James Harris sensed he was on to something special almost the minute he slipped his feet into a pair of racing spikes.
The realization that his track and field career at Lanett (Ala.) High School had unlimited potential happened last year during the weekend of June 18-20 at the Nike Outdoor Nationals in North Carolina.
A somewhat unknown competing in the unseeded heat of the 400-meter run, Harris shocked his competition by capturing his race and finishing third overall.
His time, a career-best clocking of 46.86 seconds.
“I knew I had my work cut out for me,” Harris recalled. “I just wanted to do the best I could. After I finished, there were (college) coaches all over the place lining up to give information and phone numbers to my coach.”
Harris doesn’t have colleges knocking at his doorstep anymore for the simple reason that he’s already made his decision and will extend his career just over the Alabama border at Mississippi State University where he accepted a full scholarship to compete for the Bulldogs.
As far as still opening eyes among his peers, that’s never stopped.
The Lanett senior ranks among the top sprinters nationwide in both the 200- and 400-meter runs. Demonstrating his versatility, he’s also No. 3 on the list in the high jump based on his personal-best leap of 7 feet, 3 inches which he set at the Mike Spain Invitational at Opelika High on March 27.
“I never like to fall down and never get what I want,” Harris said. “I want to improve every year. That’s my main focus.”
Harris’s performance in Opelika came just a week after clearing the magical seven-foot barrier at the Valley High Invitational. What makes his excellence in the vertical leap more remarkable than the actual heights he has attained this year, is the limited time he’s had to prepare for his craft.
“At my high school we don’t have a high jump or long jump pit. I practiced the high jump one time this year, and that was before my first meet,” said Harris, during a phone interview on April 1.
“I don’t know how to get a mark,” he continued. “When I first started going high, I actually pretended I was on the basketball court and I would just time my jumps and it would get me over the bar.”
Harris, a wide receiver and safety for the school‘s football team, is a late bloomer to track and field. He really didn’t start focusing his attention solely on the sport until his junior year.
The 6-foot-5, 193-pound Harris, who grew up in Georgia and moved to Alabama in the eighth grade, had thoughts of only playing football and baseball at the high school level, two sports he participated in throughout his youth.
“I never knew track would come this way,” he said. “When I first started running, I did it more as something to stay in shape for football and baseball. I then began to realize I was good at it. I like to win. I like the relays. By the time I got to tenth grade, I figured track would be a way to pay for school.”
While he instantly turned heads his freshman season on the oval when he nearly cracked 50 seconds for the 400, Harris’s breakthrough year came in 2009 on both the track and in the high jump.
He won all three events at the AHSAA 2A State Championship where he ran 21.88 for the 200, a 49.12 clocking for the 400 and a then-personal best of 6-10 for the high jump.
Harris broke the state meet record with his effort in the 200. He owns a best of 21.20, also set last year.
“I had like 20 minutes before doing the 200 after the high jump,” said Harris, about his hectic schedule at the states. “I just got out really fast because I wanted to get the record. I knew I had to be focused more than ever. You just have to picture yourself doing it.” Harris’s effort at the NON was his first time participating in a national-caliber meet. He recently competed in the Nike Indoor Nationals in Boston where he fell just inches from winning his first national title. The 18-year-old Harris finished second to individual winner Brady Gehret of Altoona (Penn.) T.C. with a 47.73 clocking. Gehret won with a time of 47.69.
Harris held the lead after the first lap on the 200-meter oval of the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center. The race was only the second time that Harris ran on an indoor track. He ran on a 300-meter surface in Kentucky earlier in the season.
“About the 250 mark, Gehret made his move and I couldn’t pass him on the curve,” Harris recalled. “It really made me realize how prepared you have to be. You really do have to have a different strategy when you run indoors. I believe I still have a lot of time to learn it, but I was super proud of the effort.”
Harris was able to overcome some adversity in achieving his PB in the high jump at the Spain Invitational. Before clearing 6-4, a height that none of his competitors could match, he twisted the ankle of his plant foot while walking to the men’s room.
But the mishap didn’t seem to affect his mindset. Harris went on to jump 6-9, 7-1 and 7-2 during a stellar series.. He also cleared 7-3 on his first attempt.
“Everything was clicking,” he said. “I was super confident.”
After graduation this June, Harris has his eyes focused on his collegiate career and the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012 where he’s looking to compete in the 200, 400 and high jump.
As for the immediate future, he’s hoping to defend his three outdoor titles next month.
He’d also like to win a team crown.
“My school has never won a state championship in anything,” Harris said. “It would be a great way to end my high school career.