MISSOULA — Tuff Harris was one of 14 members inducted into the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Harris earned all-state accolades in football and track and field at Colstrip High School before embarking on a stellar football career at the University of Montana. He appears in the Montana Grizzlies’ football record book eight times, including his 96-yard punt return for a touchdown against Eastern Washington in 2006, which is tied with Marc Mariani for the longest in program history. His 667 punt return yards that season became a Montana Grizzly and Big Sky Conference single-season record.
Harris sat down with MTN Sports to discuss his Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame induction as well as his football career, which included four seasons in the NFL.
MTN Sports: To start, can you talk about being inducted into the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame and how you’ve felt since then?
Tuff Harris: “I was actually on the Crow Indian Reservation, I was doing some work out there and I got a call from Donnie (Wetzel) Jr. and he kind of let me know I got inducted into the Hall of Fame. Kind of an overwhelming feeling for me, because that for me is kind of where it started, in Lodge Grass on the Crow Reservation, just surreal to be standing in the place. Most of my childhood and my upbringing and a lot of things that helped me get into the Hall of Fame and the things that I’ve been able to accomplish all started in the town of Lodge Grass, and to be doing work and get that call in that moment was pretty special, but, yeah, absolutely honored to be a part of this class. And it’s an all-star class. I mean, it’s amazing the caliber of people, the caliber of athletes that are being inducted, some of the other ones also like the M.O.A. official. It’s just amazing to grow up hearing these names a lot and to be able to watch these players play sports. It’s just absolutely amazing to be a part of this class. It’s kind of surreal.”
MTN Sports: Can you touch on this class of inductees?
Harris: “This class, along with former classes, I grew up watching any sort of videos and stuff, highlights and hearing their names. It’s just amazing to see how far they’ve gone and what they been able to accomplish, and a lot of them in the face of adversity. So to be able to see this class and these people and be a part of the class is something really special to be a part of.”
MTN Sports: Being back at the University of Montana, how have you felt?
Harris: “Yeah, being back is amazing. Memories kept flooding into my mind of things that I did, all my classes that I had taken, people that I met. It was life for me for five years here. And so for me to be back, we look forward for every excuse to come back and watch a game or be part of something like this. Those type of feelings, they just the flood back, just by the smell, the feel of the crisp air in the fall, in the winter, and being in the ballroom like this and being a part of an event like this that brings me back is special to me and my family. I met my wife here at the University of Montana and just such great memories.”
MTN Sports: How did your training and success in track and field translate onto the football field?
Harris: “Yeah, my parents started training us when we were young. Little Hershey track meets around the state, as well as sometimes out of the state, and my parents did a great job raising all the kids as athletes, training us. Their coaching education started with horses — they train horses, they ran the horses and they kind of did the same thing with us. They took us to the hills, kind of like they would take horses to the hills, you know, put them on a diet, all of those kinds of things. And so if you don’t mind the oats and hay at the end of the day, it was some good training. All jokes aside, I mean, it’s absolutely awesome. My foundation came from my parents, came from my family. It’s always been a family deal for us with sports and education and our upbringing, and just trying to do the best we can, and so, yeah, it started when we were young children, and it was always stressed that academics and athletics are very important and you can go very far in them. And I thank my parents a lot, because they told me education can take you even further than your sports can take you. And so I’m glad they did that. Sometimes families will fall short and tell their kids about academics when their athletics are doing so well. And so we got a good healthy balance of both. And that’s really where it started for me as a young child knowing that this is a family thing and having that support of a family is what really helped me go through some of the hardest times. When I was by myself, my parents and uncles, people rallied around me when it got hard, I would hear those voices and push through the hard times and so that was a lot of my experience and upbringing.”
MTN Sports: What are some of your best NFL memories?
Harris: “The NFL was amazing. I enjoyed every part of it: the hard work, the dedication, the intensity, the highest level of competition there was and I enjoyed it, I enjoyed a lot of it. The parts I didn’t enjoy was being injured sometimes and sometimes you’re competing against your friends. You know, you make good friends and then all of a sudden there’s one spot for three guys, and it’s your friends. That’s a difficult thing to do, but we trusted each other, we pushed each other, let the best man win and sometimes you either made it or you didn’t, and those are difficult times to go through that. But I take all those lessons, everything I’ve learned from the NFL and I use them today. Everything I’ve been able to do, a lot of it is from sports. And it’s lessons that I learned from the NFL, and so I there’s specifically some stories that I carry with me in my back pocket sometimes to inspire kids and help kids.
“There’s one story, in particular, not so much a football story as a sports hero story when I was playing for the Miami Dolphins in 2007. It was just a normal day in the meeting room, we were preparing for a team and someone comes in and says, ‘Hey, Michael Jordan is here in the next room.’ And they are saying stuff like this all the time, because they’re playing jokes because were rookies. So we’re thinking, ‘What? Are they going to throw us in the cold tub or tape us up, put whipped cream on us? What are they going to do?’ And sometimes they’ll joke with us and say, ‘Hey, come over here and do some crazy stuff,’ all the fun hazing and stuff. But sure enough, we went into the auditorium. They announced to the whole team, and we went in there and sure enough, right in the front, there was Michael Jordan. And for me, my childhood growing up seeing Michael Jordan or even being in proximity in the same room as him, addressing the team and talking to us specifically. … We weren’t having the greatest year, I think we were 0-8 at that point when he talked to us in the facility. He had some great, encouraging words and some of the things he said, they were just powerful. He was at the highest level and was able to achieve the things that he did, you hang on to every word that he said. You took it as things that you could use, but one thing that I remember thinking was at the end of his conversation with us he opened it up for questions and said, ‘Does anyone have any questions?’ Nobody raised their hand, there wasn’t a single question, you know? What he did was, he had such star power he turned a whole room of professional athletes into children again. That’s just the kind of star power that Michael Jordan had. We didn’t have any question for him, but the moment he left the facility everyone had a question: ‘I should’ve asked this, I should’ve asked that.’ I had 10 questions lined up after that. So it’s a story about preparation, it’s a story about saying, ‘Hey, when your opportunity comes, you got to be ready.’ That opportunity came and went, but thankfully I had another opportunity down the road to golf with Michael Jordan and be in the same tournament, competing against each other. It was awesome, but, yeah, that opportunity, you got to be ready for it. So I tell kids, you can’t just let things happen. You got to know that things are coming down the pipeline. You have to be ready for a great opportunity like that. And I took that lesson and say you never know who you are going to meet or how things are going to shake out. So you have to be prepared. And that’s something I learned. If I wasn’t in the NFL or on that team that was 0-8 at that time, I don’t know if I ever would have had the opportunity to meet one of my childhood heroes, who is Michael Jordan.”
MTN Sports: What does it mean to you to officially be in the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame?
Harris: “I grew up and I was a little bit shy and I didn’t really play sports for the crowds, I never played sports for what it gave: You know, the fame and those sorts of things. I always wanted to be quiet, the silent teammate. I always wanted to do the best, but I didn’t want that loud role where everyone is following you kind of thing. Because of that, I didn’t speak up very often and so events like this where you are being honored, it’s a little difficult for me just because I would rather just received the plaque in the mail. It’s just harder for me to do that, but I realize these moments aren’t for me, they are for other people. It’s a chance to be able to honor those who have helped you, to be able to thank your parents, to thank your grandparents, to thank the coaches, everybody who’s ever put a bit of something into you that has helped you, even in the hard times, and so I realized these moments aren’t for me. So just as hard as it was to run hills and a train and stress your body the benefit was always worth it, to come to this and receive this honor and to be able to give respect where it’s due, it’s hard for me, but it’s such an honor and it does pay off. It’s things that we can take, the stories we can take, it’s a lifetime of an accumulation of someone’s life, but many people in that life, so it’s a great opportunity to say thank you to those who deserve it.”