Feeling 17 all over again

Published 7:18 pm Monday, August 6, 2012

In the offseason East Carolina WR Derrick Harris (above) switched his jersey from No. 24 to No. 17, the same number his brother Dwayne Harris wore en route to becoming the Pirates’ all-time leader in receptions. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — When the East Carolina football team began its first official practice of the 2012 season on Friday it was accompanied by the usual sights and sounds as whistles blew, pads thudded and coaches yelled but one sight seemed to stand out above the rest.
Amidst the bevvy of receivers running drills, one particular pass catcher caught eyes. It wasn’t the speed of the wideout, nor his height or weight, but the No. 17 team on his back.
Pirates’ fan no doubt associate 17 with Dwayne Harris, the electric receiver who helped ECU capture back-to-back Conference USA championships in 2009 and ‘10 en route to becoming the school’s all-time leader in receptions (268) and receiving yards (3,001)  before being selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the sixth round of 2011 NFL draft.
The No. 17 has been a sacred one for Pirates’ third-year coach Ruffin McNeill and ECU fans alike, but it would seem Derrick Harris, Dwayne’s younger brother, is as crafty on the field as he is off it and during the offseason he persuaded his coach to unlock the number.
However, 17 would not come out of the vault easy.
“I made a decision not to let anybody wear 17, that’s how much it meant to me. The way (Dwayne) came in and bought into me early in his last year, how he performed for me and was a leader for me. I’ve been protective of that number and will be protective of that number as long as I’m here,” McNeill said. “Well, Derrick came to me as we were getting ready to break from summer training, exams were over and he asked about 17 and I said, ‘No. You can’t have 17.’ … I said, ‘The only way you can have 17 if the real 17 calls me and gives me permission.’”
It didn’t take long before McNeill’s phone rang.
“Lo and behold Dwayne called,” McNeill said. “When he called I said, ‘So, do you want me to give him the number or not.’ He started laughing and said, ‘Yea coach he can wear it, but if he doesn’t perform at a high level snatch it off of him.’”
In an ironic twist, Derrick said that the move from No. 24 to No. 17 came at the behest of his brother.
“The question kept coming up. Everybody kept asking me why don’t you wear you brother’s number,” Derrick said. “At first I wasn’t worried about it too much, I wanted to make my own name. But, Dwayne came and asked my ‘Why don’t you wear 17, keep it in the family.’ So I went ahead and did it.”
After watching Derrick Harris have a breakout season last year, the odds are good that he will not have to give back to No. 24 during his junior year.
Harris transferred from Valdosta State and walked on to ECU and participated on the scout team in 2010, Dwayne’s final year with the Pirates. In 2011 Harris had a breakout season as sophomore as he picked up the slack when freshman standout Danny Webster was sidelined with a knee injury and started three games, catching 23 passes for 168 yards and one touchdown.
For that effort, Harris was awarded a scholarship during the offseason. Now, he must earn his new jersey number.
“I’m just trying to go out and work hard and earn what you receive,” Harris said. “I’m going to wear it with pride knowing that he did great things with it.”