Milton Harris had a plan.
Well, technically it was Madieu Williams who had a plan. Williams, the former Maryland safety, saw that his high school teammate and close friend was unhappy at Delaware State, so Williams convinced Harris it was time to transfer to Maryland as a walk-on. Harris took the plan home, and over a period of several days, convinced his parents.
Three years later, Harris has already graduated from Maryland. He is a starting strong safety and, as of this fall, finally has a football scholarship. He is the Terps' third-leading tackler and leads the ACC with five forced fumbles. And on Monday, two days after making a career-high 16 tackles and forcing a fourth-quarter fumble during Maryland's win at North Carolina, Harris was named the conference's defensive back of the week.
That, pretty much, was the plan.
"Now I can see everything that I already knew was here for me," the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Harris said. "I'm seeing it starting to unfold right before my eyes. It's like everything that I said I wanted to do, it's starting to come to pass."
Williams, who now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals and still talks with Harris two or three times a week, virtually shouted with delight when told of his protege's latest accomplishments.
"I envisioned it before he even came in," Williams said yesterday in a telephone interview. "I told him what to expect mentally and physically, what would happen if he did certain things. And he pretty much has followed the blueprint."
First, though, an earlier plan. Harris was barely a teenager, getting ready for his sophomore year of high school, when he launched his first educational U-turn.
While he waited to learn if he would be accepted at Bishop McNamara High, Harris began practicing with the football team at DuVal High in Lanham. By the time Harris learned he had been admitted to McNamara, he was ready to present his parents with a series of reasons why he should stay at DuVal. He told his parents he had discovered a group of friends who were serious about school and obsessed with football. They would help him with his grades and with his sport.
"It was instant, man; we met Milt and that was all she wrote after that," said J.B. Gerard, one member of that group. "It was like an instant bond."
So Harris stayed, and the six friends came to call themselves "the Stable." They worked out constantly with assistant football and track coach Henry Brady, who had previously trained Gwynn Park All-Met Domonique Williams, and who would later train Domonique Williams's brother Derrick, the top-rated high school senior in the nation last year.
"All the time, when people were out having summer jobs and partying and whatever, we were out working," said Gerard, a graduate assistant at Penn State. "We were there every single day working out. Football, football, football, that was our lives."
Harris fit right in. This was a child who wouldn't touch soft drinks or fried food because of their detrimental health effects and who had long confounded his father by donning cleats and heading outside for some individual drills.
"The yard would look so pretty," the elder Milton Harris wistfully remembered. "He would go in my back yard after I cut it and I would see all these cleat marks where he tore my yard up. And I'd say, 'Hey man, that's not a field, that's my back yard.' "
Harris was the youngest member of the Stable, and by the time he graduated from high school, the other five members had all scattered to college or post-secondary programs. Harris was set to join Gerard at Colgate until, unexpectedly, he was not admitted.
Harris had been accepted at nine other schools, and so instead walked on at Delaware State and started on offense and defense during two seasons there. But he never received a full scholarship, the team was losing, and Harris was thus susceptible to Williams's burgeoning plan.
Williams had transferred to Maryland from a Division I-AA school and walked on with the Terps, so he coached Harris on how to sell the idea to his parents.
When Harris took the plan home, his parents asked about the differences in tuition costs, and he showed them the figures. Harris's parents said he might not be admitted to Maryland, and he told them he had already applied and been accepted. Harris's parents asked whether he was just trying to get out of a tough situation at Delaware State, and he said on the contrary, he was pursuing his Division I-A dreams at a school he thought could provide a better education.
"He's an old soul, he does his homework and he knows how to get what he wants in a very intelligent way, not in a manipulative way, but in an intelligent way," said Saundra Harris, his stepmother. "He knew when he came to us he needed to come right. He needed to present a case that we could not back down from. And he did."
As Williams had warned, the transition was often bumpy. The two friends lived together in Harris's transfer year, when he couldn't play. Last year he was eligible and played in every game but never started. His friends told him to keep working. So did his parents, and so did Brady.
"He had to sit and wait and persevere, and that's not easy for a youngster to do because everybody's impatient," Maryland defensive coordinator Gary Blackney said. "But he persevered, and he kept working and working and working. And now it's paying dividends for him."
Which was all, naturally, according to Williams's plan.
"I had already went through it, so it was only right for me to share my story," Williams said. "I said, 'Your story might not end like mine, but at the same time, you're giving yourself a chance, and in life all you need is an opportunity.' That's pretty much what it comes down to. He got the opportunity, and now he's making the most of it."
Terps Note: Cornerbacks Josh Wilson (concussion) and Isaiah Gardner (groin) returned to practice yesterday. Wilson did not participate in contact drills.