Najee Harris Will Once Again Wear Black And Gold, Heading To The Pittsburgh Steelers As The First RB Taken In The 2021 NFL Draft •
Najee Harris joins an elite list of Antioch High School football greats whose names have been called in the NFL Draft. Harris made his latest mark of history in prime time national television on April 29 when was selected in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Harris rushed for 7,783 yards and 93 touchdowns, and an amazing 84 2-point conversions in the three years he started at running back at Antioch High. Talk of his exploits ventured beyond the Bay Area, where he skyrocketed to fame as one of the region’s most celebrated high school athletes in recent memory. He became the nation’s top recruit and headed for the bright spotlight of Alabama, where he surely did not disappoint.
Now the NFL has called.
MORE ON NAJEE: SportStories Podcast (04/29/21)—Everybody Loves Najee
With all the fame Harris has to date, the long-term question will be if he can eventually approach or match the pro accomplishments of Antioch’s greatest football legend, Gino Marchetti. It was quite a high standard set by the Baltimore Colts legend and Hall of Famer.
“We’re so excited about Najee Harris,” said Tom Lamothe, program director of Antioch Sports Legends, whose Hall of Fame showcasing the city’s great sports stars. “But the whole test is going to be Gino Marchetti.”
Harris’ selection drew props around the sports world, including from fellow Bay Area athletes. “Great pick by my Steelers baby!!! Congrats @ohthatsNajee22 Ground Game is back baby!!! Super Bowl!!” is what Warriors forward Draymond Green tweeted.
The Steelers organization and fans also applauded Harris, including a welcome from the greatest Steelers running back ever, with whom Najee shares a surname. “@ohthatsNajee22 Najee, welcome to Pittsburgh! Running backs can make the difference,” tweeted Hall of Famer Franco Harris.
Even on the biggest day of his athletic career, Najee kept close to his roots. Hours before the draft, he visited the Richmond homeless shelter, Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, where he and his family once stayed, as reported by www.ktvu.com.
He also brought food to the site’s draft watch party and set up a website for apparel, of which a portion of proceeds from sales goes to the program. He remained in the East Bay for a watch party in Emeryville as his selection news broke, celebrating with family and friends.
“That tells you the type of person he is,” Lamothe said. “He doesn’t forget where he came from, he doesn’t forget people. He’s a high-quality individual.”
Certainly Harris’ accomplishments to date would put him in the Antioch Sports Legends Hall, which has a 15-year waiting requirement from high school graduation for selection.
He’s been among big-name company before, back to high school accomplishments. He was named to the SportStars Boys Athlete Big 10 list celebrating the top 10 athletes through the first decade of SportStars Magazine. The list also included Aaron Gordon, Ivan Rabb, Shaq Thompson and Jared Goff.
He amazed at Alabama, even under the limelight and lofty legend of the Crimson Tide. Harris won the Doak Walker Award for the nation’s top tailback after an amazing senior season for the national champions, leading the nation with 27 touchdowns. He leaves Alabama as the school’s all-time leader in career rushing yards, total touchdowns and rushing touchdowns, among his numerous records.
“We knew it was coming,” Harris’s personal trainer of nine years, Marcus Malu, said in the most recent episode the SportStories Podcast. “The excitement is understanding that all of his hard work is going to pay off for him and his family. As far as the football part of it, though? It was just a matter of time.”
Few who have played in the NFL can match Marchetti, who often played injured during his stellar 13-year career illuminated by 11 Pro Bowls and seven first-team All-Pro honors and illustrious NFL championship teams in 1958-59.
The defensive end and offensive tackle out of USF was taken in the second round and 14th overall of the 1952 draft in an era when the NFL was much smaller, and some franchises were unstable. The team that selected him, the New York Yanks, became the Dallas Texans for one season, then morphed into the Colts, where Marchetti earned his greatest fame from 1953-66.
A U.S. Army veteran who was in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, Marchetti was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972. His enduring legacy and impact saw him named to the NFL’s 50th, 75th and 100th anniversary teams, the final honor coming posthumously after Marchetti died in April 2019 at age 93.
“What amazes you when you talk about Gino is how respected he has been in the history of the NFL,” Lamothe said.
He was part of the Antioch Sports Legends inaugural induction class in 2007. Lamothe said Marchetti was always proud of his roots, noting that his widow, Jean, recently sent his USF letterman’s sweater to the Legends museum.
Marchetti stood out for his toughness, even in an era known for its gritty play and tough-guy folklore.
His was among the epic tales of the legendary “Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 NFL championship game that saw the Colts beat the New York Giants 23-17 in sudden death overtime in a game widely credited for catapulting the league toward its massive popularity and becoming a television ratings powerhouse.
In that game, he watched from the sideline after breaking his right leg late in the fourth quarter before being ushered safely into the locker room before the dramatic overtime, according to a 2018 interview with the Baltimore Sun. He was one of 17 future Hall of Fame players, coaches and administrators involved in that game, including teammates Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Art Donovan, Lenny Moore and Jim Parker and head coach Weeb Ewbank.
“I never hurt so bad in my life. I’d have cried, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” Marchetti told the Sun in 2018. “(Frank) Gifford said, ‘OK, Marchetti, quit faking it. You can get up now.’ I told him, ‘I can’t, Frank — my ankle’s broken.’ ”
There have been other hard-nosed Antioch High players to get called early in the draft. Prior to Harris’ selection, for over a half-century linebacker Ron Pritchard owned the distinction of being Antioch’s lone first-round NFL draftee.
Pritchard was a star running back in high school, earning East Bay Player of the Year honors, but earned his stripes afterward at linebacker. At Arizona State he was named All-American in 1968 and played in the College All-Star Game, Hula Bowl, Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game.
Pritchard was selected 15th overall in the first round by the Houston Oilers, in the third and final combined draft between the NFL and AFL before the leagues officially merged for the 1970 season. He played for the Oilers from 1969-1972, and the Cincinnati Bengals from 1972-1977, and spent some of his offseasons as a professional wrestler.
Like Marchetti, Jeremy Newberry was a second-round pick and had the rare feat of playing for a Bay Area high school, at Cal and for both Bay Area pro teams in a nine-year career.
The center was taken 58th overall by the 49ers, with whom he played for seven seasons, capped by an All-Pro year in 2002. He played for the Raiders in 2007 and retired in 2009.
When Harris suits up in the NFL, he’s expected to join at least two others from the city of Antioch in the NFL, both former Deer Valley stars who played at Eastern Washington and are return specialists. Taiwan Jones, a fourth-round pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2011, is currently with the Buffalo Bills. Nsimba Webster, undrafted in 2019 out of Eastern Washington, is with the Los Angeles Rams.
Antioch Sports Legends is looking at resuming its Hall of Fame inductions later this year after postponing its 2020 ceremonies amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It’ll be a way to celebrate the 15th anniversary for the organization.
Meanwhile, Harris, the city’s latest legend, will look to add to his in the NFL.
For more on Antioch’s sports history, visit www.antiochsportslegends.com
PANTHERS IN THE PROS
A look at Antioch High football greats in the NFL draft and other notables:
Ron Pritchard, LB, Arizona State
1969 NFL Draft, 15th overall, 1st round, Houston Oilers
Pritchard came off a stellar senior All-American season that earned him selection to four all-star games, including the East-West Shrine Game. He remains the earliest first-round pick of Antioch High football alumni.
Gino Marchetti, DE/OT, USF
1952 NFL Draft, 14th overall, 2nd round, New York Yanks
Marchetti was a major part of incredible Baltimore Colts teams of the 1950s and 60s, alongside fellow Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore.
Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
2021, 1st Round, 24th overall, Pittsburgh Steelers
Harris was off the charts at Antioch, eclipsing 2000 yards in each of his final three high school seasons and became the nation’s most coveted college recruit. Then he managed to stand out at national power Alabama, breaking a slew of school and SEC rushing and scoring marks.
Jeremy Newberry, C, Cal
1998, 2nd round, 58th overall, San Francisco 49ers
Newberry was one of the NFL’s top centers in the 2000s, earning All-Pro honors in 2002. Joining the Oakland Raiders for the 2007 season, Newberry has the distinction of playing high school and college football in the East Bay and then playing for both Bay Area pro franchises.
His Bay Area ties have continued with his role as an NFL analyst for KPIX Channel 5.
Gary Scheide, QB, BYU
1975, 3rd round, 64th overall, Cincinnati Bengals
Scheide was No. 2 in the nation in completion percentage his junior year under BYU coaching legend Lavelle Edwards. However he did not play in the NFL after being derailed by a shoulder injury. He’s part of an elite group of BYU Hall of Fame quarterbacks with Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson and others.
Evan Pilgrim, G, BYU
1995, 3rd round, 87th overall, Chicago Bears
Pilgrim spent the first three of five NFL seasons playing for the Bears. He finished up with the Atlanta Falcons. He suited up as a player again on the big screen, playing a prison guard defensive lineman in the 2005 remake of “The Longest Yard,” that starred Adam Sandler.
Duane Putnam, G, Pacific
1952, 6th round, 66th overall, Los Angeles Rams
Putnam became one of the NFL’s top guards over his 11-year career, appearing in five straight Pro Bowls from 1954-58. He was a three-time All-Pro for the Rams and later started on the first Dallas Cowboys team in 1960. He later coached the offensive line for the Falcons, Eagles and Cardinals.
Mike Lucky, TE, Arizona,
1999, 7th round, 229th overall, Dallas Cowboys
Lucky played in 46 games, retiring after the 2002 season due to knee injuries. Known as a blocking tight end, Lucky played in the game that saw Emmitt Smith break the NFL career rushing yardage record.
Ron Sbranti, DE, Utah State
1966, 9th round, 76th overall (AFL Draft), Denver Broncos; 10th round; 147th overall, San Francisco 49ers (NFL Draft)
In the last time the NFL and AFL conducted competing drafts, Sbranti had the distinction of being selected in both. He chose the Broncos, for whom he played 14 games. A two-way lineman in high school, Sbranti played in the 1965 Hula Bowl and 1965 East-West Shrine Game for Utah State.
Other notable Antioch High football alums:
FRANK BEEDE went undrafted in 1996 as a guard from Panhandle State, but earned a spot with the Seattle Seahawks in 1996 and became the franchise’s first free agent rookie starter. He returned to Antioch as head coach from 2005-07 and went on to teach at Freedom High and was named NFL Teacher of the Year in 2010.
JASON VERDUZCO played quarterback at Illinois, then played in the CFL. He served in the NFL as an assistant coach, including five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
MARK BUTTERFIELD, QB at Stanford and the father of Liberty High standout and current Oregon quarterback Jay Butterfield. The elder Butterfield went undrafted but earned stints with the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals and went on to play in NFL Europe.
RICH HALL starred at defensive tackle at Antioch and Arizona but made his impact in the NFL as a game official, which he has done since 2004. Before that he officiated in college football which included several major bowl games duties.
JOHN OLENCHALK played linebacker and center at Stanford, where he also continued his track and field career in shot put and discus. Olenchalk played in 10 games with the Kansas City Chiefs over the 1981-82 seasons. Prior to that he played for the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes and saw action in the 1978 Grey Cup.