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November 7, 2013

Harmon sorry for mistakes

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Former Georgia offensive lineman A.J. Harmon has a message for young college football players out there who might be feeling sorry for themselves, or disgruntled because they're not getting the playing time they thought they would initially receive.

"Even if you're running with the twos and threes, don't be dragging your butt out there," Harmon said in a telephone interview with UGASports. "When you get on the field, it's a job. It's your job until the time you get off that field. Whatever is going on, you can't let that bother you. If you're not playing, you sit there worrying about it, you're going to end up like me, playing in the NAIA, playing for an NAIA program."

Harmon wishes he would have heeded his own advice when he was still a member of the Georgia program.

A four-star performer out of Jefferson County, Harmon was considered one of Georgia's biggest recruits in 2008.

But after a roller-coaster three seasons in the program, Harmon was eventually deemed academically ineligible shortly after the 2010 campaign before transferring to Alabama State.

However, Harmon would never play in a single game as he was kicked out of ASU before eventually found his way to Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tenn., where he's played for the past two seasons.

While Harmon's tale is certainly sad in many respects, it does appear there will be a happy ending. According to Harmon, he's only a few courses shy of graduating before he embarks on what he hopes is a career in the NFL.

Making sure other athletes don't make the same mistakes he did is also a goal. If not, he warns, they can end up just like him.

"No disrespect to the NAIA, there's some ball players here but it's a different situation from there. At Georgia you've got everything you need. You've got free Gatorade, free Internet access things like that," he said. "Here, the equipment is not that good, it's not up to date, you're wearing cleats from last year and there are ants all in the locker room. There's like two buildings where everyone takes classes here and we play our ball on a high school field. There might be 100 people at your game. It's certainly not 93,000 people like between the hedges."

Cumberland coach Donnie Suber obviously knows Harmon's story well.

After leaving Alabama State, Harmon moved in with former Bulldog Fernando Velasco before contacting Suber that he wanted one more opportunity.

Suber agreed, got Harmon into school, where he got his grades in order and suited up for the Bulldogs in 2012. Now, in his senior season, NFL scouts from virtually all 32 teams have come to Lebanon to check out the 6-foot-5, 325-pounder, whose off-field struggles did not end once he arrived in Lebanon.

"When he first got here, and it wasn't his fault, the previous coach and some others, because he came from Georgia, built him up and that put a lot of pressure on him and I think some of the other kids we had took it the wrong way," Suber said. "It took him about a year where everybody was comfortable with him, but it wasn't him, he's a good boy. He hasn't gotten in any trouble, he's kept his grades up and he's gone to class, although took him a while to warm up to everybody."

Harmon said he's been determined to finish what he started.

"It was something that I always wanted to do, play college ball. I want to be able to go to the league and the only way to do that is to go to college," he said. "With all that I've been through I feel it's prepared me for anything the league would have to offer, and that is finishing the drill, work hard to get to that next level or when I do get to the league and don't make it, I've been through enough to realize OK, it just wasn't meant for me there. But giving up is something I've never done and I will never give up on nothing."

Harmon's journey hasn't been an easy one.

After his grandfather died, Harmon lost who he said was his best friend and his biggest fan. Without him, life was tough.

"As a kid, I was fat, slow and couldn't keep up with the other guys. Girls didn't want to talk to me and a lot of folks didn't think I was going to amount to nothing," Harmon said. "But when you know you want to make something out of your life, you've got to do it. You've got to put your head down and go to work. You do that and everything is up to you. It took me a while to understand all this but God kept waking me up every day and one day it came to me and hit me. Just stay humble, just stay vigilant to the task at hand."

When he chose the Bulldogs over Clemson in Feb. of 2008, Harmon thought his troubles were over.

Not quite.

After signing to play as a defensive tackle, Harmon spent a year at the position before being moved to the offensive line, a coaches' decision he admits that he didn't handle well.

"At the time, it was embarrassing for me to be one of the top tackles in the nation and just go to waste like that," Harmon said. "But it was nobody's fault but mine. I've grown up a lot so it was all on me. By being the No. 1 this, No. 1 that, you think everything is supposed to be given to you. When you're a young and dumb student you don't need to think like that. But I was arrogant at first because I was like 'OK, they want me here they want me there' but when you don't play it's a wake-up call."

Life didn't get any better under former offensive line coach Stacy Searels.

Harmon, who starred as an offensive lineman in high school, thought the transition would be a seamless one. It was far from it as Harmon barely saw the field.

"At first I was blaming him but at the end of the day I didn't give him my trust. I didn't make him comfortable enough to put me in and play me on Saturdays, and that's because I struggled with the playbook," Harmon said. "Looking back at it now being in the NAIA and picking up on plays, I think it's the easiest thing now and I wish I had sat down because I'd probably be in the league right now. I did it to myself. Enjoy the football part? No, but that was because I shot my own self in the foot."

Harmon's story took another bad turn just prior to Georgia leaving for Memphis to play Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl.

"I was having issues before the bowl, it was more about me not playing and me and Coach Searels - he was staying on me - and he beat me mentally," Harmon recalled. "I couldn't handle it. It started not caring, going out on top of that, trying to get away from all the emotional stuff. I was trying to find a way. But during that time, my cousin committed suicide. After that, I didn't do well on my tests, failed my tests and wound up staying home."

Shortly thereafter, Harmon was ruled academically ineligible, ending his Georgia career.

It wasn't long after that Harmon soon realized what a fool he had been. Watching the Bulldogs' 2011 season-opener against Boise State was the jolt he said he needed.

"That was one of the hardest thing I've ever done, watching them play and not being on the field. I cried the whole game long and it still hurts to this day," Harmon said. "I was a friend's house and I crying the whole game. I could barely watch it. It bothers me to this day, watching Kenarious Gates, Chris Burnette, Aaron Murray, watching those guys when I was still there. It's tough. It really is tough."

Through it all, Harmon said he still bleeds red and black.

He still keeps in touch with some of his former teammate and even chats and texts with Bulldog head coach Mark Richt, who said he wishes Harmon the best.

"We love A.J. Harmon. He's a great kid. It didn't work out for him at Georgia but he's been working hard, is pursuing his degree and is pursuing a shot at pro ball like he dreamed of coming out of high school," Richt said. "He has visited from time to time and he'll come by. Every once in a while he'll text and congratulate me after a big game or something like that. We've still got a pretty good relationship."

Harmon will get one more opportunity to be on the practice field with his former teammates.

He's been invited to come back to Athens to take part in Georgia's annual Pro Day this March in what he hopes will be an important step to realizing his NFL dream.

Harmon also had a message for Bulldog fans.

"I'm still a Dawg at heart. Whatever they go through, I go through," he said. "Not being there is tough and I apologize for not giving my all. But having gone through it, I think it's made me a better person and a better player."



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