After a state 100 meters record, a bushel of touchdowns and a highlight reel of dunks, we've just about run out of superlatives for Tuff Harris.
It was not quite a year ago when Chester Harris was explaining his name, just after he flew through the 100 meters faster than any high school athlete - 10.77 seconds, at the State A meet at MetraPark. It has all been documented: The son of Jerry and Melody Harris survived a couple bouts in infant pneumonia, which is tough (or Tuff) duty; since then, the nephew of Hardin sprinter Faylene Caton and brother of Lodge Grass sprint champ Jerilyn Harris hasn't stopped running.
Tuff himself - we like that name better than his given name of Chester, which could've spawned even worse word play (Cheetah) than we've gone through with Tuff - said that when he was in sixth grade, he ran the anchor leg on the Lodge Grass junior high relay team. Meaning he was faster than any eighth grader there. "And I've been gradually getting faster every year," he says.
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If so, the senior should have no trouble leading Colstrip's boys to a third straight Class A track crown, in Missoula May 24-25.Freak of nature After his exploits at last year's state meet, teammate Kevin Criswell trumped all the sports writers when he summed up Harris with: "He's a freak." This term of endearment was followed by the idea that Harris - who'll join the basketball-playing Criswell at the University of Montana next year on a track scholarship - wanted to play college football. "Maybe if he runs a 10.4 he'll rethink that," Criswell said.
Well, Harris hasn't run a 10.4 this weather-bitten season. It's been cold, and he's also put on some muscle mass - he weighed 177 pounds last year, and is up in the 185-190 range now - that Colstrip coach Lyndon Conroy feels Harris may be still adjusting too. And the jury's still out on his college athletic career(s).
"I really want to run track, and possibly get to the next level, as far as competing at the NCAA Division I level," he said. "I really want to."
Then he adds, "In football, too."
"I know Tuff really likes football," said Conroy. "As an old football coach, I can understand that. But as a track coach know, he's such a natural track athlete, I think that's where he belongs.
"It'll be interesting to see how he does in college. I'm looking forward to it."New approach Harris was coached mainly by his parents before transferring to Colstrip two years ago. Conroy remembers hosting a track meet in Colstrip, and that Harris, then a sophomore from Lodge Grass, cleaned up in the 200. Sterling Small, a sophomore hurdler for the Colts, asked Conroy something like, "Can my cousin run or what?"
"That was the first time I took notice of Tuff Harris," Conroy said.
A year later, after Jerry Harris had been removed as Lodge Grass' basketball coach and began looking for other schools for Tuff to transfer to, Conroy had a sprinter. Partly because of Small - who ironically transferred to Billings West less than a year later - Tuff ended up a Colt. "(Small) was one of the big reasons I transferred there," said Harris, smiling. "I love it in Colstrip, though."
Colstrip got an athlete with amazing springs, but one that came by his success without having to invest a lot of effort. Example: His five-step approach to the high jump. "We're just now getting him to where he has a real nice approach," said Conroy, who noted that Harris has cleared 6-foot-4 in practice. "It's a work in progress. Right now, he's just doing it all on his ups.
"And this year has been the season from hell - if it's not the wind or the 38-degree temperatures, it's the snow or the rain. Mostly the snow."
Lack of time to spend on technique aside, Harris has remained your standard, unbelievable, natural athlete. "The thing about that type of talent - it's amazing," Conroy said. "It has to be genetic.
"He comes by that speed naturally. But this year he's spent more time in the weight room, and he's a heavier kid this year than he was last year."Bumps and cruises When he got to Colstrip his work ethic was taken to task at times, and eyebrows were raised when Harris abruptly left the Colts' basketball team as a junior. He said that friction between himself and then-head coach Jim Wilsey got to be too much.
"Basketball's basically my relaxation sport," said the 6-foot Harris, who came back out for basketball last season, throwing down the occasional 180-degree dunk while averaging 17 points a game. "I like get a few dunks, shoot a few threes. He took it pretty seriously… I decided to hang it up."
That comment lends itself to Harris' sometimes enigmatic personality. But after he quit the basketball team, he hit the weight room - basically getting on a lifting program for the first time in his life. A few months later, he was tearing off 100 times of 10.68 (Eastern A Divisional) and 10.77 (State A).
This year's he's gone through the "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" program many high schools employ. The early returns would suggest that two out of three isn't bad - his best time in the 100 this year is 10.95, and he was beaten by Bozeman sprinter Ty Norris in the 200 Tuesday, at the Midland Roundtable Top 10 meet.
Afterward, Harris mentioned that he may "have to step up my training a little bit." Still, only one male athlete has more Roundtable wins than Harris' six.
The Colts will be at the Miles City Invitational Saturday. Soon enough, it'll be time for divisionals, then state. Looming, among others, is Havre junior Steve Heberly, who clocked a 10.7-second 100 this season, and who beat Harris in the 200 last year at state.
"That's kind of his hurrah, too," Harris said of the impending battles. "He has to defend that 200 title, and I have to defend the 100. It should be an interesting battle."