Victor Harris's teammates, friends and family call him "Macho." But the Virginia Tech freshman's left forearm is evidence he is a mamma's boy at heart. There, Harris has the inked likeness of his mother, Maritza Harris, who died suddenly last Christmas Day of a brain aneurysm. Beneath her tatooed picture on his arm are the words: "My angel. My reason. My mother."
"I was a mamma's boy," Harris said. "I was talking to my sister about getting another tatoo that says, 'Mamma's Boy.' My sister said my mother would have probably liked it."
Harris's life seemed perfect last December. He was one of the country's most recruited high school football players, named Parade Magazine all-American and Virginia's No. 1 player after rushing for 2,346 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior at Highland Springs High School outside Richmond. Harris had scholarship offers from nearly every Division I-A program in the country and had narrowed his choices to Virginia, Virginia Tech, Michigan, Southern California and Miami.
On Dec. 15, as Harris and his mother prepared for an in-home visit from Hokies Coach Frank Beamer and assistant Jim Cavanaugh in which the player was going to orally commit to play for Virginia Tech, Maritza Harris was cooking and ran out of french fries. She left for the store and forgot to turn off the stove. Shortly thereafter, a fire alarm went off, and Harris's younger sister called for him. A grease fire had sparked on the stove and threatened to burn the kitchen and house.
Harris, 19, grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to put out the fire, but it didn't work properly. So with two towels, he grabbed the burning pan and headed for the back door. When Harris opened the door to the laundry room, oxygen from outside caused the fire to flame up and showered his face and arms with scorching grease.
Harris suffered third-degree burns on both forearms and lesser burns on his face. By then, the Virginia Tech coaches were walking up to his house and found Harris inside the kitchen, checking to make sure the fire was out and that his younger brother and sister were safe. Harris's arms and face had bubbled up from the burns.
"I just didn't want our house to burn down," Harris said. "I wanted to make sure my little brother and sister were okay."
Harris spent more than a week in a Richmond hospital and had skin grafts on his right arm six days after the fire. The day before the surgery, Harris told Beamer he was going to attend Virginia Tech.
So with Harris out of the hospital and the pressures of choosing a college gone, he and his family prepared for a Christmas that would mean a little bit more. With eight children, holidays were always a big event for Maritza and Victor Harris, his father. On Christmas Day, his youngest sister, Victoria, 10, and brother, Victroy, 8, awoke their parents and siblings and raced downstairs to open presents. Maritza Harris began to cook a holiday dinner for more than two dozen people.
"We spent that whole day with my mother," Harris said. "We had so much fun with her."
After dinner, Harris left with his girlfriend, and his older sisters left the house, too. His father had gone to an aunt's house to deliver presents to his nieces and nephews. But shortly after leaving, Harris's cellular phone rang. His youngest sister was calling from home. "Something's wrong with mamma," she told him.
By the time Harris got to his home, paramedics were working on his mother. Maritza Harris, who was 43 when she died, had long suffered from high blood pressure, which had led to the sudden death of her mother, too. Harris clutched his mother's hand as she lay on the floor and she opened her eyes. Her heart rate was returning to normal, and he figured she would be okay But five hours later, she was pronounced dead at a Richmond hospital.
"I couldn't believe she was gone," Harris said.
With his mother gone, Harris was glad he chose a college close to home. His three younger siblings stayed with their father, and three others moved in with the Harris's oldest daughter, Jasmine, 23.
Harris, who was recruited by the Hokies to play cornerback, was the only true freshman to play in last Sunday's 20-16 victory at North Carolina State. Beamer has indicated that Harris might be the only freshman to play in a game this season.
"Right now, Macho may be the only guy that does play," Beamer said. "And we're going to work to get him more reps. He has to practice well to get to where he knows what's going on and feels comfortable. You don't want to put him in there and something bad happens early."