BEREA — Jon Clark remembers the "aha moment" when he realized Damien Harris was something special.
August 2011. As Madison Southern's newly hired football coach, Clark was putting his team through a preseason test at Bellevue. The clock was winding down on the scrimmage when Clark decided to let Harris, an incoming freshman who was just back from a summer basketball injury, run the ball.
"I really didn't know who he was and we had no idea what he was capable of," Clark recalled. "On his first carry he goes 37 yards for a touchdown even though nobody was blocked on the play.
"My coaches and I looked at each other on the sideline, wondering, 'Who is this kid?'"
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The next week Clark brought Damien and his mom, Esther, into his office. "I told them I thought Damien needed to play on the varsity because he would get pretty bored on the freshman level."
Harris wasn't crazy about the idea.
"When Coach asked me about it, I was like 'Whoa!' If I could've said no I probably would've said no.
"I was just a freshman. I was scared to death. Whenever I did get the ball, I ran for my life."
A few days later Harris had long TD runs on his first two carries in a scrimmage against Morgan County.
Now a chiseled 5-foot-11, 205-pound senior, Harris doesn't run scared anymore. As the nation's top-rated running back, he strikes fear into opponents whenever he gets his hands on the ball.
Harris rushed for 2,621 yards and 42 touchdowns last fall and was Gatorade's Player of the Year in Kentucky. He has run for 5,274 yards and 90 TDs in his career.
Harris committed to Michigan last summer, but he backed off that commitment in January and reopened his recruitment. He collected scholarship offers from just about every big-time college program before narrowing his choices to Kentucky, Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and Texas A&M.
He plans to announce his decision on Dec. 13.
While Harris has enjoyed most of the perks of being a high-profile recruit, especially the chance to chat up elite coaches such as Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier, and to compete in camps and clinics against the best players in America, Harris is glad it's almost over.
"When I finally make my decision, it'll take a lot of pressure off me and a lot of stress away," he said. "At the same time, it's nice having all these coaches showing how much they want you."
They want Harris for his speed (4.34), strength, instincts and versatility.
"Damien is kind of a chameleon. He can play well in any type of system," Clark said. "He's big enough to run between tackles, but he's also fast enough and has good enough hands to be a third-down receiver.
"Put him in a spread offense and get him in space, he fits that well. Or put him in a power offense like Alabama's that's going to run out of the I and downhill, he fits that scheme."
Harris said what kind of offense a college team uses isn't paramount with him.
"There's more to a school than that. It's more about how I feel about a school. Whatever offense they run, I'll try to improve my skill set to fit that style."
Harris, who doesn't turn 18 until February, has handled his blue-chip rating and the recruiting hullabaloo with a calm beyond his years.
"I try to stay humble and grounded," he said. "I can't get caught up in the fact that some people have me ranked the top running back in the country. I still have to work every day to get better."
When Harris started drawing national attention early in his career, Clark said he "worried about how he'd handle it, and whether it would change his character.
"It hasn't. Damien has stayed pretty grounded and he's kept working hard.
"Is he confident? Yes. Is he cocky or arrogant? No. That's probably what we love about him the most. He doesn't carry himself like 'Hey, look at me. I'm the man.'"
Clark credits Harris' mom for Damien not getting carried away by his celebrity.
"I just try to maintain a sense of normalcy when he's at home," Esther Harris said. "He knows my main focus is on his grades. That's the No. 1 priority. When it comes to football, I try to keep it as low key as possible.
"Any time he leaves the house, or I leave the house, people are always asking about college. 'Where you going? Who are you visiting?'
"He doesn't need that.
"So when we're at home, we stay within our walls. We sit around watching TV, or he's playing his Xbox. And he likes hanging out with his friends, or going fishing.
"I just try to make sure he's able to be somewhat of a regular 17-year-old kid."
Harris can appreciate how far he's come since that August day in 2011 when he caught the eye of his coach.
"I still remember that first scrimmage, and that conversation with Coach Clark about playing varsity like it was yesterday," Harris said.
"It's unbelievable how fast time goes by. It's been an incredible journey to this point. Hopefully it'll just keep getting better through this season and on the next level."