Jason Harris lived in one state for the first 22 years of his life.
But his father, Al Harris, lived in seven before he even graduated high school.
Al moved from Air Force base to Air Force base everywhere from Maine to New Jersey to Hawaii, all before playing football at Arizona State and getting drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bears.
Jason, on the other hand, had planted stronger roots.
The graduate transfer linebacker for UCLA football (4-6, 4-3 Pac-12) was born and raised in Illinois and played high school football for his hometown Barrington High School. Al said his son had a chance to turn his career as a four-year varsity letter winner into a high-major, out-of-state football scholarship, but a knee injury in his junior year of high school limited Jason’s options.
“If you miss your junior year, that’s critical in terms of being recruited by Power Five conferences,” Al said. “Otherwise, I assure you he would have played at the top level.”
So with his options drying up, Jason committed to Illinois State in Normal, Illinois – just 145 miles south of Barrington.
There, Jason and Al were able to continue their father-son relationship both on and off the field. Illinois State gave Al access to some game film, and the two linebackers – one active, one retired for 20-plus years – would break down Jason’s performances.
“Sometimes, when (Al) was sitting close enough to our sideline, he’d yell my name and tell me certain things he wants to see me do in the pass rush,” Jason said. “He’s definitely got a lot to say, especially after games. I almost had two film sessions – with my dad and with my coaches.”
Al said he was happy to continue passing down the wisdom he gained from 11 years in the NFL – something the two had done for Jason’s entire football career.
“Some of the things that I just try to share with Jason, in general, come from experiences that I’ve had,” Al said. “I try to give him insight – it’s kind of like the son of a doctor growing up wanting to know information about being a doctor. … I just try to give him some information that I see – tendencies, how a guy’s setting up, how (Jason’s) setting up.”
Jason picked up 105 tackles and 5.5 sacks through three seasons in Normal, and said he eventually became one of the team’s most influential leaders. But when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, there was one year of NCAA eligibility beckoning him back to the field.
Al said, at first, he thought his son should stick it out at Illinois State.
“Initially, I wanted him to stay at (Illinois State) because I felt like he had one more year in him,” Al said. “And I thought, ‘You’ve been there all this time – why don’t you wrap things up?'”
But the younger had other plans. After an injury took the decision out of his hands in high school, it was finally time for a change.
“I was positive I wanted to transfer at the end of last season,” Jason said. “It was definitely time for me to move on. … I didn’t want to cheat Illinois State – if I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want them to have me there.”
Jason got an email from UCLA soon after entering the transfer portal. He boosted his GPA during his final semester at Illinois State and then had his high school coach reach out to UCLA’s tight ends and special teams coach Derek Sage.
This led to an eventual offer by the Bruins, but it meant Jason would have to move out of Illinois for the first time in his life.
The linebacker didn’t even hesitate.
“When you’re going to a new program or a new state, when I’ve never lived outside of Illinois, there’s always uncertainty, but I was never hesitant,” Jason said. “I was never like, ‘Should I go there or not?’ – I felt honored to have a scholarship from (UCLA).”
Jason’s sister had already been living on the West Coast for seven years, so he wouldn’t have been the lone west of the Mississippi. And despite the decades Al spent traveling the country, he said the decision was Jason’s alone.
“Jason pretty much made this decision himself,” Al said. “Even though he’s an Illinois kid, grew up in Illinois, it wasn’t a problem for him.”
Jason made it out to Los Angeles in time to enroll at UCLA in June, when he started pursuing a master’s degree in transformative coaching and leadership. He said he wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a teacher, nor did he want to become a football coach.
Instead, Jason said he wanted to build off the leadership skills he picked up playing for Illinois State and apply them in the business world. But at UCLA, he was starting from square one in the locker room.
There was already a group of veterans leading the linebacking corps, something that Jason said helped give him a new perspective
“It’s definitely been a humbling experience,” Jason said. “At my last school, I was blessed enough to be a three-year starter, so I was one of the leaders there, but then I come here where I’m a first-year guy. It’s been great to have guys like (redshirt senior linebacker Josh Woods), (senior linebacker Krys Barnes) and (redshirt sophomore linebacker Jayce Smalley) teach me stuff.”
Coach Chip Kelly said he has been impressed by Jason’s play this season, even holding him up as an example of how under-the-radar, late-addition recruits can make a real impact on the field.
“Jason Harris is a kid that we got late, and he’s made an impact for us,” Kelly said. “So you always try (to) manage that and see how that is, but recruiting’s never over – it’s a 24/7 cycle.”
Jason has racked up 19 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss in his debut season in blue and gold, with his first sack as a Bruin coming in UCLA’s victory over Stanford that opened its three-game winning streak.
The graduate transfer’s stats still haven’t done enough to shoot him up mock drafts, despite his NFL lineage. But with the lessons he has learned on the field and in the classroom, Jason Harris said he is looking forward to what lies ahead – even if it means having to build his role from the ground up yet again.
“I want to start working right away once I finish my master’s, or I could even get a part-time job while I’m still doing my master’s,” Jason said. “I know I like marketing, that’s something that really interests me, but I’d have to start from the bottom – we’ll see.”