In the two-week buildup to Super Bowl 50, the narratives of two central characters dominated the media coverage: The age and impending retirement of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, and the race and polarizing personality of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
The rest of the more than 100 players who would suit up for the biggest football game of the year went largely ignored or overlooked, despite many of them have great stories worth telling on the brink of reaching the pinnacle of their sport.
One of those players was Broncos starting left tackle Ryan Harris, a 30-year-old Muslim American convert who helped Denver claim the franchise’s third Super Bowl championship in Sunday’s 24-10 victory over Carolina.
Sports fans typically love underdog stories. We love comeback stories. We want to (or at least we say we want to) root for the humble, hard-working athletes who display virtues of persistence and determination.
Ryan Harris is all of those things. But his story is still probably unknown to the mainstream fan base, even though he just spent the past two weeks under what will be the brightest spotlight of his football career unless (or until) he is fortunate enough to play in another Super Bowl.
And with so much focus on Manning, it was odd that the man theoretically most responsible for protecting the QB’s blind side received so little attention from a media and public so interested in Manning’s performance on the field.
In the Dec. 10, 2015 edition of The Denver Post, writer Nicki Jhabvala recounts some of Harris’ pro football journey, one that began with the Broncos and took its share of twists and turns before this season’s homecoming:
The questions and doubts arose after a third back surgery forced Harris to miss the 2011 season. The first came while he still was at Notre Dame, and caused the projected first-round pick to fall to the third round, where Denver would snag him with the No. 70 pick.
Other injuries — the toe that required surgery and landed him on the injured reserve in 2009, the ankle that kept him on the sideline for a few games in 2010 — dotted his career. But back injuries can be life-altering. Three back injuries can be career-ending. And there were times when Harris believed his time in the NFL had indeed expired.
“He was really broken, physically and mentally at that point,” said Wade Brinkman, one of Harris’ trainers who is based in Littleton. “It’s certainly a tough journey playing professional football, and the toll that it takes on your body. I know he was feeling a lot of that, and frankly, I think at times he was close to hanging it up.”
Harris, who maintained a home in Westminster after his first four seasons in Denver, started working with Brinkman while Harris was with the Houston Texans, in 2012. Brinkman trained Mixed Martial Arts fighters part-time at Factory X in Englewood, where the athletes are about half the size of Harris and the workouts stress conditioning and strength building.
“It’s a different sport, and he just about died,” Brinkman said. “On the floor, I could see a sweat ring that almost looked like a crime scene around Ryan. He said, ‘Man, you almost killed me.'”
For three days a week, an hour at a time, Brinkman would test Harris’ limits. A day of explosive exercises typically was followed by a day with a non-explosive workout. Stone-lifting was mixed with on-field work. Strength-building was combined with quick, high-intensity interval workouts and yoga.
Harris’ core had to be rebuilt. But his back couldn’t be destroyed — again.
Everything was monitored. Everything was quantified. Harris, who started the process with self-doubt and questions about his ability and his future, needed tangible proof.
“I wanted it, but I was like, ‘Man, it’s over,’ ” Harris said. “So now it’s like I’m going to do everything I can. Preparation isn’t going to be an issue for me. Physically, it isn’t going to be an issue. These are all things I can control.”
Brinkman said Harris’ strength has increased 100 to 140 percent in their three years of working together. But more significant, perhaps, was his ability to recover quickly. After interval workouts, Harris’ heart rate would rocket to 190 beats per minute. Following only a minute of rest, he could lower it to 125 or 130, key for a player who has plays nearly every snap.
“There’s a reason he’s better in the fourth quarter than the first, because everybody starts to drop off and he’s still the same guy because of his level of conditioning,” Brinkman said. “And as we saw, against New England, when he cuts that corner down and springs C.J. (Anderson) for the touchdown — I got 10 calls after the game. ‘Did you see Ryan cut that guy way down field?’ Yeah, I saw him.'”
Harris, who was born and raised in Minnesota, converted to Islam in the eighth grade. He was a football star and wrestler at Cretin-Durham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn., before getting a football scholarship to the University of Notre Dame. He played his first four years as a pro with the Broncos before missing that 2011 season, after which he played two years with the Houston Texans and one with the Kansas City Chiefs before returning to Denver this season.
Harris started every game for the Broncos this season at left tackle, but that was not originally part of the plan. The job previously belonged to Ryan Clady, a five-time Pro Bowl selection and one of the best offensive linemen in football. After Clady suffered a torn ACL in preseason workouts last May, the Broncos turned to Harris, who had been the Chiefs’ starter at right tackle the previous year.
The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder’s versatility and ability to adapt was crucial for the Broncos.
Manning, 39, is one of the slowest starting quarterbacks in the NFL and has been more prone to injury later in his career. The man protecting his blind side, therefore, must be an excellent pass blocker. And because the Broncos rely heavily on their running game — partially in an effort to reduce the wear and tear on Manning’s throwing arm — their linemen also need to be excellent run blockers.
Denver did not have a stellar offensive performance in Super Bowl 50. They only gained 11 first downs and converted just one of their 14 third-down opportunities. Denver compiled 90 yards rushing (3.2 yards per attempt) and Manning was sacked five times. Despite the Manning media overload, the real stars of this game were the members of the Broncos’ defense, who kept the explosive Newton in check and gave Denver’s offense great field position to start some key scoring drives.
But there were plenty of heroic performances on the Levi’s Stadium field Sunday, many that won’t stand out on the stat sheet and many that will not get the attention they deserve. One of them was turned in by Harris.