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Football, family and forgiveness: Qadree Ollison overcoming obstacles to honor late brother at Pitt

In order to go forward, Qadree Ollison had to forgive.

Already at the University of Pittsburgh for the start of football practices, Ollison wrestled with the conflicted emotions of grief and compassion for the person who had caused it.

The Canisius High School graduate who has already earned his degree from Pitt stayed up late to complete a letter that his father would read the next day at a sentencing hearing in Niagara County Court.

Denzel Lewis pleaded guilty in May to the murder of Ollison’s older brother, Lerowne “Rome” Harris. Security footage showed Lewis shot Harris three times on the morning of Oct. 14, 2017, outside a gas station at 19th Street and Walnut Avenue in Niagara Falls. Harris was 35.

On the drive down to Pittsburgh a few days before Lewis' Aug. 2 sentencing, Ollison asked his father, “How would you feel if I told you I don’t hate Denzel?”

Asked how he could not hate his brother’s killer, Ollison responded, “It’s my belief, that in order to move past this, you can’t have hate toward someone.”

Ollison addressed Lewis directly in his letter.

“When I heard what happened I was devastated, like most would be when they hear that their brother's life was taken,” Ollison wrote. “During that time though, I didn’t feel an ounce of hate for whoever had did it.

“I questioned myself for a long time, staying up all night and wondering why I didn’t hate you. I wondered why I felt just as bad for your family as I did my own. I was in unbelievable shock when I found out who it was that did this, and didn’t believe it.”

Ollison and Lewis were classmates at Gaskill Middle School in Niagara Falls, “and I would go as far as to say that we were friends,” he wrote.

“I thought for a long time this made me a bad person,” Ollison continued. “I thought I should hate the person that killed my brother and I couldn’t bring myself to do it."

Ollison shared his “deep belief that every life is precious no matter what they do. Even if they murder someone, that life is still precious. That life was still hand-crafted and molded by God in some way shape or form.”

“Now, here I am, and I have this choice to hate you or not,” Ollison concluded. “I choose not to. I don’t hate you Denzel. I hate what you did, most certainly. But I still think your life is as precious as the next person’s.”

Wayne Ollison was less forgiving in reading his own, longer statement in court, an argument for the maximum 25-year sentence for “cold-blooded murder.”

“I wanted the voice of my children and the pain we went through as a family to be heard,” he said later.

But the father was deeply moved by Qadree’s words.

“It takes a special person to say the things he said to the person that killed his brother,” Wayne Ollison said. “That’s what sets him apart from most people. He is a very humble, caring young man.”

The judge agreed with Wayne Ollison, and sentenced Lewis to 25 years.

•••

Rome Harris was Qadree Ollison’s first football idol. Though he was too young to recall watching Rome play for the old Niagara Falls High School, Qadree came to learn of his brother’s exploits in the Cataract Little Loop Football Association that their father ran for 20 years.

“I always used to hear stories about him in little league, from a lot of people around Niagara Falls talking about how great he was as a kid,” Qadree said this week. “As a kid, I used to try and break all his records in Cataract. Those were my goals.”

Qadree is paying tribute to his late brother by wearing Rome’s jersey No. 30 for what has been a resurgent senior season.

“It just means a lot to me and my family every chance I get to go out there and put this number on for him,” said Qadree, who wore No. 37 in his first three seasons at Pitt.

While Qadree tried to run like Rome on the football field growing up, the older brother steered him on a straighter life path than Rome took for himself.

“He would always tell Qadree, 'you can’t make the mistakes I made,'” Wayne Ollison said.

“In Niagara Falls,” Qadree explained, “you can get swallowed up into the lifestyle that a lot of people end up living. Whether it’s in the streets, whatever, trying to be cool. It’s not always cool to be the smart person in school and have good grades. It’s cool, for some reason, to be doing drugs and not going to school.”

If Rome ever caught Qadree hanging around the wrong crowd, “He’d tell me to go home,” Qadree recalled. “I wouldn’t always like it. But my brother always looked out for me and made sure I wasn’t doing anything bad. He made sure I was doing the right things and making sure I was going to school and sticking with football.”

Rome helped his father convince Qadree to take advantage of the academic advantages of attending Canisius when he preferred to continue playing with his friends at Niagara Falls High School.

“Deciding to go to Canisius, it wasn’t a slam dunk, it was a struggle,” Wayne Ollison said. “It was Rome who said, ‘Trust me, Dad is doing what’s right, this is going to help you in the long run.’”

•••

Canisius' Qadree Ollison runs past St. Francis' Mike Miller to score during the first half of the semifinal game at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park in 2012. Ollison set the Crusaders' records for rushing yards and touchdowns in his career. (Mark Mulville / Buffalo News)

Qadree Ollison flourished at Canisius like few football players in Western New York have before or since.

Ollison set the Crusaders' records for rushing yards (4,117) and touchdowns (57) in his career. He was a two-time Class AA all-state selection and shared Buffalo News Player of the Year honors with teammate Ryan Hunter (now an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs) after Canisius went undefeated and won the state championship his junior year.

Regarded as the top running back prospect in the state as a senior, Ollison had 14 Division I college scholarship offers when he committed to Pitt.

After redshirting his first season, Ollison continued his success as soon as he hit the field for the Panthers. Coming in for injured starter James Conner, Ollison, ran for 207 yards on 16 carries (all in the second half), a record for a Pitt freshman in a season opener.

Ollison was named Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year and was a second-team All-ACC selection. He became the fifth Pitt freshman to achieve a 1,000-yard season, rushing for 1,121 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns.

Qadree Ollison was a two-time Class AA all-state selection and shared Buffalo News Player of the Year honors in 2012 with teammate Ryan Hunter, left, (now an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs) after Canisius went undefeated and won the state championship his junior year. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

His trajectory would flatten over the next two years, however. With changes at offensive coordinator and competition from other tailbacks, Ollison totaled 525 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.

As a sophomore, Ollison backed up the returning Conner, who would become the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first-round draft pick in 2017. Last season, an injury at fullback and Ollison’s thorough knowledge of the Panthers' offense resulted in a position switch.

Pitt running backs coach Andre Powell has called Ollison one of the smartest players he’s coached in his nearly 30-year career.

“He’ll make a fine coach one day if he chooses to go that route,” Powell told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Whenever the air goes out of the ball for him, if I had a chance, I’d hire him in a second.”

Despite the reduced playing time following his breakout freshman season, Ollison never wavered in his commitment to Pitt.

“I felt like it’s easy to just get up and try to leave and transfer somewhere else,” Ollison said. “I always trusted that all the hard work that I put in in high school, even little league, and college was going to pay off and come to fruition eventually.”

•••

Qadree Ollison recently became the 14th Pitt running back to reach the 2,000-yard milestone in his career. (University of Pittsburgh Athletics)

Leaner and quicker than he’s ever been before, Ollison has regained his starting role, rushing for 404 yards (5.9-yard average) with four touchdowns in five games. He recently became the 14th Pitt running back to reach the 2,000-yard milestone in his career.

“Qadree Ollison is playing his tail off and doing things at a high level,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said heading into Saturday’s home game against Syracuse. “I love that kid. He’s not only a tailback but he plays a lot of special teams for us. He’s our protector on punt team. He’s very detailed in a lot of things in his work. And we’re fortunate to have Qadree Ollison as part of this program and a Pitt grad.”

Narduzzi commended Ollison as “a class act.”

“Let’s forget what he’s done on the field as a football player and start off where, again, it’s even more important, is what type of person is he is,” the coach said. “He’s a team guy. He’s an unselfish guy. …

“You just talk about a kid that in the four years I’ve been around him, every year he matures. And you can see the growth from him. He’s a great student. You see the growth there obviously, and graduating and all that. But he’s just a super person. And he’s a leader of our football team.”

Ollison is as proud of his academic achievement as he is of any of his athletic accomplishments.

“Just getting a degree, being the first of my parents’ children to graduate college with a degree is huge,” he said.

Ollison said he’s motivated to be “an inspiration for the kids coming after me,” in his own family and throughout the Cataract City, “a place that’s so close and dear to my heart.”

“I’m the same kid from the west side of Niagara Falls, Highland Avenue, born and raised in Unity Park. I made it out,” Ollison said.  “A lot of times, it’s really hard to make it out of Niagara Falls. Not to say you have to get out of there, but just showing people and trying to inspire people that you can do it. You can go to college. You can graduate.”

•••

The last time Qadree Ollison saw his oldest brother was the first time Rome Harris came to watch him play at Pitt. He rushed for 91 yards and two touchdowns in the opening game of the 2017 season.

“To be there in person was really rewarding for him," Qadree said. “I was also excited for him to have the opportunity to come and see me play. For me, I think it was something that God intended for it to happen.”

Rome “made a couple bad decisions along the way,” Wayne Ollison said, and didn’t play football after high school. He also missed much of Qadree’s career at Canisius.

Witnessing Qadree’s success at Pitt, Rome told his father, “I’m living what I could have been doing through my brother.”

“That was his joy,” Wayne Ollison said.

Wayne Ollison learned of Rome’s death while driving to Pittsburgh to watch Qadree play. He quickly contacted Pitt administrators to help ensure Qadree didn’t learn of the news until after the game.

“That was the hardest thing for us,” Wayne Ollison said. “We had to sit there, me, my youngest son Keenan and my daughter Brittany, and put on like everything is OK. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Qadree was led to a room at Heinz Field where his family was waiting with the team chaplain immediately after the game.

“As soon as he walked in, he knew something was wrong,” Wayne Ollison said. “It was a very emotional time for us.”

Qadree collected his emotions and told his family, “Don’t worry about me. I have a ton of family here at Pitt, my football family, that is here supporting me.”

For the remainder of the football season, Qadree “didn’t flinch a lick,” Narduzzi said.

“What he did is use it as motivation,” Wayne Ollison said. “October 14 of last year, he decided, ‘I’m going to devote everything to my brother.’”

At the sentencing for his oldest son’s killer, Wayne Ollison was told by State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. that “you should be proud” of Qadree. “That’s an eloquent, Christian, loving son.”

“We are,” the father said, “very proud of him.”

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