Tuff Harris, One Heart Warriors program building Native American leaders

Tuff Harris One Heart Warriors
Posted at 6:00 AM, Mar 30, 2024

BILLINGS — From Colstrip speed demon to the height of becoming an NFL player, Tuff Harris is continuing to apply his life skills by molding Native American leaders.

On a recent afternoon, Harris stood in the kitchen of his One Heart Warriors facility — where culinary skills are taught — sharing details of leadership training that has prospered since he launched it with the help of Faith Chapel seven years ago.

“Yeah, we pour into the individuals five areas: physical, spiritual, mental, relational and financial,” he explained.

The program is roughly nine months coinciding with the school year.

Bertha Hogan and Dominique Lopez are approaching graduation after rebounding from separate, strenuous life paths. Lopez entered the Job Corps as early as possible at age 16, and again at 21.

“A lot of my family is toxic, so there’s not really that option (for support),” she said.

Hogan was in a treatment facility and had been applying to different healing programs. After missing an email confirming that she had been accepted to One Heart, she was admittedly disappointed … until her treatment manager answered a phone call from Harris' group with great news.

“I was so excited telling everyone and just jumping for joy, and because of that I (accidentally) broke my phone,” Hogan said with a laugh, holding up the phone with a cracked screen.

Harris, a former starting cornerback and kick returner for the Montana Grizzlies, went on to play in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints. But he voluntarily gave up his NFL dream for a bigger one that now reaches the entire country.

“We’ve had people go back to Hawaii, Mexico City, California," he said. "We’ve had teachers, we have a mayor, basketball coaches. Some on the reservation, some in Native communities and some around the rest of the country.”

One of the creative funding sources for One Heart can be seen on vehicles with black and white specialty license plates outlined by the state of Montana with an arrow along the lower border.

One Heart Warriors specialty license plate

“We were getting our own license plates personally for our own vehicles, looked up and saw some specialty license plates and inquired, how do you get those? Partnering with the state to have a specialty plate for non-profit has been huge for us,” Harris said.

With that revenue source and a combination of grants, the program recently upsized to a more spacious One Heart home near Rocky Mountain College.

“It’s given us a lot of freedom to just dream again," Harris said. "We were borrowing spaces and growing as a young organization, but now we feel like we’re taking that next step.”

That includes the number of warriors he’s able to house — once nine — now up to 18.

Hogan, who grew up on the Crow Reservation, says she would love to return and guide others away from hardships that she has endured.

“I want to help others who’ve been through the struggles of addiction and abuse,” she said.

Lopez, who grew up in Billings, is also determined to make a difference.

“I want to advance in culinary arts, take up business administration and also get into classes for counseling," she said.

One of the most intriguing angles of One Heart centers on Harris’ original vision involving burning arrows.

“They had pristine arrow feathers, arrow tips, and everything was going out and they would hit the ground. So, I knew that had to do with leadership and Native Americans," Harris explained. "Young men and women, after this program, go back to wherever they came from, or wherever they’re launched out to be, (now) able to cause that fire — a good fire — that refines and helps the next wave of leaders to come through.”

One arrow at a time, One Heart graduates are paying it forward.

(Editor's note: Sunday we'll introduce leaders in Lodge Grass who, thanks to One Heart Warriors, are helping restore a town that had spiraled toward crime, drug and alcohol abuse.)