ALAMEDA (AP) — Shelby Harris had no idea what his football future would hold when he was suspended for his final college season at Illinois State.
After spending part of his time off waiting tables in an Italian restaurant, Harris was able to get into good enough shape to persuade the Oakland Raiders to draft him in the seventh round.
Harris then showed enough in training camp and the exhibition games to earn a spot on Oakland’s 53-man roster as a backup defensive lineman. Instead of viewing that comeback as an impressive feat, Harris said it is only the beginning.
“I knew the whole time I could make this roster,” Harris said. “It was just a matter of going out there and showing them. It’s a big step but the journey is not over. You made the roster but now what will you do? Are you complacent making the roster or are you trying to make a move up the roster and be able to play and make plays?”
Harris made a strong early impression in his start to his NFL career with one sack and eight quarterback hurries in limited time in the exhibition season. He has had ups and downs that would be expected after going more than 20 months without playing a game.
Harris was suspended for his final year of college at Illinois State for an undisclosed violation of team rules and kicked off the team. He previously had been suspended at Wisconsin and forced to transfer.
Harris does not want to talk about what led to his dismissal but says he was humbled by it and got an even deeper appreciation of playing football from his time away.
“Just watching all my friends and my teammates going out to practice every day, going out during the games, missing teammate camaraderie. It hurts,” he said. “It hurts just because that’s what you live for. When you play sports you live for being on the team, that teammate camaraderie.”
The Raiders were willing to overlook Harris’ transgressions to draft him in the seventh round in May because they believed in him as a person and player.
Harris had 14 sacks in three seasons at Illinois State and was an all-Missouri Valley Conference selection in 2012. But he was suspended from the team in March 2013.
He spent his year away from football working out and playing basketball to stay in shape. He also got a job as a waiter before leaving to train for the draft in Indianapolis.
“I still feel like I’m not 100 percent back but I’m making strides every day,” he said. “Just being able to be out here and perfect my craft every day. Every day it takes coming out here and working on it. I don’t know when I’ll be back and I don’t know when I’ll go past where I was but all I know is slowly I’m getting there.”
The Raiders like what they have seen so far, even though Harris has shown some inconsistencies.
“I like Shelby and when he sets his mind and goes,” defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said. “He’s very smart, so sometimes he thinks too much. ... We line him up inside and outside and he can handle it mentally, but he just needs to go fast. But I do like where Shelby’s progressing. As long as he works one play at a time, he’s got a chance.”
Harris’ transition to the NFL has been helped by the presence of veterans like Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith and Pat Sims on the defensive line.
Harris said working with accomplished players like that was the best part about being drafted by Oakland and has helped ease his way back into football. He is confident he can contribute in the NFL and is excited about the chance to show it to everyone else.
“I can definitely play at this level,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it in my head. I can go out there and be an impact wherever I’m needed. I have the confidence to play in this league and I have the skill to play in this league. Now it’s just to show everyone else that I have the skill to be able to play every day.”