Cornerback Walt Harris was known as "50-50" in the trainer's room last year, a good-natured reference to the surgeon's notes that accompanied his medical file when the Washington Redskins signed him as a free agent before the 2004 season. The nickname reflected the long odds that Harris would ever play football again after undergoing major knee surgery -- doctors gave the procedure a 50 percent chance of working -- but it was a prognosis that he refused to believe.
There were no guarantees that Harris could even practice fully when Washington signed him, but he ended up playing all 16 games, starting two, and performing so well that the Redskins allowed Fred Smoot to sign with Minnesota in the offseason. Harris entered this training camp not as an uncertainty, but the starter alongside Shawn Springs and someone the defense is counting on to produce every Sunday.
"They called me '50-50,' " said Harris, who missed of most of last week with a quadriceps injury but was back with the starters for yesterday's practice, "but I knew in my mind I would be 100-plus eventually. I just kind of knew how I felt, the type of injury I had and I knew I was getting better day by day and week by week. I knew I would be able to come in and play from day one. It was a concern with the team -- they weren't sure how soon I could get back -- but I always knew in the back of my mind that I would."
Harris, who turns 31 tomorrow, was a former first-round pick and had started 30 of 32 games in two seasons with Indianapolis before developing acute tendinitis in his right knee. He tried various means of correcting the problem -- "I exhausted all of my options," Harris said -- before deciding to have the operation, in which a section of the injured tendon was trimmed away. An extensive rehabilitation followed.
The severity of the surgery kept Harris from generating much interest on the free agent market, but the Redskins were in need of a tough, experienced corner, with assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams using three in many of his packages. "He'll rock you," Williams said. "He plays the [physical] style we like our corners to play."
Harris signed a three-year deal with a $750,000 signing bonus and base salaries of $660,000 in the first two years of the deal. The contract included another $1.5 million in incentives, and, after rehabilitating diligently last spring -- "He never took a day off," director of sports medicine Bubba Tyer said, "he was here five days a week working" -- Harris maximized his earnings in 2004 by appearing in every game.
"We thought it was financially a good deal for both of us," said Vice President of Football Operations Vinny Cerrato. "For where he was [medically], we were kind of taking a gamble, and he was taking a gamble on us. [Defensive coordinator] Greg Blache had been with him [in Chicago], so we knew what kind of worker he was, and what kind of person he was, and if anybody could come back from this, you knew he'd have a chance. So he was worth the gamble. We knew he could be a great [third cornerback] for us, and then as he got healthier he just played better and better."
The challenge now is to stay healthy despite playing essentially every down in a violent game. In nine years in the NFL, Harris has always played at least 12 games, and with Smoot gone the Redskins are banking on him maintaining that record in 2005.
"Even if Fred were still around I knew how much better I would be coming into his year," Harris said. "I wanted to make sure I was in the best physical condition I could be in to put myself in the position I am in now. I feel 100 times better this year, guaranteed. My body feels a whole lot better; my knee, that's not even an issue now. I was telling some of the guys that I feel more confident in my knee than anything else right now, and I'm so glad that it has passed. I've been through so much, and I just want to take this opportunity as best as I can."
Harris said his explosiveness is returning, and he can accelerate fully again from a standstill. His leaping ability has improved and he no longer has to favor his leg at certain times, which he said has corrected his "biomechanics" and stabilized his game. The Redskins lack experienced cornerbacks and Harris's likely eventual replacement -- first-round pick Carlos Rogers -- has been unable to practice because of an ankle injury. Harris's base salary jumps to $1.5 million next season, and that, coupled with Rogers's potential and the hefty contract he just signed, could signal a change. Still, Harris is mentoring Rogers even as he works to keep his job.
"Walt is a proud man. He works hard, he takes care of his body and he's a family man," cornerbacks coach DeWayne Walker said. "He's not threatened by his position with Carlos. He helps Carlos; he's great with Carlos. He's just an exceptional professional. You need more guys like that on your team, no question. There's no egos involved with Walt, and nobody feels threatened."
Harris has already triumphed over his biggest professional fear. A year removed from his days as "50-50," just being on the field again is all the reassurance he needs right now.
Veteran cornerback Walt Harris, in his second season with the Redskins, will play an important role after Fred Smoot's offseason departure for Minnesota.