Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Watch a Missouri football game on TV and you will have no trouble identifying the sport Charles Harris is best known for outside of football. Announcers love to credit his high-school basketball career whenever Harris, a 6-3, 255-pound defensive end, makes a stop on defense.
But it might have been Harris’ past experience sparring that really spurred his growth into one of the biggest pass-rushing threats in the Southeastern Conference.
Harris learned boxing as a way to stay “on (his) guard” growing up in Kansas City. He couldn’t say whether he was a frequent fighter as a kid, but put his tally at “more than 10” skirmishes.
“Where I’m from,” the redshirt sophomore said, “I don’t know if that’s really a lot or not.”
This summer, Harris put some work in at a Columbia gym to hone his pugilistic acumen.
“I really worked on my hand-eye coordination in terms of actually seeing things develop, in terms of seeing punches come at me,” he said. “That correlates to on the field where I can see somebody’s hands about to be placed on a certain spot on my body. I can just top it off.”
Like in the Vanderbilt game, Harris said, when the lineman opposite him tried to get up in his chest and Harris was able to slap down his hands with ease. Harris had three tackles for loss in the game, including a sack that knocked the ball out of quarterback Kyle Shurmur’s hands and into the possession of Missouri lineman Walter Brady.
On the season, Harris has six sacks, tied for fourth in the SEC. His 15.5 tackles for loss are tied for third nationally and best in the conference.
“He’s just getting better,” defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “Like, we pull up film of last year and watch him take on a block, and his feet aren’t as good as they are now. His hands aren’t as good as they are now. His get-off is better now. He’s stronger. All these things lead to him being a good player.
“He’s always played pretty reckless in terms of running things down and throwing his body around the way it’s supposed to be played, and he’s been able to do that at a high level. He does such a good job taking care of his body and training it in preseason that he’s put himself in a position where he can play like that.”
Incorporating boxing as part of that training has paid off, Kuligowski said.
“There’s something about playing an individual sport, when you have to only rely on yourself to get either mentally ready or not mentally ready,” he said. “You have to be prepared, and then you have to be tough. There’s a certain thing to keeping your body in position and all that stuff. Not that we have many boxers, but I think it does help.
“I used to wrestle. We’ve had guys that are wrestlers. That doesn’t necessarily make you a good football player, being a good boxer doesn’t make you a good football player, but those things help when you have to compete in a physical game like that one-on-one. I think it helps your mindset in terms of preparing you so that on game day you know what it’s like.”
When Harris came to Missouri out of Lincoln Prep High School, he said he sat fifth on the depth chart and didn’t expect to play until his fifth season.
Now, in his third year of eligibility, he’s answering questions about leaving early for the National Football League.
“It’s crazy how things happen,” he said.
Not that anyone should expect this to be Harris’ last year in black and gold.
“I’ve thought about it, but it’s not even a choice,” Harris said, “because I feel like I’m obligated to stay. I feel like I owe the Mizzou fans and my Mizzou staff and team another year.”
He also feels like he owes Harold Brantley, the junior defensive tackle who suffered season-ending injuries in a June car accident. Harris, who played sparingly last season behind future NFL-ers Shane Ray and Markus Golden, said he’s not willing to forgo an opportunity to start alongside Brantley.
“I never balled out with him,” he said. “In spring (camp), I mean, it was crazy. Me and him lining up next to each other and talking to each other, communicating on the field. I just feel like I was back to having fun and whatnot — not to say I’m not now, but that time was just great.
“I feel like once he comes back, once me and him dominate the league, then I can look at the next level. But I’ve got to be great here first.”
Harris said he feared initially Brantley might not return to the field, but once he heard Brantley’s multiple surgeries went well he felt confident the junior would return.
“All he has to do now is rehabilitate,” Harris said. “That’s all in his own hands.”
And if there’s one thing Harris is familiar with, it’s taking matters into your own hands.
“When you go out there in the ring or you go out there on the mat, it’s you and that guy,” Kuligowski said. “There’s nobody else, so you can’t come back and point fingers. The only person you can fix is you.”