Before Najee Harris played in the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship, he joked that his Alabama teammate Tua Tagovailoa would have more fans in the stands at Levi's Stadium than he would, despite Harris playing in front of his hometown fans in the Bay Area.
"Never more than Tua," Harris said with a laugh. "Never."
Now two years after that heartbreaking loss to the Clemson Tigers, Harris was back in the national championship for the third time in his four-year career at Alabama. Days prior to Monday's title game, a digital billboard was seen of Harris in Antioch that read #AntiochStrong. Truth be told, Antioch and the rest of the Bay Area have always kept its eyes on Harris. From overcoming years of adversity with his single mother and four siblings in the East Bay to becoming a star on and off the field for the Crimson Tide, Najee has given his home fans every reason to always watch over him.
Harris, 22, capped off his historic college career Monday night in Alabama's 52-24 blowout win over Ohio State with 158 total yards (79 rushing and 79 receiving) and three total touchdowns (two rushing and one receiving). His 30 TDs are the most in a single season in both Alabama and SEC history. He holds the Alabama record for most career rushing yards (3,843) and rushing touchdowns (46) in school history. Harris also holds the school record for yards from scrimmage (4,624) and total TDs (57).
As a two-time national champion and Alabama record book staple, Harris compiled the greatest college career by an Alabama running back ever. Better than Derrick Henry, Shaun Alexander, Mark Ingram and so many others. But it wasn't always easy. Not as a youth, and not in Tuscaloosa.
Harris spent time in homeless shelters and hotels as a child before moving to Antioch when he was 13 years old. He admitted frustration in sharing a backfield with future NFL running backs in Josh Jacobs (Raiders) and Damien Harris (New England Patriots) his first two years of college. There even have been reports he thought about transferring after his freshman year. But Harris stuck with the plan, and he's extremely thankful he did so.
“I’m different in a lot of ways,” Harris said to the San Francisco Chronicle's Ron Kroichick days before the championship game. “I guess you could say I’ve matured a lot, just in going about life and school. I’m growing into a man, I guess … just being more responsible. I approached school differently (this year), 100 percent."
Harris has been vocal about his preference for his home over Alabama. He even got a "Bay Area" tattoo last year. Really, he took the best part of the Bay with him to the South. Harris graduated with a degree in consumer sciences and earned a minor in social welfare. He recently went viral for remembering Kroichick's voice over a Zoom press conference. Harris even imitated fellow Northern California legend Megan Rapinoe and explained how he has been inspired by the USWNT star.
"Megan, she go crazy," Harris said before beating Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl. "She's from California, first of all. And she listen to Nipsey [Hussle]. Nipsey Hussle's like one of my favorite rappers, too. She gave a shoutout to him.
"But really, just all the stuff she stands up for. She's a feminist in how women in the world get treated unfairly and how they get paid different than men. So she really stands up for all that, I like how she does all that. Obviously all the social injustice, she plays a part in all that. And for her to be a woman and saying all that stuff, it could be scary for her for being a woman in what they would say is a man's world. And her just playing a part, standing up, not listening to all the naysayers out there and standing up for what she believes in, it's motivating and it's inspirational.
"Me as a male, I guess you could say ... not too many males would say that they look up to a woman. But I really look up to her, just for what she does outside of sports."
Harris himself helped lead a walk in Tuscaloosa during the summer to protest racial injustice. He wore a shirt that read "Defend Black Lives; racial solidarity against this corrupt system" while walking next to coach Nick Saban. Harris, who was seen as reserved growing up, even gave a speech at the event.
“This is not a problem that will simply come and go in a news cycle,” Harris said, according to AL.com. “It is not a problem that will eventually dissipate without action. Being here today is a huge step, but I ask you, what’s next? For certain, we can’t let this momentum die. This has to be an ongoing movement until change happens. We must do more as a team and as individuals to keep this movement going.
“This call for change cannot end here today. We walk to this schoolhouse door intentionally because, while much has changed in the last 57 years, too many things have not. So in the present moment, we as student-athletes need to play our part in bringing out positive change. ... We need change in our system of law enforcement, we need change in our communities and we need change in our hearts.”
The star running back is a culture changer. Antioch High School won one game his freshman year when he rushed for 165 yards on the varsity team in 2013. They then won seven games his sophomore year and reached the second round of the playoffs when he rushed for 2,263 yards and 23 touchdowns. Antioch won the Bay Valley League his junior year when they went 11-1 as Harris rushed for 2,744 yards and 36 touchdowns, and they reached the second round of the playoffs his senior year when he gained 2,776 yards rushing and scored another 34 rushing TDs. He finished his high school career with 7,948 rushing yards, which is a Bay Area prep record and the fourth-most in California history.
Now, Harris is ready for the next step, one that any Bay Area high school football fan saw coming. He returned to Alabama for his senior season and went from a late-second or early-third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft to the top running back in the draft class and a likely first-round pick. It seems unlikely he lands with the 49ers, the team he grew up rooting for, or the Raiders, the team that took his former teammate (Jacobs) in the first round two years ago. Both teams have to hope Harris isn't in their division for years to come, though.
From his days bouncing between homes as a child to cementing his legacy in college, Harris grew in every sense of the word. He grew as an imposing force on the football field and a better student in the classroom. Most importantly, he grew as a person, understanding just how important his voice can be.
No matter where Harris winds up next, he'll always know where home is and he'll never have to search for fans. The Bay will always look out for one of its very best.