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November 25, 2011Love Chris Harper.
Love him because he's brash. Love him because he's athletic. Love him because he speaks his mind. Love his grin. Love his swagger. Love his sometimes-subtle taunts to opposing crowds. Love his knack for the big moment.
Love him for all of it. Or, if you're the opposition, hate him for the same reasons. He doesn't mind either way. Just know that the Kansas State team he represents is taking on his personality.
He shines the polarizing light on himself. Last weekend was only the latest example. Before "We own Texas" chants from purple-dressed fans rang out inside DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium and before his teammates tossed the Longhorn hand sign down, Harper fired the first shot. As always, he pulled the trigger with a smile loved by those who know him and loathed by those standing on the opposite sideline.
On a third down play with less than 15 seconds to play in the first half against Texas, Harper caught a ball in the corner of the end zone to put the Wildcats up 10-3. For a player who does as much talking as he does running on game days, quietly handing the ball to the referee and jogging to the sideline wasn't an option.
Instead, in a move made famous by bad-guy wrestlers, he followed his go-ahead score with a "bring it" gesture aimed at the hostile burnt orange crowd, motioning with both hands in an attempt to summon boos.
"A quiet road stadium is the best sound in the world," he said weeks prior to the game, and on a warm Saturday night in Austin, Texas, he bobbed his to the beat of his favorite tune.
And he wasn't done yet.
"Clean Texas sweep," he posted to his Twitter in the hours following the win, restating the fact that his Wildcats had defeated all four Lone Star State-based Big 12 schools in a single season.
"The state of Kansas definitely doesn't have any athletes lol," he added.
Harper loves Twitter. He uses it daily, possibly out of simple necessity. You see, the social networking site is the only way he's allowed to share his thoughts with the masses these days. After an early season rant about last year's trip to New York for what he deemed a disorganized and disastrous Pinstripe Bowl, Coach Bill Snyder slapped his receiver with a media ban.
That does nothing to mute him on Saturdays, though. Many times, his mouth moves as fast as legs, and the smack talk isn't always self-serving. He does it on his teammates' behalf as well. When a University of Miami defensive back suggested that Harper "tell his quarterback to throw" in an early season game, the receiver's response didn't take much thought.
"Why don't you guys stop him from running first?" he answered, referencing the 93 rushing yards Collin Klein had amassed on the Hurricanes.
His appearance on the no-interview list isn't a product of a personal vendetta Snyder holds against his top wideout. He actually appreciates the boisterous persona, which he refers to as a "spirit." He realizes Harper's spirit needs censored at times, but the positives at work aren't lost on the 72-year-old coach. Don't be fooled, this is exactly what he wants.
"He's confident in the right way," Snyder said of Harper. "That goes for all facets of his existence, not just football."
There's no telling what would gush from his mouth if coaches didn't provide a filter and an omnipresent watchful eye. Make no mistake, this version of Harper's bravado -- the one K-State fans are getting to know -- is watered down. Even so, its scent is spreading from the epicenter.
"As far as development of confidence goes, it's kind of chicken-and-egg," Snyder said. "I can't tell you that all of our youngsters had immense confidence until after we had achieved something, but some did. They're not all the same, and they pick it up differently."
Harper was an early adapter. He brings Mike and Ikes to the field and eats them during games. And when the cameras catch his mug on the K-State bench, it's never by accident. Cameramen love Chris Harper, and the feeling is certainly mutual.
"He sits by Collin Klein all the time," said Weston Schartz, who coached Harper at Wichita Northwest High School. "You know why, right? I know. It's to get on television. I know that kid like the back of my hand. I watch on TV and say, 'Look at that media hound.' It's great.
"I've known him since he was in sixth or seventh grade. You could see the confidence just oozing out of him even then."
Snyder sees it as "spirit" and Schartz calls it "confidence", but the younger generation knows Harper's defining trait as "swagger." Whatever you label you choose, it's what's led him to glisten under the brightest of lights.
He's racked up critical first-down catches and game-changing touchdowns grabs this season, but the dramatic flare is nothing new. As a high school sophomore, his Northwest basketball team was locked into a contested state championship game before Harper went ? well, Harper in the final seconds, making a steal and turning it into the winning bucket as time expired.
The now-familiar smile he flashed after the buzzer said it all. Was there ever a doubt?
The answer, at least from Harper, was a resounding "no." With him, it always is. "Awe shucks" is not his specialty and, suddenly, it's not these Wildcats', either.
"Chris' confidence has spread throughout the entire team, especially us receivers," fellow wideout Curry Sexton said. "Guys that really weren't on board at first are starting to sound like him. They know we're a top-10 team that can compete with anybody we play. That's our mentality now."
The effect it has had on K-State's on-field performance is debatable at best, but some things are not.
"Chris likes Chris," Sexton said. "But they way he is with us, it makes it funny."
It may be fodder for jokes within the K-State locker room, but not many defensive backs in other jerseys are left smiling after a game of enduring it.
Then again, that's kind of the point.