By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009
The first indication of the next chapter in Victor "Macho" Harris's football career is his close-cropped hair. Harris, a second-team all-American cornerback from Virginia Tech, became a popular figure during four years with the Hokies as much for his bravado as his interceptions.
His preferred hair style changed frequently, sometimes flowing out of his helmet -- a la Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu -- and other times arranged tightly into cornrows. A Virginia Tech booster occasionally was spotted wearing a Macho wig.
After Harris's final collegiate game -- an Orange Bowl victory -- he professed he would ditch the long hair for a cleaner look. Harris was preparing for professional football, and he needed to appear professional. His NFL aspirations will come true next week, when Harris is expected to be selected on the first day of the NFL draft.
It is all part of his realization that much of the pre-draft process has little to do with football, but instead how he works out and how he presents himself to prospective teams.
Harris's on-field production placed him among the top cornerbacks in the nation last season, but he ran the 40-yard dash in a disappointing 4.68 seconds at the scouting combine in February. Harris ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds less than a month later at Virginia Tech's pro day, and said that is his true time.
"We're football players," Harris said. "Going through the football season, we know what to do as far as being football players. But it's definitely challenging, because you train all your life for football, and it comes down to three or four months to see how fast you run or how strong you are, and things of that nature."
Virginia Tech defensive backfield coach Torrian Gray, a second-round pick in 1997, would instruct NFL decision-makers to simply watch Harris on film.
"A playmaker, instinctive. He'll make money plays for you," Gray said. "They get caught up in the measurables all the time -- how fast you run the 40, this and that -- but Macho's a guy who can make game-changing plays. He has a certain mentality about himself where he knows he could be a difference-maker."
Gray watched former Hokies cornerback Brandon Flowers endure similar questions last season. Flowers ran an undesirable time at the combine and slipped to the second round. The Kansas City Chiefs drafted Flowers, and he became a starter in his rookie season.
"To me, the 40 time means nothing," said Flowers, one of Harris's close friends. "As long as you don't see a guy run past on film. Take the guy you see on film. That's the sport. I ran a bad 40, but I was bumping and running. Not to be an arrogant thing, but see us on film."
Flowers and Harris partnered in the Hokies' secondary as juniors in 2007. Flowers occupied the boundary side in defensive coordinator Bud Foster's system. The boundary cornerback defends man-to-man against the receiver and is forced to play physically. "That boundary corner turns you from a boy into a man," Flowers said. Harris played on the other side, which features more zone elements.
Both Flowers and Harris entered the NFL draft in 2008, but Harris pulled out and went back for his senior year when scouts sought more physicality. The coaching staff planned to move Harris to the boundary, where Flowers, Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall and former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Jimmy Williams all emerged as high draft picks.
"I tried to go back my senior year and give them all the answers they had questions about," Harris said.
Harris became the Hokies' most valuable player while leading a young team to the ACC championship. He improved his physical game, recording 32 tackles and forcing two fumbles. He demonstrated cover skills by breaking up eight passes and deflecting 14, both team highs. And he displayed big-play ability with six interceptions and two touchdowns.
"Macho's a guy who, on video, is just as good as the guys you're talking about," said Gray, reciting the names of some of this year's top cornerbacks such as Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins and Wake Forest's Alphonso Smith. "But those guys run a faster time, so it knocks [Harris] back."
Harris responds by not stressing about the process. He is deeply religious and often tells himself, "Stop worrying, start worshipping."
Flowers prepped Harris on the intricacies of the pre-draft process. When there's a meeting at 8 a.m., Flowers told Harris to arrive at 7:45. Flowers insisted he will tease Harris about the new hairdo, but also said it was the right idea because of some NFL teams' emphasis on intangibles.
The most difficult part for Harris is waiting. He will not watch the draft, but instead plans to spend the day at his youth field in Highland Springs, Va.
It has been more than three months since Harris actually played football, and his focus has been on elements that have nothing to do with what happens on the field: how fast he runs on the track, how many times he can lift weights, how closely cropped his hair is and whether he provides the right answer to an open-ended question.
"Being in my position right now, all this is is a business opportunity," Harris said. "I'm just looking for any way I can do to be recognized as high as I can, doing anything I can to show that I am a businessperson. This is it. You're going to the National Football League, and you're becoming professional. That's why cutting my hair will give me the business mind-set, the business look."