Erik Harris went from making potato chips to playing NFL safety

Las Vegas Raiders free safety Erik Harris (25) plays against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Credit: Isaac Brekken

Credit: Isaac Brekken

Las Vegas Raiders free safety Erik Harris (25) plays against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

After his college football career was over, Falcons safety Erik Harris found himself working in a potato-chip factory in Hanover, Pa.

“It was the worst job in the whole plant,” Harris said Tuesday. “I worked above 600-degree ovens, and it was about 110 degrees in there every day. I had to wear pants.”

Harris, who recently signed with the Falcons, didn’t need a weight-lifting session after his work duties were completed.

“I would take 50-pound corn-flour bags and dump them into a dry hopper, send it up into a mixer, mix it up and (then) pour it down to the fryers underneath,” Harris said. “Did that for 11 hours (a day) for a whole summer. Very humbling. It was very humbling. I do not miss that job, but I am thankful for that job.”

Harris, 30, of New Oxford, Pa., started the job after playing at NCAA Division II powerhouse California (Pa.). When his football eligibility was up and after a summer at the factory, he went back to school to earn his degree and worked for a delivery company.

“Not knowing where my future was going, at the same time I felt in my heart that there was a place for me in the NFL,” Harris said. “I didn’t know (where) the journey would take me.”

While serving as a manager at UPS, Harris paid $80 and drove five hours to Buffalo for a tryout with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. He impressed them enough and earned a three-year, $45,000 (Canadian) deal.

“So, I took a chance,” Harris said. “It was an opportunity for me to continue to play ball. Just looking at my situation, I didn’t go to a big school. I went to a really good, talented D2 school. Never was really the man at D2, at my school. We had a lot of D1 transfers. I kind of got overlooked.”

The Saints and their pro personnel executives, including new Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot, had heavily scouted Canada for years. The Saints drafted Akiem Hicks out of Regina (Canada) in the third round of the 2012 draft. They signed cornerback Delvin Breaux in 2016, a former LSU player who played for the Tiger-Cats.

The Saints also signed former Georgia high school Class 5A defensive player of the year Marcus Ball, who played in the CFL for the Toronto Argonauts, in May 2015.

Harris remembers the day he met Fontenot.

“In 2016, my first workout,” Harris said. “They flew me down on Feb. 1. Worked out on Feb. 2 and signed Feb. 2.”

Harris had some help from inside the building.

“At the time I was in the CFL, one of my best friends was Delvin Breaux,” Harris said.

Breaux started 16 games for the Saints in 2015 and six in 2016.

“He just kept putting in a good word for me and pretty much kept bugging them, ‘Hey, work my guy out,’” Harris said. “‘He can do it all.’ Finally, they gave into him after listening to him for a whole year. They worked me out, and that’s all she wrote. It’s just been blessings every since.”

After two seasons (2015-17) with the Saints, Harris, who’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, signed with the Raiders. He’s spent the previous four seasons with the Raiders.

In 2020, Harris totaled 61 tackles and five pass deflections. With the Raiders, Harris totaled 189 tackles and two interceptions. He became a mainstay on the Raiders’ defense in recent seasons, starting 26 of 30 games over the past two seasons.

The Falcons have parted ways with their top three safeties, Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee. Neal, who signed with the Cowboys, and Allen were starters in Super Bowl LI for the Falcons. Also, safety Sharrod Neasman was allowed to become an unrestricted free agent.

Harris joins Jaylinn Hawkins, a fourth-round draft selection in 2020, and T.J. Green as the only safeties on the roster.

Last season, the Falcons plastered the Raiders 43-6 on Nov. 29 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Harris played four plays from scrimmage at free safety and 21 plays on special teams during the rout.

He was impressed by what clearly was the Falcons’ best showing of the 2020 season.

“We have the pieces here in Atlanta,” Harris said. “I’m just looking forward to bringing my leadership and what I can control. Help the younger guys around me be better players. Helping them to take some of the thinking away from some guys and just allow them to be the athletes that they are. Really, it comes down to just my leadership.”

Harris played mostly free safety for the Raiders. He sounded like another coach on the field, which was Allen’s role as free safety for the Falcons.

“I think the beauty of (defensive coordinator Dean) Pees’ defense is that it is multiple,” Harris said. “You never know where pressure is coming from. I could be down or I could be back. ... Free safety, obviously strong safety, but you’re really got to be able to do everything in his system.”

And if anyone needs a tip on some snacks, Harris said the salt-and-vinegar chips are the best.

Falcons’ 2021 draft position: Here are the picks in D. Led’s Mock Draft 2.0: Top five picks

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence (QB, Clemson)

2. New York Jets: Justin Fields, (QB, Ohio State)

3. Miami Dolphins: Ja’Marr Chase (WR, LSU)

4. Falcons: Kyle Pitts (TE, Florida)

5. Cincinnati Bengals: Penei Sewell, (OT, Oregon)

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