College football's first female position player, Toni Harris has beat cancer, critics and wide receivers
Harris doesn't need your help, but she demands your respect
FAYETTE, Mo. -- David Calloway has had "the talk" with his players. That would be the one about respecting the female defensive back in their midst.
Not that Antoinette "Toni" Harris needs the help. Just this year she has been featured on the three network morning shows, a result of having her own Super Bowl commercial. A talent manager in Los Angeles is marketing her for other appearances.
She has beaten cancer. Disney is chasing Harris down for the movie rights to her story. When it came time to find her ideal four-year college, Harris chose Central Methodist University -- 1,700 miles from her L.A. home -- without having seen the place.
So, no, Toni Harris isn't going to be intimidated by much of anything.
"If you're on our team, and you have an issue [with her], there's a lot of other places you can go play football," said Calloway, coach at Central Methodist. "If you're a person who is narrow minded like that, you're probably not someone we want around here."
Women playing college football is rare but it is not new. Liz Heaston is believed to be the first woman to score in a college game. She kicked two extra points for Willamette University in 1997. Katie Hnida (Colorado and New Mexico) was the first woman to score in a Division IA (now FBS) game in 2003. Both were kickers.
Harris, 22, is believed to be the first female college scholarship position player. As a 5-foot-7, 164-pound safety, she doesn't look totally out of place in the small-college Heart of America Conference. Central Methodist is an NAIA school with an enrollment of 1,000 in this town of 2,700, located 120 miles east of Kansas City.
Summing up Harris' new surroundings, Calloway didn't have to say, it but he did anyway: "There's a lot of people at this level who are probably not going to play football for a living."
But living to play football? Harris has brought a national following with her to Fayette. Never mind playing for an isolated small-college program, the Seattle Seahawks tweeted out her intention to play in the NFL -- with them.
Harris counts among her acquaintances Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. They became besties at VH1's "Trailblazers Honors." "CBS Morning News," "Good Morning America" and "The Today Show" have celebrated her bad-assness.
"I'm thinking of majoring in crime scene investigation or being a homicide detective," Harris said of her Central Methodist experience. "I want to see how people die, when they die, what they die from, how long they've been dead, what was used."
Toyota marketing types were surfing the 'net looking for inspirational stories when they found Harris' fit perfectly for their Super Bowl commercial. She was inspired to play football at age 4 watching her cousin play in the Detroit Police Athletic League.
In high school, an athletic director pushed back on football as she was transitioning from junior varsity to varsity.
"Got kicked off the team when I was younger because I was a female," Harris said. "He said that football was a man's sport."
Harris was forced to sign a waiver that promised she wouldn't sue the school if she got hurt.
"Once football season was over, he said, 'Oh, what's next? Boy's wrestling? Boy's basketball?'" Harris recounted.
Her worst injury (knee) came from participating in cheerleading. Harris was named homecoming queen on the same night she was playing a game for Redford Union High School back in Michigan.
"I hurried and put my uniform back on at halftime," Harris said. "I even had some lipstick on my lips. My coach said, 'Now, Toni, I'm not going to put you back in the game until you take that off.'"
Four years ago, Harris was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Once recovered, she moved from her native Detroit, attending two L.A. junior colleges at once to earn dual associates in arts degrees. At East Los Angeles College, she played two seasons at free safety.
"We didn't make it easy for her, and she earned everything she got," said coach Bobby Godinez.
Harris has two years of eligibility left at Central Methodist. The Eagles, 4-6 in 2018, play in the same conference as NAIA national runner-up Benedictine College.
That Calloway believes Harris is good enough is all that matters. At this level, football is an equivalency sport meaning Calloway can divide 36 scholarships any way he sees fit throughout the entire team. Harris can up any shortfall with academic scholarships.
"I didn't say she [was a big hitter]," said Calloway, a former Division II player beginning his fourth season as coach. "She knows how to conduct herself on a football field. She's not coming up and trying to run somebody with a tackle. She puts herself in position."
Calloway had never met or seen Harris play live despite recruiting Southern California. Her name appeared on a prospect list. Calloway and Harris spoke via Skype. She met Central Methodist professors the same way.
Harris signed her National Letter of Intent in a teary February ceremony in L.A. The first time she saw the campus, those professors, Calloway or anyone she'd contacted up there was during a March 16 visit accompanied by her godmother, Sharon Glasper.
"We were blown away by the coverage this received," Central Methodist president Roger Drake said. "She's not a girl on a football field; she's a football player. I saw some of the highlight reel. Dang."
Two days later, Harris flew to New York for another "Good Morning America" appearance. She will report for football in early August.
"Outside of football, I am a female," Harris said. "When I'm at practice, I'm a football player. There are times when guys try to treat me like a female. I tell them, 'This is football practice.' All the girl stuff, it can't happen in practice."
Part of her story could have never happened at an NCAA school. That now-famous Super Bowl commercial linked her durability with that of a RAV4 sport-utility vehicle.
"Basically, both of us were shattering impressions of what people think we're capable of," Harris said.
Her compensation for the ad went into a bank account. The NCAA controls the name, image and likeness of its athletes. The NAIA allows such endorsements if they don't directly reference college competition.
"It's interesting, our approach vs. the NCAA in amateurism and other things," said Chesney Sallee, director of membership services for the NAIA. "We try to take a more common-sense approach."
When Harris got the call from Toyota, she was "literally in the locker room getting dressed. Being a role model is an honor, but it's also a privilege. I'm paving the way for the next little girl."
"If she stays out of trouble," Calloway said, "she can write her own ticket."
Trouble? There hasn't been a hint of it. Harris can't help if her father isn't in the picture. Her mother "wasn't fit to have kids, but we have a good relationship now," Harris said. Rather, she has been adopted four times at ages 4, 9, 13 and 15.
"There was some mental and physical abuse," Harris said of the first adoption. She chose not to elaborate.
Harris had just turned 18 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer four years ago. There were 16 chemotherapy treatments, three days apart in the beginning. Harris said she had been having issues with cysts since she was 9, pre-puberty.
"They started out being the size of a golf ball, then a softball, then they just didn't go away," she said.
The treatment was anything but routine. Harris lost half her body weight, going from 175 pounds to 90 pounds. At her church in Detroit, the faithful laid hands on her asking God for a cure.
Asked if she was close to death, Harris said, "I don't see it like that … I used to stay in the house a lot, stay in bed. I couldn't even go to classes because my body felt so weak."
There's another reason for Calloway to have "the talk" with his players.
"If I'm in the weight room next to her and I'm in there bullshitting and she is a cancer survivor, I'm probably not going to be playing around," he said.
There have been small adjustments on both sides. Calloway's equipment manager reminded him he would have to order women's shoulder pads. Yes, they're different than those made for men.
Calloway also had to think about where Harris could dress. The team practices in the morning, so that leaves open the women's soccer locker room that is otherwise occupied in the afternoon.
"I have a great job as a college president," Drake said. "I might trade that if I could be Toni Harris' agent. She just absolutely lights up a room when she walks in. Her smile is about half the size of Texas. She's got such a personality; she just takes over."
Calloway says Harris could be on the NFL Network – now -- as analyst. Getting to the NFL as a player is another discussion, one Harris already has had with herself.
She has a tattoo on the right side of her torso that reads, Be so good, they can't ignore you.
"That's the only way to get out there on the field with guys," Harris says. "You've got to give them no choice."
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