Now that connection is expanding with an unexpected opportunity.
A Scout.com five-star lineman from Shenandoah, Pa., Harrison was a four-year starter in high school who played on both sides of the ball. The Associated Press first-team All-State pick was also an ace in the classroom, boasting a 3.7 grade-point average. After being courted by Ohio State, Michigan State, Virginia, Maryland, Colorado and North Carolina State, he ultimately picked the Nittany Lions, graduating from high school early to enroll at University Park in January 2004. He redshirted and was poised to impact the depth chart in 2005.
Then he suffered multiple injuries to his right foot. Ultimately, after trying to play through the pain, he had to give up on football.
“I started thinking about the basics, like running around with my kids someday,” he recalled. “I felt like I couldn’t perform to the level I expected of myself. It was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.
“After the injury I was a mess,” he added. “Still to this day, walking away from Penn State football has bothered me. I felt a big part of my life was left empty. I needed to fill that void with something else. The passion I had for playing was gone and coaching ultimately filled that. I think coaching has given me a vehicle to impact lives. That sounds cliché, but when you’re in kids’ lives at this level you can really impact them.”
To illustrate the potential impact, Harrison recently asked a group of 30 players how many still live with their biological parents. How many raised their hands?
“Three. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I grew up with a stable and supportive home life that helped me manage the many trials and tribulations you face growing up in today’s crazy society. So to think that high school student-athletes do not have that support system is a huge concern to me. So I try to help give them a support system they may not have.”
Like many other aspects of his life, Harrison quickly succeeded at teaching and coaching. He took the job at Ridgeview in 2008 and before long more was being asked of him on the football field.
“I got moved up to offensive coordinator (from offensive line coach), but it presented a real challenge for me,” he said. “Being an offensive lineman, I could not figure out what was wrong with my quarterback. I was embarrassed because I couldn’t help a kid I was responsible for. I never wanted to be in that situation again, so I researched QB mechanics and the name Darin Slack kept coming up.”
Slack was a Florida 6A All-State quarterback in high school and ended up playing for Central Florida. In 1987, as a senior, he set 34 school and national passing records and was selected to the Football News and Kodak All-America teams. Since 1988 Slack has trained over 18,000 quarterbacks through his Quarterback Academy.
“His approach is different; he not only breaks it down, but explains why,” Harrison explained.
Soon Harrison was connected with one of the academy’s best teachers, Dub Maddox, the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator for nationally ranked Jenks High in Oklahoma.
“Dub is an outstanding up-and-coming coach who coaches the ‘why’ behind his fundamentals,” Harrison said. “He has been a mentor to me and has had the biggest impact on me as a young coach. Dub has completely changed the way I approach coaching kids.”
Last summer, Maddox told Harrison they were looking to expand the academy to other positions. Rather than dive in without doing his due diligence -- lest the camps be more focused on promoting certain prospects than improving all of them. So Harrison visited a camp.
“It blew me away,” he said. “The first speech I saw, Darin Slack said to the campers that you have to learn that life isn’t about you and playing quarterback is not about you. What really impacted me is that (he said) football will chew you up and spit you out no matter who you are. I have experienced that firsthand. Darin then said something very powerful in that football will end but being a man never ends. When you understand that you have cracked the code, you will be the best husband, father, brother, friend that you can be. That resonated with me because it echoed the lessons I learned at Penn State. It was exactly what Coach (Joe) Paterno taught me.”
So he signed up to help lead the Offensive Lineman Academy.
“It’s not about bringing kids in and getting their money, it’s about lessons -- football lessons and life lessons,” Harrison said. “I was fired up. This is my way to pay a debt back, and impact kids the way my father and Coach Paterno did.
“We’re in such a ‘me’ society today, this is a message that needs to be heard, particularly by these young players,” he added.
Harrison reflected on how, coming from a smaller school, he had to teach himself a lot of technique by watching videos. He is hoping the Offensive Lineman Academy can do for young aspiring linemen what he didn’t have the opportunity to pick up early.
“The only time (in high school) I really got to take in that technique firsthand was when I got to a Penn State football camp,” he said. “Guys get on the field earlier primarily because of technique. This is why you see a guy on the field early like Stefen Wisniewski -- because of his lineage he had the opportunity to learn the technique at a young age. Combine that with hard work and you have a chance.
“Overall, it’s about winning leverage battles,” he added. “(Penn State assistant) Coach (Dick) Anderson was such a technician and broke down how to attack leverage -- correct hand placement, step distance. I never knew that so much success in your block came just from your stance.”
The academy is open to players from the fourth grade through college. And Harrison has immersed himself in the experience already, having conducted camps in multiple cities. He is excited about the opportunity to be in 20-plus different locations this summer, including State College (July 11-13), Pittsburgh (June 27-29) and New York (July 7-9).
And what really makes the academy’s approach different?
“We want to partner with the coach and the parent,” Harrison said. “Parents are so key to the equation on so many different levels -- success both on and off the field.”
Harrison enjoys allowing youngsters to learn from his experiences.
“My message to them is that things don’t always work out in football like you want them to and you need to get used to it because life doesn’t work out exactly as you planned either,” Harrison said. “Then what are you going to do? Luckily I had my father and Coach Paterno to teach me some critical life lessons. Coach Paterno beats the selfishness out of you and you don’t appreciate it until football is gone and you’re on your own. These young kids often don’t have that and need to get focused on what is important in life. I’ve learned that through some outstanding people that have helped me through football and life. I am hoping I can continue to make an impact and repay the debt that I owe.”
Harrison is a National Director for the Offensive Line Academy. For more information on the Offensive Lineman Academy you can visit olineacademy.com. For more information on other positions you can visit nationalfootballacademies.com