After his four-year career at California University of Pennsylvania, Erik Harris prepared for his NFL pro day in hopes to continue his football career. While Harris thought he did well enough during the workout, there was no follow up interest from any NFL team.
With the reality of life starring right at him in the face, he knew he needed to get a job. Harris started working at the UTZ potato chip factory in Hannover, Pa. where he was a corn mixer. His primary job was to make restaurant style tortilla chips.
"It was the worst job in the whole plant," Harris said. "I worked above 600-degree ovens and it was about 110 degrees in there every day. I had to wear pants. So I would take 50-pound corn flower bags and dump it into a dry hopper. Send it up into a mixer. Mix it up. Pour it down to the fryers underneath of me. Did that for 11 hours a day for a whole summer. I do not miss that job, but I am thankful for that job."
Harris then went back to school to finish his degree and got a second job, this time as a UPS Belt Manager. He was responsible for managing the "orange belt" where he was in charge of overseeing the belts where the boxes went out for delivery. A few months later in April of 2013, Harris was able to use the money he made to pay an $80 dollar fee and drove five hours to Buffalo to work out for Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.
For all of the hard work that went into getting to Buffalo, it ended up being more than worth it.
"They worked me out and that was all she wrote," Harris said. "It's just been blessings ever since."
The Tiger-Cats offered Harris a three-year deal and he played in 45 games and recorded 79 tackles and three interceptions before getting a call from the New Orleans Saints in 2016. That's where general manager Terry Fontenot first met Harris who made the 53-man roster that season. After four games, Harris tore his ACL and was waived by the Saints in 2017.
After his first stint in the NFL, Harris was given a second chance by the Las Vegas Raiders who signed him on a one-year prove it deal. Harris earned jobs as the backup free and strong safety in 2018 before getting his first start in the middle of the season. He continued to play at a high level for the remainder of the season and cashed in. The Raiders signed Harris to a two-year deal worth $5 million. Harris became the starting free safety for the Raiders and he recorded 74 tackles and three interceptions that season.
Harris started 12 games for the Raiders last year and forced one fumble and notched 61 tackles.
Six years later, Harris and Fontenot are reunited again in a different location.
"I felt in my heart there was a place for me in the NFL, I didn't know [where] the journey would take me," Harris said. "The journey has been amazing. I have a lot of people to thank for that."
The Falcons have a few holes to fill at safety with Damontae Kazee, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen all no longer on the roster. Those players each started at safety at some point for the Falcons in 2020.
Harris will bring a leadership role to a relatively young secondary and that aspect is one of the main reasons why he's excited to join the Falcons.
"I feel like I still have a lot left to give back to the game," Harris said. " [We] have the pieces; I was on the other end of it last year. I think it comes down to culture and holding each other accountable in the locker and playing for each other. I'm just excited to be a part of something that's bigger than me. I'm just looking forward to bringing my leadership and what I can control. Really it comes down to just my leadership."
The Falcons' roster will look different come September. The coaching staff is different. New schemes will be implemented and there's a lot of unknown surrounding Atlanta at this moment. And while some call might call it a "rebuild" that will take place, Harris looks at that as a positive, not a negative.
"I think people use the word rebuilding and they take it in a negative sense," Harris said. "I hear rebuilding, I hear opportunity."