Won’t back down: Chris Harper’s journey to Cal

His high school coach said he'd never play Division I football. Chris Harper proved him wrong.

Derek Remsburg/Senior Staff
True freshman receiver Chris Harper caught five passes for 57 yards and a touchdown last week in his first game with the Bears.

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On Sept. 9, 2010, Chris Harper came home in tears.

“I need to talk to you,” he told his father, Mark.

It was only two games into Chris’ junior year at Crespi Carmelite High School, but the head football coach was not satisfied. He said Chris couldn’t take the top off; he wasn’t explosive enough.

He said Chris was not going to play Division I football.

“Dad,” said Chris, all of 16 years old. “How am I gonna handle this?”

By using it as motivation. By using it as a driving force. By making it fuel his fire.

Chris got out a Sharpie and wrote, “You are not going Division I” and the date on a piece of paper. He stuck it on his bedroom door so every time he went in or out, he would see it.

“At the time, I was really pissed about it,” says Chris, now a freshman receiver for Cal. “But in the end, it helped me to become a D-I player and become that player that he said I wasn’t.”

Everything always came easy to Chris.

Growing up, he never had to work too hard to gain a starting position, always getting by on natural talent. He excelled at all sports — basketball, track, even lacrosse. In the one year he played lacrosse, Harper won the Most Valuable Player award.

Football was his passion, though. He started playing Pop Warner at age 6 and starred at running back. But he was always one of the smallest guys on the team. By the time he was 12, it was clear he did not have the size or build to play running back at the college level.

So Chris and his father created a game to help smooth the transition to wide receiver. They called it “Burn Out.” Mark would throw the ball as hard as he could to Chris, who would whip it back. The game helped Chris improve his hand-eye coordination and develop soft hands.

Other than that, Chris seamlessly moved up the ranks of football in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. That is, until Crespi coach Jon Mack told Harper to start acting serious about football after he caught just three passes in the season’s first two games.

“Everything changed for Chris after that,” says his mother, Janine Gonzaga. “There was a little bit of a reality check when he had to step up and work a little harder.”

His whole attitude toward lifting changed. Chris admits he was lazy in the weight room before his coach talked to him, but not after. He says his bench press went up around 50 pounds.

If any of his teammates were lifting weights at 6 a.m., Chris would be there, too. And when the lights on the field turned off at 6 p.m., Chris was still out there running extra routes.

“Practice never ended for Chris,” Gonzaga says.

When Chris wasn’t in the gym or on the football field, he was at Pierce College, a community college around the corner from his house. There was a huge hill there — he and his dad called it “Puke Hill.” Chris would run up and down that hill, over and over again. He would run until he couldn’t run anymore. Then he would get on the track and run sprints.

“Chris is the kind of person, when someone tells him he can’t do something, he’ll go out to prove, ‘Yes I can,’” Mark says. “(His coach) really lit a fire under Chris to take football to the next level.”

The game after his coach’s chilling words, Chris hauled in 12 receptions for 140 yards. “My best game — all season, throughout all my years,” he says.

He added another 15 catches for 231 yards the next two games just for good measure.

The following summer, Chris played for Keyshawn Johnson’s seven-on-seven travel team. He worked out with Johnson and Terrell Owens.

Chris was doing everything he could to snag those D-I offers he coveted. Yet he only received three stars from ESPN and Rivals. All the scouting websites said he needed to improve his speed. The elite schools had little interest in him.

So Chris continued to run up Puke Hill and around the track. He did more leg weights and played more games of Burn Out. He kept working, he kept sweating, he kept improving and he kept believing.
Chris ended up receiving nearly a dozen offers, some from D-I AA schools but most from D-I schools. But none from his dream school.

“He was really frustrated, because the offer he really wanted, from day one, was Cal,” Mark says.

Chris had gone on three different visits to Berkeley and loved it more every time he came. He liked the campus and the coaches, that the players didn’t have egos and that the new facilities would be ready by his freshman year.

“I just told myself that that was the school I wanted to go to,” Chris says. “So whenever I got an offer from there, I would commit.”

He eventually committed to Southern Methodist University, the Dallas-based school that gave him an offer first. A week later, Chris took an unofficial visit to Cal. The team already had offers out to a number of other receivers, but two had just decommitted. Chris met with the coaches and gave them his highlight tape. They saw his passion and drive, and they extended him a scholarship on the spot.

“For a kid to have a dream, for a kid to have worked his tail off to be successful and achieve his goal … He’s an overachiever,” Mark says. “He set out to prove he could do things people said he couldn’t do.”

On Sept. 1, 2012, Chris Harper’s parents were the ones in tears. Their son’s dream had came true: He was playing Division I football.

Lining up at receiver alongside mentor Keenan Allen and roommate Bryce Treggs in Cal’s season opener, Harper caught five passes for 57 yards. With 7:30 to go at Nevada’s 13-yard line, Chris started in motion and ran a flat route to the left side. By the time he turned around, the ball was already in flight. He caught it with his right hand, tucked it in and cruised into the end zone to tie the game.

“It was definitely the most exciting feeling,” he says of his first touchdown. “Because it’s always a dream: First I wanted to get to a D-I school, then when you get there to have a score in your first start of the game.”

As for the piece of paper with doubt blazoned in Sharpie, Chris doesn’t know where it is. He thinks it’s at home, or maybe his dad threw it away.

It doesn’t matter. He won’t need it anymore.

Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at [email protected]