If Bill Belichick is looking for an answer as to how to best mesh the talents of rookies Damien Harris and Jarrett Stidham, he could give Mike Goggins a call.
In 2003, he had them both on his Madison County Youth Football League team -- the 49ers -- as 8-year-olds. Now, after the two faced each other as collegians in the Iron Bowl on multiple occasions (Stidham with Auburn and Harris with Alabama), the running back and quarterback are reunited in Foxborough with the Patriots.
“I’ve known Damien for basically my entire life it seems like, and we’ve definitely kept in touch,” Stidham said of his connection with Harris shortly after the two were drafted. “It’s funny — as soon as I get off this call, I’m actually going to give him a shout and tell him how excited I am to play with him again.
“Life always comes full circle, and to be with the very first year of tackle football playing with Damien, and now we’re both New England Patriots, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Stidham and Harris' football careers started a year before they were together on the 49ers, when they both played flag football in town. The following year was the first foray into tackle football. At the 2003 youth draft -- a blind draw -- assistant coach Neil Burns represented the 49ers, and landed Harris with his first pick and Stidham with his second.
“Neil comes back and tells me who we got. ‘I got Damien, I got Jarrett,’ he said,” recalled Goggins. “I just had this smile on my face.
“‘Did we do good?’ he asked me. I replied, ‘Hell, we’re going to win this whole thing.’”
Led by Stidham and Jarrett, the 49ers went undefeated, and allowed just one touchdown the entire season.
“You could tell Jarrett’s arm was strong, even at that age, and Damien was exceptionally fast, and good at not getting hit,” said Byron Smoot, a former youth football coach in the same town who would go on to coach Harris at the high school level. “He was so fast, you knew that if he could get to the corner, he’d be gone. Between the two of them, you could see their football future pretty early.
“Watching those guys play, you’d know they’d make for a heck of a team when they’d hit high school. They knew what they were doing, and they were well-coached — I know Mike and Neil, and they did a heck of a job with those kids. They’d coached together for years, and they just did a great job.”
[caption id="attachment_504733" align="alignnone" width="750"] Harris (middle row, center) and Stidham (third row, second from the right) first played together with the 49ers in 2003. (Photo courtesy Richmond Register)[/caption]
The 49ers won the league championship.
“I hate to sound like I’m bragging, but we did pretty well,” Goggins said as modestly as possible. “Having kids on the team like Jarrett and Damien and my son Keonta, those kids, they wanted to own the field. It was great to see those kids try and push each other to be the best they can be. My son was a big-time hitter, and he made Damien and tough runner and Jarrett a tougher quarterback.
“My son Keonta would hit Jarrett, and I’d stop practice. ‘What are you doing, Keonta?’ He would tell me, ‘If they’re on the field, they’re going to get hit.’”
Goggins said you could tell from the first practice that Stidham had the chance to be something special.
“Jarrett … even at that age, there would be kids who would line up in the wrong position,” he said. “He’d move them and say, ‘No, you have to be here, not there.’ He was patient under center, and from a coaching perspective, he did everything you told him to do.
“I remember when the two of them would go to high school games, the other kids that age would be running around, they would be there — Jarrett watching the quarterbacks — and learning about the game. You knew at a young age they would be special. The other kids would be running around and playing, and they’d sit there and watch the game.”
As for Harris, he took a more circuitous path to football.
“I didn’t want him to play football,” confessed Lynn Harris, Damien’s mother. “I wanted him to play basketball. I had it in my mind he was going to be a basketball player. Mike was trying to convince me: ‘Just bring him out for football one time. If he doesn’t like it, at least you can say you did it, and there would be no regrets.’ I was hesitant — me and Mike are good friends. At the start, I was butting heads with him and arguing: ‘You’re trying to get him killed.’ The whole helicopter parent thing. Didn’t help that Damien’s helmet didn’t fit. Mike ended up getting him three or four different helmets that season.
“The first half of the season, Damien didn’t play that much, and there was one game in Estill County where it was freezing and snow and he’s sitting on the bench and drinking up all the water. I came down out of those bleachers and told him, ‘If you don’t get your hind parts up and at least try and get in the game and try and contribute to your team, then we’re leaving. We’re not doing this anymore.’ Well, he got up and ended up going in and scoring the game-winning touchdown, one of my favorite moments of that undefeated season.”
After that season, Stidham’s family moved to Texas, and he would go from Baylor to Auburn. Meanwhile, Harris would go on to star at Madison Southern High. The game would keep them connected — they were teammates at the 2015 Under Armour All-American Game, and they would be on opposite sides of the Iron Bowl rivalry in 2017 and 2018.
Last weekend, Harris was taken in the third round by New England, while Stidham was a fourth-round choice of the Patriots. It made for a fun weekend back in Kentucky.
“I was at Damien’s house when he was drafted,” said Goggins. “The next day, Lynn called me and said, ‘You can pat yourself on the back. Can you believe they got drafted to the Patriots?’ I ran inside and turned the TV on and saw it for myself. God is good. They played together when they were in eighth grade, they played together in the All-American game. And now, they’re going to be together in the NFL.”
“I’m still in shock. We are kind of-sort of Kentucky fans, and we wanted to see where Benny Snell would end up going. I was in the other room, and my Mom screamed out, ’Stidham!’ I rushed back in, ‘What happened?’ I couldn’t believe it — I had to rewind it just to be sure, and there it was on the bottom line. Just when you think a week like that couldn’t get any better, something like that happens.”
Harris’ mother said she was hoping she could be the one to break the news to her son, but he was a little busy at the time.
“As soon as it came across that Jarrett had been drafted, I knew Damien was in Boston at the time, meeting with the coaches,” she said. “I knew I’d have to wait until he got out of those meetings to talk to him. But later that day, he texted me, in all caps — LET’S GO. I was so excited!”
“It was such a blessing to have that group of kids,” Goggins said. “I’m just so thankful they put me in a position to coach those kids and let them have the success they had. I remember them talking about wanting to play in the NFL one day, and they went to high school and college, and worked hard, and made it happen. With their history, it feels like they’re just meant to be with each other.”