Charles Harris describes his youth football days as "pick 'em up, mess 'em up."
That's because Harris didn't really have youth football days. Not in the traditional sense. Growing up in Detroit, his family didn't have the money for organized football, so he played with his brothers wherever, whenever, and however he could.
"Football has always been a thing for me and my brothers," Harris said. "It was a household thing so we always played in the street or in the field around the corner. We always played football. It's called 'pick 'em up, mess 'em up.' That's the ball we called it. It's a lot like the football we play with pads but it's just without pads. It's almost like playing rugby. Just with kids your age, your own imagination, everybody's a ref, everybody's having fun. It's a classic every time."
From street ball to Detroit high school honors to the University at Buffalo, it's been an exciting, and slightly improbable, journey for Harris. He is now a junior for UB, starting at defensive end for the Bulls while setting back-to-back career highs in tackles through the first two games of the season.
He never quite dreamed of getting a college scholarship to play football, let alone being a starter at an FBS school. Heck, he was never going to play high school football.
Not until his mom, Charletta Brame, convinced him to get out of the house and join the team.
"My mom pushed me," Harris said. "I was always talking about it growing up but we could never afford it. That’s the only reason I didn't play. As soon as I got to high school, my mom told me 'you're going to do something.' Because I was just going to school, coming home and sitting on my tail. And she didn't like that.
"So she said you're going to have to get active. You're going to have to do something. I was like all right. I'm going to finally go out for football, mom. In high school it doesn't cost no where it did when you were a kid."
Veron Burden remembers when Harris first came out for football at Southfield High School. The defensive line coach recalled "just a tall, skinny kid, who looked like a basketball player coming out for football. But he didn't play basketball either."
Harris benefited from a talented lineup at Southfield, one that allowed him to learn the game and not have the pressure of playing before he was ready. After a year on the junior varsity, he was a back-up for a defensive squad that included Malik McDowell, who was a second-round draft pick by Seattle this year, and Lawrence Marshall, currently at Michigan.
Surrounded by high-end football talent, there were moments when Harris wondered if he belonged. But Burden saw something click in a game during Harris' junior year.
"One of our starters was injured and had to sit out the game," Burden said. "We were playing a team that ran the option and that's difficult because they make you guess a lot. Charles went from the scout team to playing in the game. He did his job, play by play, and did a great job. At that moment, I saw the switch click.
"After his junior year, he dedicated himself to the weight room and to being a better football player. You saw him go from 6-4, 195-pounds to, 6-4, 215 pounds. He started to think not only could he play at the next level but he should play at the next level."
Several teams came calling, including Buffalo. And with the Bulls, Harris has continued to blossom.
He played in 11 games as true freshman, this after just having three years of experience in organized football. His role as a reserve defensive end continued his sophomore year, yielding a starting position for 2017, where he's listed at 6-4, 265 pounds.
Harris had a career-high five tackles in UB's season-opening loss at Minnesota and bested that with eight tackles in a 21-14 loss at Army West Point. He's looking forward to another opportunity to shine, another chance to get the Bulls their first win of the season, when UB hosts Colgate at 6 p.m. Saturday.
His progression has come from a passion for football. When he first arrived in Buffalo, he tagged along with the upperclassmen, working to get faster and stronger. As a junior leader, he spends more time watching game film, learning the opponent's plays so that once he's on the field, everything in the game can slow down.
But his passion would be rudderless if it weren't for gains he's made in his confidence. It's been growing since those high school days when he was playing around soon-to-be Division I football players, finding he could hold his own with the best in the state of Michigan.
It continued in Buffalo where success in the classroom first, translated into confidence on the football field next.
"Chuck Harris is one of the great examples, I think, of why we do what we do," UB coach Lance Leipold said. "This is a young man that had a lot of ability and talent when we recruited him.
"Chuck was a guy who came in, probably not overly confident academically. I saw a young man that experienced success in the classroom his first summer and it really helped him mature and gain confidence in every part of his life. He found this was going to be a place where people cared about him and were going to try and help him."
Harris smiled shyly and shook his head. He didn't know his coach was going to tell that story about his first few months on campus. But when he arrived in Buffalo, Harris was unsure of how he would fit in, both academically and athletically. Success in his first summer classes helped build the foundation for his confidence.
"I didn't feel like I was up-to-date especially with the educational level," said Harris, a sociology major. "But it really brought my confidence up seeing I could do that work. When you see something that you could do, that you thought you couldn't do, well now I think I could do better at football. It built a lot of confidence."
Story topics: Chuck Harris