The Norwalk football team still had 30 minutes before the official start of Wednesday morning’s 11 a.m. practice time. But in the center of 25-degree temperatures, assistant coach Chris Harkness was in charge.
The 1985 Norwalk graduate was barking instructions, commanding a group of receivers and quarterback Garrett Chapin in preparation for tonight’s state semifinal matchup vs. Kettering Alter.
It has been a daily occurrence for the position coach to have the players out there before and after practice. When Harkness was done with the group, he remarked how the kids would at least have a feel for the cold come practice time.
He then turned to me and made one point very clear.
“You’re talking to me because of them,” Harkness said of the players filing back inside. “Credit to me? No. I like preparation. Luck comes to those who are prepared, and these guys are doing it.”
When Todd Fox was hired as the new head coach of the Truckers in February, he reached out to Harkness early in the process of filling out his staff.
But girls basketball was in the stretch run at Norwalk, and Harkness was an assistant coach as his daughter, Kaelyn, wrapped up her playing career.
“At the time, I just wasn’t prepared to talk about it — but Coach Fox was relentless in asking. The day after Kaelyn graduated, we talked again and she told me to do it.”
And who could blame Fox? How many Norwalk alums out there are two-time NCAA All-Americans that had two stops in NFL training camps along with an above average four-year Arena Football League career?
“Chris is a true Norwalk guy through and through,” Fox said. “His overall knowledge of the game is something that has been a nice addition to our staff. We have a lot of younger coaches, but he has been able to help me with coaching, and he has been able to communicate with the kids really well.”
But don’t take just the word of Fox. It was also made clear by two senior receivers what Harkness’ impact has been.
“It’s not something you can really describe,” Kaden Livingston said. “To have someone who has been through it all at every level with his knowledge … he has taught us so much from what we thought we already knew.”
But the vision I was given on a handful of occasions prior to Norwalk practices is far from a one time thing. Harkness is also relentless when it comes to coaching.
“Tough, that is what I would say it’s like playing for him,” Brandon Haraway said. “Before practices we’re on the field. During practices we’re still going hard, and then after practice we’re still out there.
“Coach Harkness has us working, and it’s honestly fun,” he added. “He’s doing tremendous things for us.”
It’s been 30-plus years since Harkness starred at Div. II Ashland University. Yet one look at the program record book shows he’s still second in career yards (2,317), ninth in catches (113) and first in yards in a season (1,131).
He went two weeks into training camp with the Phoenix Cardinals in 1989, then spent 1990 with the Bay State Titans, a minor league football team in Massachusetts.
Harkness went through another NFL camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1991 — then shifted to the Arena Football League. He had four solid years with the Cleveland Thunderbolts and St. Louis Stampede from 1992-95.
He finished his AFL career with 95 catches for 1,256 yards and 26 touchdowns while also adding 118 tackles and 6 interceptions on defense.
So how much from what he learned during his college and professional career is Harkness teaching the Norwalk players?
“Everything. I like to believe I’m showing them something they can’t get from another coach,” he said. “They’ve taken it in, and I told them from the very first practice they had to be willing to come before and stay after. If you’re not, leave.
“And they stuck around. I like to think I’m giving them something they can’t get from another coach.”
With a sideline view for all but four games this season, it’s been easy to see the impact Harkness has on the players. He leaves an impression. That’s something I learned a long time ago.
In March of 1987, several members of the Cleveland Browns played an exhibition basketball game at the Norwalk Middle School against some local All-Stars.
At halftime, there was an autograph session with the Browns players. It was very crowded, and a 7-year-old boy was getting pushed around as fans stampeded their way to the likes of Earnest Byner and Webster Slaughter, among others.
The boy’s aunt pulled him out of the mad rush, and saw Harkness relaxing on the bench. She told her nephew that Harkness, too, was potentially going to be a professional player and proceeded to ask him if he would sign the boy’s program.
Harkness quickly did so, while asking the boy questions about his favorite Browns players. He then shook his hand and sent him on his way — making the young boy feel a lot better in the process.
I know that story, because that boy was me. Three decades later, Harkness’ ability to communicate and earn respect from kids is still the same.
“He expects a lot, every single practice,” Livingston said. “If you’re not blocking, you’re not going to get the ball. That’s a must for him. If you can’t block, you can’t catch a pass.”
Dennis and Herb Harkness were All-Ohio players at Norwalk on great teams in 1973 and 1974. Youngest brother Chris didn’t have much luck with victories from 1981-84 for the Truckers — so this past month has been a special ride.
“Seeing the kids every day, I love it,” Chris said. “They’ve been fun, man. They’ve been a blank sheet of paper and willing to learn. Just being a small piece and to know that the unit I helped coach is a major part of it has been fun.
“How these kids would receive me, I didn’t know, just like with Coach Fox,” Harkness added. “That tells you what type of kids they are. I don’t know if they realized what I knew or anything like that, but the way they received me was awesome. They are my enjoyment every day.”