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Just plain Tuff

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Chester David “Tuff” Harris, a member of the Apsaalooke Crow Nation, is a talented athlete who strategized his way to the NFL with dedication and versatility.

Born in 1983 at the Crow Agency in Colstrip, Mont., Harris played college ball at the University of Montana while working toward a degree in sociology. He was first signed by the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in 2007, and now plays as a defensive back for the Tennessee Titans.

At 6-feet and 198 pounds, Harris has been described by his trainers, coaches and fellow players as a “natural athlete.” His parents, Jerry and Melody Canton Harris, both coached track and field, and Tuff, along with his older brother Jay, excelled in a variety of sports.

At Lodge Grass and Colstrip High Schools, Harris played football, basketball and ran track. In 2001, he set an all-class Montana High School state record in the 100-meter dash. After graduating in 2002, he headed for college. As a leading tackler at UM, Tuff amassed 170 tackles in 53 games – 28 starts, while recording six interceptions and 18 pass breakups. As a punter returner he had an average of 13.8 yards on 71 returns and scored three touchdowns.

“He’s a terrific athlete. He can run, jump and do anything athletic,” UM head coach Bobby Hauck said in a 2007 article for UM’s Kaimin News.

Harris played a lot of football with his brother in his backyard and at Lodge Grass High School, but said that even though many people on the reservation enjoyed watching football; basketball was a much more popular sport.

Lodge Grass High School’s student population is 100 percent American Indian and 90.1 percent of its students live in economically disadvantaged homes. Harris said that as a result, scouts view the students as “high risk” and few of the school’s athletes, although capable and promising, have been successfully recruited from the school.

Fearing that he would not be adequately prepared for the academic hurdles of higher education, he made the decision to transfer to Colstrip High School, a school with a higher academic and athletic standing; a championship basketball team and a good reputation in football and track. This enabled him to enter UM with a track and field scholarship and to make an impression as a wide receiver on UM’s football team. In order to extend his period of eligibility, he redshirted – kept out of varsity competition for a year.

Harris dropped track after his first year and concentrated on football, but after being active for so long, he found spending time on the sidelines the biggest challenge.

Hauck then moved him from his wide receiver position to defense. Harris says he felt unsure of his ability to play that position since he didn’t have much defensive experience, but it soon became apparent that he had nothing to worry about. Ken Staninger, Harris’ agent marvels, “Tuff’s just a super athlete – versatile enough to play many positions.” In the 2006 season, he had racked up 30 solo tackles.

“When I first came [to UM]. ... my speed helped me in a lot of parts of the game, but I’ve slowed down and become more of a football player rather than just a guy with speed. … understanding the game, understanding the concepts of football rather than just relying on athleticism,” Harris told the Kaimin in 2007.

In spring of that year, he was signed by the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent. Waived during final cuts, he was re-signed to the Dolphin’s practice squad, where he remained until being promoted to the active roster that fall. He made his NFL debut in the regular season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals in December.

The following spring he was signed by the New Orleans Saints, but was released by the team two months later. Then, in August, he was signed by the Titans. He was waived and re-signed to the Titan’s practice squad, where, Staninger believed, hard work on the special teams would eventually lead him to the big action. He was right. Tuff was placed on the active roster as a safety in November after cornerbacks Reynaldo Hill and Eric King were injured.

Still, Tuff is happy to do whatever is necessary. “I play a lot of different positions. It’s been really good for my development as a football player. At this level they throw you in wherever they need you – whether it’s filling up water bottles or taping ankles or running around on defense. … anything they need, I’ll do.”

Harris and his wife Mary spend part of the off-season each year with young people on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. He has visited the Crow Nation Boys & Girls Club, and the Big Horn Optimist Club of Hardin. He also works with Whitefish Winter Classic, a celebrity-driven organization that benefits children of disadvantaged Montana families.

“I miss the people when I’m away; I miss my childhood friends and the people that would come and give their support.”

Harris was also honored in 2008 in a traditional ceremony back home while his uncles from the Greasy Mouth Clan sang for him. His family, tribal officials, and many friends attended the festivities during which, Apsaalooke Tribal Chairman Carl Venne and other officials bestowed gifts upon him for his accomplishments.

“Recognizing Tuff’s contributions has been a good thing for Native youth. Everyone in this tribe is proud of him,” Venne said. Tribal Secretary Scott Russell pointed out, “Tuff not only is successful in achieving his (athletic) goals but has acquired a degree in sociology, a very important note.” Russell believes Harris is successfully challenging the widely-held notion that American Indians cannot rise above the many academic challenges they face.

Life in the NFL has been interesting for Harris. “For a lot of people, I am the first Native American they have ever met and many are curious to know about our culture.” When he returns home, he shies away from superstar treatment. “It’s humbling to see people’s reactions to my success.”

Mary points out that although there are great things about reservation life, there are also many grave problems. “There is still a lot of hopelessness and despair. I think Tuff feels a great responsibility to give back to his community because of the platform that God has put him on. Whenever he speaks to youth he stresses the importance of education, telling them, ‘whatever your interest is, you can achieve your goals,’” she said.

“When I was competing for a spot on the team it was difficult because of the 100-degree heat as well as the humidity. I never experienced such conditions. What carried me was that I knew there was a nation of people behind me and praying for me,” Harris told those gathered. “What I have achieved is not mine, it belongs to everyone.”

“He is simply a very special human being, and very humble,” Staninger said. “He doesn’t use tobacco or alcohol; eats right and trains hard. He’s smart and understands the game and his surroundings. People like him – he’s got a smile that lights up the room. Success in this game often comes from luck and opportunities, but hard work is important, and Tuff works hard. I have every reason to believe he has a long career ahead of him.”