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Harris zooms in on draft


James Harris doesn't forget the past, but his focus is on the present.

He has a big job as the new vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. In three days, that job gets even bigger as he oversees his first NFL draft.

There is no time for Harris to allow his thoughts to become bogged down with the obstacles he and the Jaguars must overcome to succeed, such as making up for previous drafts that didn't provide enough help and coping with salary-cap issues he inherited. All of that is history. It's significant in terms of how the Jags must proceed and what Harris must try to fix, but he can't allow it to get in the way. He simply won't let it.

"I've always been a person that tried to be focused," Harris says. "That's a part of my personality."

It served him well in 1969, when he became only the second black man to play quarterback in the NFL and, as a result, confronted plenty of bigotry.

It served him well as he worked his way from the bottom of the league's scouting ranks after failing to land a job in coaching.

And it serves Harris well today in the front-office position he had dreamed of filling after spending six years as a scout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, four years as an assistant general manager for the New York Jets, and the last six as the head of pro scouting for the Baltimore Ravens.

Harris, 55, was never short of reasons he could have cited for giving up on his football dreams.

How about the stark cultural change he experienced in moving from Monroe, La., where he had "limited exposure to relationships with whites," to Buffalo, N.Y., after the Bills made him an eighth-round draft pick from Grambling in 1969? How about the hate mail received for entering the American Football League as a quarterback at a time when only one black man had started at the position in the NFL or the AFL -- Marlin Briscoe, for Denver, in 1968, before he was converted to receiver with Buffalo a year later?

"Those were things I had to work through and play through," Harris says. "Many times I just took my mail home and read it. Some of it I opened and put in a corner. I dealt with it mostly by myself.

"When Marlin Briscoe came to Buffalo when I was a rookie, that gave me someone to share with. He was the only person who really understood kind of what I was going through -- trying to play a position and also responding to a lot of negative mail."

Harris started four games for the Bills as a rookie, but saw limited action in the next two seasons before moving on to the Los Angeles Rams.

With the Rams, he wound up blossoming into an effective passer and leader. He led them to the 1974 NFC Championship Game, and in the process, became the first black quarterback to start in the NFL playoffs. Harris' success drew more mail, but this time the vast majority came from supporters.

"I had a lot of fans," he says. "A lot of people, from all over the country, supported me. I probably got more good mail than I did bad."

Harris responded well to the change of scenery, as well as the change of climate. His most "ingenious idea" in Buffalo was having two sets of car keys so that he could have his car started and heating while still keeping it locked as he waited inside.

His greatest adjustment, though, was in his attitude. In Buffalo, he admitted to trying too hard to "prove that a black could play quarterback rather than just going out and playing the position freely." In Los Angeles, he managed to keep that additional pressure off of his shoulder pads while concentrating only on doing what he needed to do to be a successful quarterback.

He finally began to heed the advice of the man who had the greatest influence on him in football -- legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson. "He kind of gave me the level head of looking at life realistically … of realizing that in life, you couldn't go out to make excuses -- that you had to prepare yourself to be better," Harris says.

Instead of bemoaning his inability to become a coach, Harris took advantage of the opportunity former Buccaneers coach Ray Perkins provided when he gave him his first scouting job. Harris learned plenty "about what not to do" while being around those then-woeful Buccaneer teams.

He learned the ins and outs of the player personnel business while working with a pair of highly regarded club executives, the late Dick Steinberg and Dick Haley, on the Jets. He learned even more about player evaluation while working in Baltimore under general manager Ozzie Newsome. Harris had a hand in the signing of some key free agents who helped the Ravens in the Super Bowl .

Through it all, he has relied on his ability to maintain focus, to zero in the primary objective while pushing away all distractions and excuses.

Harris is hardly preoccupied with the fact he is a rookie in filling the top spot of a team's football operation. He also doesn't concern himself with the fact the Jaguars' coach, Jack Del Rio, is a rookie as well.

All he can do is try and supply the help necessary for the team to return to the contender's status it has enjoyed soon after beginning play as an expansion franchise in 1995. The Jaguars have made some impressive free-agent moves, picking up two top defensive players in end Hugh Douglas and linebacker Mike Peterson.

Now, Harris' attention shifts to the draft.

"You're looking for some players that can create and make things happen that others cannot," he says. "In the NFL and (especially) the playoffs, there are going to be so many games that are tight games and you want to have enough players where, if you give them enough opportunity, they will make a difference in the game. Those are what I call playmakers."

As always, Harris will be focused while trying to find them.

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