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Crusaders’ Harrell dynamic on and off field


Published:   |   Updated: October 11, 2013 at 06:25 AM

TAMPA — Public speaking ranks No. 1 among things that people fear most, right before death, according to a famous story in the Wall Street Journal.

TJ Harrell says he loves public speaking.

“I’ll talk about anything,” Harrell said. “I don’t know what it is, but I love getting in front of people and giving a speech.”

Most kids in high school wouldn’t announce that they were chubby, even if they were chubby in elementary school.

TJ Harrell says he was chubby as if he was proud of it.

“I was soooo chubby,” Harrell said, grinning. “I had a lot of baby fat.”

When football players are asked whether they would rather play offense or defense, they almost always — as in, about 95 percent of the time — say offense: Players want the ball in their hands, to be in the spotlight.

TJ Harrell says he doesn’t care.

“People think I’m lying when I say I like both offense and defense equally,” said Harrell, a senior star at Tampa Catholic. “To me it’s pretty much the same. It’s football. I just love to play the game.”

To say TJ Harrell marches to the beat of his own drum is to understate it, especially when it comes to playing football. He sprints to the beat of his drum — sub 4.5 seconds in the 40 — and he does it all over the field.

Running back. Wide receiver. Defensive end. Inside linebacker. Outside linebacker. Safety. Kick return team. Kickoff team.

He has played them all in every game this season.

“And he’s played them all at an extremely high level, which is extremely difficult to do,” said Tampa Catholic defensive coordinator David Lewis, who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1980s and has coached locally for more than 20 years. “I would have to say he’s one of the top three most versatile players I’ve coached or been around.”

Lewis said Harrell’s dynamic personality — sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, affectionate, empathetic, confident, obstinate, hard-nosed — fits the way he plays on the field.

“He’s everywhere, doing everything,” Lewis said. “He will simply do whatever it takes in whatever situation to help the team. He knows he can do it, and he wants to help.”

This is not to say that Harrell — who is being recruited by Division I universities across the country (with Louisville and Florida State currently in the lead) — has always done everything right.

“I used to have some attitude from time to time,” Harrell said of his freshman and sophomore years at TC. “I got kicked off the track team for a little while for doing some things I shouldn’t have been doing. I got sent home from some practices.”

In those early years, Harrell said he didn’t appreciate the structure at Tampa Catholic.

“With the kids I used to hang out with, we didn’t have that structure,” Harrell said. “It was something I had to learn the value of.

“I’m so glad I did. I can’t even explain how appreciative I am of my teachers and coaches. They’ve prepared me for a bright future.”

For the moment, Harrell said he wants to soak up every moment possible in his senior year, and make the most of this year’s football season, which he believes could end with a state championship.

It certainly looks like he’s thinking realistically, with the Crusaders at 5-1 and 2-0 in Class 3A-District 4.

That’s one of the reasons Harrell hugs everybody, from his teachers to his coaches, when he sees them — every day.

“He hugs me and he won’t let go,” Lewis said. “I yell to the other coaches, ‘Get this boy off of me. He’s hugging me to death over here.’ But he won’t stop (laughing). But then, hey, that’s TJ, so it’s all good.”

TC head coach Mike Gregory says there isn’t anybody who doesn’t like Harrell, and not just because he’s one of the best football players in the country.

“TJ has that personality that gets along with everybody,” Gregory said. “He’s a rare character, and we all feel lucky to have him on our team.

“For a lot of reasons.”

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