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BSJ Oral History: Duron Harmon’s journey from third-round reach to defensive captain

(Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports)

Many of the guys who have become vital to the success of the Patriots over the years aren’t necessarily high-profile types who come with a peerless football resume. Instead, many of them are grinders, underdogs who have been doubted all their life on the way to the top of the NFL heap. Such is the case with veteran safety Duron Harmon. Derided as a reach by many when he was taken with the 91st overall pick in the 2013 draft, the Rutgers product has gone on to become a two-time Super Bowl champion and locker room leader.

The following is an oral history of Harmon’s journey from small school star to defensive captain for the defending Super Bowl champions. Harmon wasn’t the product of a football factory in some far-flung Texas or Florida outpost. Instead, he was simply a very good player for a good football program in Delaware. He played for head coach Mike Schonewolf at Caesar Rodney High School, working primarily as a running back in a wing-T offense. He also spent time on defense, and special teams. Schonewolf recalled Harmon as someone who was wise beyond his years, a good student who also had his priorities in order when it came to sports and school.

Schonewolf: “Obviously, he was a great athlete. But he was also a leader among his peers, and that was neat about him. He was well versed with the coaching staff, and did a great job. He knew what he needed to do on the field as a player, and off the field as a leader. He was able to really work with his teammates. He was a community-involved kid.”

It was toward the end of his junior year when he started to emerge as a serious prospect, caching the eye of Rutgers recruiting coordinator Joe Susan. Harmon had gone to camps run by Susan and the Rutgers’ staff, but it was afferent experience seeing him in pads.

Susan: “Duron played running back, and when I saw him play the first time, the first couple of runs, I knew we were looking at the right guy. In camps, you just don’t know. Guys are there in shorts and cleats. In pads, you saw him run guys over.”

Schonewolf: “There are moments you remember about your kids, and I remember one play from Duron his junior year where he was just an absolutely stellar catch. We were running a wing-T offense, and he was a running back who was just tucked into the backfield. Because of his speed, we just had him run a go-route, and our quarterback just flung it up there and he made a spectacular catch in the corner of the end zone. It reminded me of a play he made on a ball a couple of years ago against Joe Flacco and the Ravens. There was another one as a senior where he had a run of about 65 yards where he hit the hole, and then made a spin move to lose a defender. He just cut back and absolutely blistered the defense. It was then when I starter to think he had a chance to be a really special player.”

He led his high school team to an 11-1 record and the Delaware Division I State Championship as a senior, the first state championship in 18 years for the school. Harmon rushed for 1,126 yards on 122 carries as a senior, averaging a whopping 9.2 yards per attempt. He was also named the Delaware State Defensive Player of the Year as a senior with 49 tackles and two interceptions. And even that was only good enough to rate a spot as the fifth-best prospect in Delaware by Rivals.com. But there wasn’t much debate as to where he was going to end up for a few reasons, not the least of which was the fact that his high school coaching staff had ties to the Rutgers program. Susan said that Schonewolf was able to protect Harmon from some of the other programs who started coming around when Harmon really popped.

Susan: “We had an advantage built in because (Schonewolf), he and I were college teammates at Delaware. So I had an opportunity to see Duron as a younger player. I saw him grow up. You knew right away that he was a young man who had a lot of talent, but was also a high character kid. That’s what you’re looking for. A lot of it goes back to his family at home. One of the things I always look for is how a kid treats his Mom. I knew that, when we went to visit Duron, we had a winner. His Mom Dawn was a middle-school teacher back then, and we went to visit her. She controlled that classroom with an iron fist. ‘We’re getting a good one here,’ I remember thinking.”

Harmon moved into the starting lineup soon after he arrived at Rutgers, and finished his career as a two-time All-BIG EAST First Team selection. He started all 13 games for the Scarlet Knights in 2012, collecting 50 tackles and seven pass breakups. But Rutgers isn’t Alabama or Notre Dame, and so, he wasn’t invited to the combine. In fact, he was so far under the radar that when it came to his selection — 91st overall — there weren't a lot of highlights to choose from, at least when it came to the NFL Network.

Some called him a late-round or free-agent-level prospect who might have been available in the later rounds, a claim Bill Belichick addressed shortly after the pick was made.

Belichick: “We thought it was good value when we took him. I don't know what other teams, how they have their boards stacked or anything else. There's no way to predict that — 31 other teams. I think you have to take the players you feel like can help your team. That's what we did.”

Devin McCourty, who has played with Harmon at Rutgers and in New England: “He was very quiet when he started, to now just being a more outspoken guy, a guy who just takes guys under his wing. It was something he just tried to do when he got here, learning from me and Steve Gregory.”

Harmon grew slowly. As part of a veteran secondary that included the likes of McCourty, Gregory, Aqib Talib and (for one season, anyway) Darrelle Revis, it took some time to crack the lineup. But he started three games as a rookie, and continued to sharpen his game. His biggest moment came in the late stages of his second season when he came away with a pick in the late stages of a memorable 2014 playoff win over the Ravens to seal a dramatic 35-31 win over Baltimore. In 2014 and 2015, he continued to build a rep as a quiet, unassuming guy who could be counted on to deliver. As the defense started to turnover, he was also growing into a quiet leadership role.

Belichick: “I would say, and Bill Russell taught me this, that in a way, a silent leader in some respects is more powerful than a more vocal leader because you hear the vocal guy, you see him, you’re very aware of it, but then there are guys that give you that quiet leadership that in a way is more powerful because it’s not quite out there as much, but it’s that quiet push that sometimes can maybe have a little more impetus. You could put Duron in that category. First of all, he’s very well-respected. He’s smart, he works hard, he studies, he trains hard. I’ll go even back to his first year, he and Logan Ryan, the day after the season, they’re in here working out, doing extra stuff in the weight room, here working out in January. Things like that. Just not like, ‘Hey, Coach I’m here. Make sure you know I’m here. I’m putting in extra time.’ They would do it just to do it."

Of course, that quiet approach went out the window at halftime of this past Super Bowl. In a moment that has been re-told a million times already and etched into franchise lore, he was one of a couple of players — including Julian Edelman — were exhorting their teammates in the locker room, saying that the 21-3 halftime deficit would be erased and the Patriots would be able to pull off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Not all of his teammates necessarily believed him, but Harmon’s exclamation caught the attention of many, just because it was so out of character.

Defensive end Chris Long: “It was pretty gutsy of him. He said it would happen, and it did.”

Susan: “He’s not a big screamer or yeller. What happens there is when he talks, people pay attention.”

Harmon’s guarantee came true, and he was able to nab a second ring along the way. Now, Harmon has become one of he defensive leaders. Because the Patriots frequently utilize nickel and their base defense and the safety trio of Harmon, McCourty and Pat Chung have better-than-usual cover skills for safeties, he’s on the field on a regular basis. (He’s played 82 percent of the snaps through the first eight games.) Nicknamed “The Voice” by his fellow defensive backs because of his willingness to speak with the media, he landed a four-year, $20 million contract this offseason, and was named a captain this summer for the first time in his NFL career.

McCourty: “Now, he’s the one telling stories about Steve Gregory or what he learned from Adrian Wilson when he first got here. I think he’s turned into that — I won’t say old guy yet because he’s not that old — but he’s a vet. He started games as a rookie and he’s playing now. So he passes that on.”

For everyone who has seen him ascend as a player and individual over the course of his football career, looking at Harmon now -- the last man standing from that 2013 draft class -- there’s a sense of pride.

McCourty: “Definitely. He’s a part of your group. You have a group, whether it’s Duron or Tavon Wilson or Logan Ryan. A bunch of guys who come in, and it’s like, ‘This is our secondary. This is how we play and that’ll determine how we do as a defense.’ But that’s my guy. We’ve been in the grind together, we’ve studied together. Just to see him continue to have success and step up for this team and continue to win ballgames, that’s big and that’s great. But to individually see him have that success for his family and see them support him and deliver for them, that’s great. For him to get that contract, that was huge.”

Schoenwolf: “We’re very proud of him, like any of the other young men who came through our system and do well. Duron has certainly had a chance to be noticed more than maybe some of the others, but he was able to do a good job becoming the leader of that group. He grew, and became someone special.”

Susan: “It’s so refreshing and rewarding when young guys become men. I mean, that’s what we’re all in this for. The purest definition of a coach is taking someone from where they are to where they’re supposed to be. We who embrace that, our rewards come from the impact we have over time on guys like Duron. He’s a great player and a great teammate, but he’ll also be a great Dad and husband. When you can say things like that, you know you have a special guy. And that’s Duron.”