During the 2014 holiday season, Chuck Harris carefully prepared a Christmas gift for his mother, Charletta Brame. He tucked a folded letter into a box that contained a Pandora bracelet and wrapped it.
The letter was a written scholarship offer from Morgan State in Baltimore. It meant that Harris had the opportunity to play college football and to earn a college degree.
“She opened the letter and I told her, ‘You won’t have to pay for me to go to college,’ ” Harris said. “My mom, she couldn’t speak.”
Harris joined Lance Leipold’s first recruiting class at the University at Buffalo in February 2015. Less than four years later, Harris, a senior defensive end for the Bulls, leads the MAC with 3.5 sacks and is second in the conference with four tackles for loss. Buffalo (3-0) plays at noon Saturday at Rutgers (1-2 Big Ten).
Harris’ progress is especially impressive for a 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end who was rated as a 2-star prospect in high school and who didn’t start playing football until he was 16 years old.
“Coming here, and talking about it from recruiting, the coaches said to me, ‘You can do what you did your senior year,’ ” Harris said. “I wasn’t that confident in myself. But I knew I would always work for it. I never pictured how it would be this year. This is truly going to be memorable for me.”
Six years ago, at Southfield (Mich.) A&T, the football coaches noticed a tall, rangy sophomore in the hallways with some of the football players.
They summoned Harris, who explained that he had never played organized football but agreed to join the junior varsity team.
“I always hung out with the football players at school, but then they’d go to practice, and I’d go home,” Harris said. “A coach asked me, ‘Are you on my team? Why aren’t you in the locker room?’ I told him, ‘I’m not on the team, coach,’ but he made me dress. He gave me a uniform and equipment.”
Harris picked up the fundamentals of football, but he had to get used to the physical aspect of practicing against players who were older, bigger and more skilled than he was.
“Every year, he made exponential growth in being a football player,” said Vernon Burden, the defensive line coach at Southfield. “He kept getting taller and his body developed. He continued to get more and more muscle. He wasn’t a weight room warrior, but every time the team went in the weight room, he got the most out of it.”
Harris became a good high school football player, but watching and emulating his teammates helped turn Harris into an FBS-caliber player. During his junior year at Southfield A&T, the starting defensive line included former Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell, Michigan starting defensive tackle Lawrence Marshall and Eastern Michigan defensive end Lion King.
“It was a good group for him to be behind,” Burden said. “He didn’t have to be rushed into playing, and he could see what it took to be at a top level as a player.
“His senior year, when he got the opportunity to be a starter, compared to being a backup and getting playing time when we were winning a game big, he really stepped up each and every week, and impressed me more and more.”
Still, it wasn’t until well into his senior season at Southfield in 2014 that Harris realized he had a legitimate shot at playing college football. Harris had three sacks and a pass breakup in a win against rival Oak Park.
“He and another defensive end we had pretty much single-handedly dominated the game,” Burden said. “From sacks, to turnovers, they made every big play we needed when we needed it. It wasn’t just Division II coaches talking to him. Now, those coaches from FCS schools were talking to him, and the next thing you know, Buffalo and some of the MAC programs reached out to him.
“Typically, if you’re not a Division I prospect by the summer of your junior year, you don’t get offers. But Chuck continued to work hard and to grow, and to physically look the part, and do the things on the field to make big plays and have nonstop effort.”
Leipold had to quickly assemble a recruiting class in the weeks after his hire at Buffalo in December 2014. Harris signed in a class that included quarterback Tyree Jackson, cornerback Cameron Lewis and wide receiver K.J. Osborn. Leipold knew Harris had a strong upside as a football player, but didn’t see a lot of confidence in him as a student, until Harris earned As in two summer classes.
“A lot of this was pretty new to him,” Leipold said, “But those summer classes, that helped Chuck’s confidence so much. After seeing that he could be successful in college, that helped propel him to handle playing as a true freshman.”
Harris played in 23 games as a reserve defensive end in his first two seasons at Buffalo, with 31 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
He was third on the team in 2017 with 73 tackles, and had seven tackles for loss, four sacks, five quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.
Harris had a game-high 2.5 sacks Saturday in a 35-28 win against Eastern Michigan, and he forced a fumble in the final minute of the third quarter that ended the Eagles’ drive at the UB 15-yard-line.
Harris’ forced fumble was a little bittersweet for Burden to watch; Harris’ former defensive line coach is an Eastern Michigan graduate. Still, it reminded Burden of another play Harris made: a forced fumble that helped Southfield A&T win the district championship in 2014.
Now, Harris helps the Bulls pursue their first 4-0 start as an FBS program.
“This means everything,” Harris said. “You live for things like this. You dream about things like this. I’ve always talked about going to the NFL and doing things like this, but taking it on big stage like Rutgers? We respect them, but we’re going to go out with the same game and we’re going to play our game. ”