelman when he was in sixth grade, and they hit it off quickly. Harris succeeded in middle school football and track, and he has done the same in high school.
In football, he was the Black Tigers’ top tailback and cornerback for coach Mike Miller. He has competed in the 110-meter hurdles, 300 hurdles, 100-meter dash, 400 relay, 800 relay and 1600 relay in track.
“Chris has definitely matured a lot,” said Nelman, a graduate of Falls (1994) and Malone College (1999) where he starred as a three-time college All-American high hurdler.
“He was pretty free spirited when he was a middle school kid. He was the team clown, and he liked the attention. He was also quite the athlete. We had him at quarterback on the middle school team, and he just loved to run. … We ran the option with him, and he would try to find a hole anywhere and just take off running. It was always fun coaching him because when he came off the field he always had something funny to say.”
Nelman said Harris still has a fun personality but is more focused on his goals.
“I was talking with [former Falls coach] Rick Lieberman the other day about how Chris has always been a freakish athlete,” Nelman said. “I remember watching LeBron James play basketball in high school and just be a manchild, and it is the same thing with Chris. As soon as he steps on the track you notice him. Even as a freshman, he didn’t look like a freshman. When you talked to him, you realized he was still a little kid. This year, I have seen such a big difference with the way he is taking this sport more serious. He is a lot more dedicated and just more focused. There is not a lot of goofing around.”
Harris finished ninth in the indoor 200 state championship at the University of Akron this year. He qualified for the outdoor regional meet in the 300 hurdles last year.
“Last year I got hurt,” Harris said. “I pulled my hamstring during the season, so I didn’t get real strong. Now that I am healthy, I just run all the time. I go hard at practice all the time because my goal is to get to state and I am going to get to state.”
Harris’ athleticism is garnering interest from several colleges. Siena Heights and Findlay are looking at him in both sports. Lake Erie College, Tiffin, Akron and Kent State are looking at him for football. Youngstown State has expressed an interest in track.
“When he runs a full season and gets his name out there, there will be a lot of schools giving him a call,” said Nelman, a teacher at Preston Elementary.
“As long as he takes care of everything in the classroom, he can go anywhere he wants to. Being a hurdler is more appealing. Running a 10.6 or 10.7 in the 100 is a dime a dozen, I think, but when you are in the low 14s in the 100 hurdles and I think he will be running a 37 in the 300 hurdles, that is hard to come by.”
Harris said he plans to study nursing in college and then pursue a career as a nurse and store owner specializing in shoes and clothes.
“I see myself being very successful in the future,” Harris said. “I hope kids just don’t think about the past and how everything went wrong for you. Just be strong and be the person you are.”