That trip was one of the most tiring things I've ever done, going down there and back on a bus. But looking back on it now, it was all worth it for him.
They boarded a Greyhound bus in Manhattan's Chinatown just after dark on a damp, gray-sky spring evening. As the bus pulled away from the station, passing cluttered sidewalks and brightly lit signs hanging from the brick-and-concrete buildings, both mother and teenage son were nervous about their destination that seemed in the middle of nowhere.
For more than 13 hours, Lilliette Harris and her 14-year-old son Adrian sat on the cramped bus, unable to rest until they finally reached the strange new Southern world, where the sun was not obscured by high-rise buildings.
"The bus was so packed and people don't know how to share a space that tight, so we couldn't really sleep," Adrian said. "But I was so tired that I must have drifted off somehow, because I just remember my mom nudged me and said we were in Tennessee and to look at all the trees.
"We had never seen grass that green or mountains or farm animals. And when we finally got off the bus I remember it almost hurt my chest because the air felt so clean, like you could really take a deep breath and not smell cigarette smoke or pollution."
Although he grew up in New York's south Bronx, Adrian Harris knew he wanted out. And while his mother wasn't sure about the youngest of her six children going to school so far from her, she also wanted him to get away from the dangers of their neighborhood.
After completing middle school at Mt. Saint Michael Academy, where he was an academic standout, Harris, on his own, began researching boarding schools online. The first one he found was Baylor. Once he discovered Baylor was located in the South, the budding football star knew he wanted to visit.
I'm not exaggerating when I say there's a gang war going on between the building where I live and a couple of buildings down the block. A few people, even some boys Adrian's age, have gotten killed here. It's a blessing every day that Adrian is out of the Bronx.
"At the time I had just watched Alabama beat Notre Dame for the national championship, and it seemed like all the best college players came from the South," Harris said. "Once I read enough about Baylor's academics and saw they had a good football team, I began filling out the online application and told my mom we had to go visit the campus.
"At first, she told me that Tennessee was too far away. But once she realized how serious I was, we planned the trip."
Three years after making the exhaustive trip on a cramped, gamy bus, Adrian and his mother realize that decision has opened roads to opportunities he otherwise never would have had.
The 5-foot-9, 165-pound senior has become a key player on Baylor's football team, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and serving as one of the top punt and kickoff returners in the state. He has returned one punt for a touchdown this year and took back two kicks for scores last year, including against perennial power Brentwood Academy, which visits Baylor tonight in a matchup of state-ranked Division II teams.
"Pound for pound he's one of our strongest players, and he's definitely our fastest," Red Raiders coach Phil Massey said, adding that Harris was electronically clocked at 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash. "He's very versatile and is extremely dangerous out in space, whether he's running or catching the ball or returning kicks.
"We get contacted from kids or parents from outside the state a lot, but most of the time it doesn't work out. The thing that stuck out about Adrian was how determined he was to get here. It surprises me how independent some young people are, and (for him) to be that persistent at such a young age was impressive. He was looking for something, and his family wanted him out of the area where he lived."
Escaping the streets
From the window of her apartment building Lilliette saw danger, in all directions, waiting on the streets for her youngest son. Gangs fought for every inch of sidewalk in the neighborhood, and whenever Adrian would step outside, even for simple trips to the park to play basketball or to run an errand to the grocery store, Lilliette found herself worrying until he returned.
"I'm not exaggerating when I say there's a gang war going on between the building where I live and a couple of buildings down the block," Lilliette said. "Even though we have 24-hour police protection on our block, a few people, even some boys Adrian's age, have gotten killed here. There's crime all around our neighborhood.
"The younger kids are safer, but once they become teenagers, especially the boys, they become targets for gangs."
Growing up in a single-parent home, Adrian was left on his own for much of the day while his mother worked, requiring him to become independent. By the time he was 9 years old he was riding the subway to school by himself, and although he stayed out of trouble, he found ways to earn a little money through a variety of means such as selling water and taking bets on how many sit-ups or push-ups he could do at the park.
Adrian's mother put an end to his street hustling when he was robbed at knifepoint.
"Back home you associate somebody approaching you as being a problem," Adrian said. "When I got here I had to get used to people just coming up to me because they're friendly. But it didn't take long before I really liked the way it's more family-oriented here.
"I knew there was trouble outside my door, so I stayed in mostly. You can't be soft in New York. That's not allowed. I still have a lot of love for my neighborhood, but it's hard to go back there now and see how some of my friends are struggling."
Consumed with worry for Adrian, Lilliette began studying the network of tough, young men who ruled her neighborhood until she figured out who was the leader of the gang in her building. It didn't take long before she pinpointed the alpha male, and although the violence she knew he was capable of scared her, her motherly instincts gave her the boldness she needed to approach the physically imposing stranger.
"This guy was huge, like 6-4, 300 pounds," Lilliette explained. "I would see him in front of our building and offer to get him something to eat, and after a few times of being polite to him like that, I told him I had a request to ask. I explained what a smart kid Adrian was and that he had a chance to do something with himself and asked him to not let Adrian get caught up in any of the mess that was happening.
"I didn't know how he would take what I was saying to him, but he actually told me how much he respected me as a mother and that he wished his mother had looked out for him like that. After that, if Adrian was outside the building, this guy was the one who would get real serious with him and tell him to go home when it was getting dark outside. It wasn't long after Adrian left for Tennessee that this same guy got sent away to prison for murder.
"It's a blessing every day that Adrian is out of the Bronx. People in the neighborhood are so proud of him, and I tell them how well he's doing in school and playing football and how he's already picked up a little Southern accent. The ladies here love how he calls them 'ma'am' when he comes back home to visit. But to be honest, when he does come back, I don't relax until he's on his way back to Tennessee."
When he was only 5 years old Adrian was given a football by his uncle. In the absence of his father, football players became his heroes. Later, his coaches helped influence him to realize the sport could help him escape his tough surroundings.
Once he arrived at Baylor, he quickly learned that football in the South is more than just an after-school activity to pass the time. He spent his sophomore season adjusting to the speed of the game and the complexities of Division II competition before becoming a factor on the field as a junior. This season, he is one of Baylor's primary offensive weapons.
"Everything, on and off the field, was night and day different than what I had grown up around," said Adrian, who also runs track and is a member of the school's chess club. "I didn't know you could eat bacon and gravy and sweet tea with every meal until I came down South, or that everybody has their own car. Nobody uses public transportation like back home.
"And I couldn't understand (receivers coach) Cos (Dematteo) at all. He talks so fast and kind of slurs everything with a thick Southern accent. But he's so enthusiastic and ends everything with 'Yeah, baby!' so I knew I wanted to play hard for him. The game here is so much better than the level I had played, and I had never played in front of so many people as we do every Friday night."
Adrian has rooted himself so much not only in the Baylor campus but in Chattanooga that he has become the leader of a group whose senior project is to prepare and deliver meals to the homeless around the city. His plans after graduation are to study political science and become a lawyer. He said he also wants to return home and improve his old neighborhood by helping other kids find their way out of the dangers of the streets.
"It was very hard to leave him because I didn't want my baby going away that far from me," Lilliette said. "But Adrian did all the work to get there on his own, and once I saw how determined he was, and after seeing how beautiful the school was and how nice the people were, I knew it was the best thing for his future.
"That trip was one of the most tiring things I've ever done, going down there and back on a bus. But looking back on it now, it was all worth it for him."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.