CHARLOTTESVILLE — On Tuesday, Walter Harold received a text message from his younger brother, Virginia defensive end Eli Harold. They communicate every week like this, the freshman hailed as one of the Cavaliers’ future stars and the born-again Christian pastor who’s old enough to be his father.
Walter was in attendance last week when Eli got the first sack of his career in a loss to Maryland, a feat Eli was now using as an opportunity to thank his brother. But football season is always a reminder of when their bond changed forever, and as has been the case often over the past two years, “we had a little emotional texting,” recounted Walter Harold, 43.
“Before each game I remind him of what we’ve been through,” he added. “With all we went through back-to-back, it was really meant to destroy us. Death was meant to knock Eli and get him to not focus in school and give up everything. I keep that fresh in his mind.”
On Nov. 13, 2010, Walter Harold’s son, Forrest, unexpectedly died of an enlarged heart while playing basketball on the campus of Old Dominion University. It was a condition that had gone undetected and sent the family reeling.
Little did Eli know that at the same time, their mother, Sheila Korvette, was battling pancreatic cancer. Walter, Eli’s sisters and his mother kept the diagnosis from him until a few days before Korvette died in her Virginia Beach home on Jan. 2, 2011.
Those initial days afterward, once Eli moved in with Walter, are moments they still remember vividly. Previously, Walter had served as the closest thing to a father figure in Eli’s upbringing, but he had his own family to deal with. “We went everywhere together,” Eli says of their relationship.
Walter also admits to dealing drugs and was convicted of cocaine possession in 1991 before finding God and reforming. When tragedy struck, he worried about Eli making the same mistakes.
At the time, Eli was a junior at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, having just completed a season that would earn him scholarship offers from schools like LSU, Florida and Ohio State.
“All we had was each other. We didn’t really have nobody to talk to,” said Walter, who started the Sheepgate Church of God in Virginia Beach in 2011. “When his mom passed, he was real angry. He started beating on the walls and stomping. He don’t show a lot of emotion, but he was devastated. We talk about it with each other. I use it in church as a testimony to help people.”
“Living together for two years meant a whole bunch. I could impart some wisdom he needed as a young man. It helped tremendously.
“I’ve been able to step out and use my tragedy for triumph. He’s been able to do the same on the field.”
Eli Harold became the top prospect in the state of Virginia as a senior, his mother never far from his thoughts. He finished with 16 sacks and accounted for 1,146 yards and 20 touchdowns as a quarterback, running back and wide receiver on offense.
Life has been a little more difficult now that Harold has arrived in Charlottesville. He didn’t learn Virginia’s defensive scheme until the end of training camp, and coaches look forward to the day when he’s at his ideal weight of 245 pounds.
“I have a really high metabolism. No matter how much I eat, it always seems to vanish some way, some how,” said the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Harold, who has 16 tackles this season. “I’ve always been faster than the other guys. I just usually, when I was in high school, I just ran around or I just bull-rushed. Now in college, you’re not gonna bull rush a guy 90 percent of the time. They weigh like 320 pounds.”
Harold envisions himself eventually playing like Washington Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo, noting Orakpo came to Texas weighing just 208 pounds. And he’ll get more chances to show that talent in the coming weeks now that Virginia has seen its season spiral with five straight losses entering Saturday’s game against Wake Forest.
“He plays with such a passion and an energy about him that’s refreshing and that we need more of,” Coach Mike London said.
“He’s going to be a special player here.”
Harold’s most impressive performance yet meant an appearance at Virginia’s news conference this week, where he was asked what went into that first sack last Saturday. With his long arms spread across the table, his mind drifted to a text message.
“My older brother . . . had texted me: ‘Ball out. You know who you’re playing for,’ ” Harold said. “I told him I was gonna try to get my first sack for him. And I did that.”