Missouri sophomore defensive end Charles Harris owes a debt of gratitude to “Mr. John.”
Violence swirled around Harris growing up in Kansas City’s urban core, but Mr. John helped him channel some youthful aggression.
“When I was in middle school, I kind of got tired of getting picked on, so I went to my neighborhood (YMCA) and took some boxing classes,” Harris said.
Eventually, Harris met a man who lived on his block — an older guy he only knew as Mr. John — who sparred with him, teaching him a few finer points of pugilism.
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“Sparring, and also just growing up in Kansas City, I feel like I just had to be on my guard, sort of,” Harris said. “That definitely made me tougher.”
Harris said he was in perhaps a dozen fights or more as a kid, but “where I’m from, I don’t know if that really counts as a lot.”
Much gets made of Harris’ high school basketball career at Lincoln Prep, especially on TV broadcasts of Missouri games, but the skills he learned from boxing translate more directly to football’s weekly on-field trench warfare.
“There’s something about playing an individual sport where you have to only rely on yourself,” Tigers defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “Either you’re mentally ready or you’re not mentally ready. You have to be prepared, and then you’ve got to be tough. … When you go out there in the ring, when you go out there on the (wrestling) mat, it’s you and that guy. There’s nobody else, so you can’t come back and point a finger.”
Preparing for what’s become a breakout sophomore campaign, Harris again incorporated boxing into his summer training regimen, sparring with a friend at a Columbia gym for a month.
“It really worked on my hand-eye coordination in terms of actually seeing things develop,” said Harris, who is tied for first in the SEC with 15 1/2 tackles for a loss. “Seeing punches come at me, that correlates to on the field where I can see somebody’s hands about to be placed at a certain spot on my body and I can knock it off.”
Harris, who is tied for the third nationally in tackles for a loss, is on pace for 25 this season if Missouri can reach a bowl game.
That would break MU’s all-time single-season record of 24 currently shared by Justin Smith (2000) and Keith Wright (2002).
“You could see this spring he had taken his game to another level,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’s just an amazing competitor — great kid and very driven to be great, to make that next move up. It’s really neat to see him mature and be the player he is right now. The upside, too, is what’s he going to be like a year from now?”
Harris is tied for third on the Tigers with 44 tackles, trailing only linebackers Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer, and his six sacks are tied with redshirt freshman Walter Brady for most on the team.
“He’s getting better,” Kuligowski said. “We pull up film of last year and watch him take on a block, and his feet aren’t as good as they are now, his hands aren’t as good as they are now. His get-off is better now. He’s stronger. All these things lead toward being a good player.”
Ironically, Harris wants to heal people after football as an occupational therapist, a field he was drawn to because his mother, Deborah Clark, has multiple sclerosis.
Medical school might have to wait until after an NFL career, but Harris, who is eligible for the 2016 NFL Draft as a redshirt sophomore, has no immediate plans to turn pro.
“I haven’t played a full season with Harold Brantley yet,” Harris said. “That was a guy that really kept me motivated during spring ball. … Once we lost Harold for this season (to a car wreck in June), I just feel like I’m obligated to stay for another year — not only for Mizzou and Mizzou fans and this Mizzou team in general, but also just for Harold himself. That’s kind of my big brother, who showed me the ropes and got me more passionate about the game.”