*EDITOR'S NOTE: The following was the cover story in the Gameday program from Dec. 8, when the Broncos defeated the Titans 51-28.
Before the ear-splitting roar shook Sports Authority Field at Mile High, before momentum changed hands like bus fare being exchanged, before a lightning bolt of energy exploded through the Denver sideline – there was, for a split-second, an image that encapsulated everything Chris Harris Jr. embodies each time he takes the field for the Broncos.
Sprawled out – his body completely parallel to the ground three feet below him and just a ruler's length in front of Ravens wide receiver Brandon Stokely – Harris Jr.'s arms extend and the football sticks to his hands like a dart hitting a dartboard.
Harris Jr.'s interception of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the second quarter of the Broncos' 49-27 victory in the 2013 season opener was just one of many plays that he has made in his three-year career that helped turn the tides of momentum dramatically in the Broncos' favor.
And it was also just one of many plays where Harris Jr. demonstrated the very characteristic that his teammates constantly cite as setting him apart on the field.
"Tenacity," cornerback Quentin Jammer said. "He's a tenacious guy. He likes to get after people. And once he has it in his mind that he's going to do something, he's going to do it."
Harris Jr. hasn't wasted time in carving out his niche as a key playmaker in the Broncos secondary – totaling 185 tackles, 26 passes defensed, eight interceptions, 2.5 sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries in his career – but it's his unremitting will to compete that defines his play not only on Sundays, but every single time he steps onto a football field.
"He practices harder than anybody on this team," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "I think it just pays off when you work that hard."
That's the product of a burning passion for the game of football – and an intense competitive drive that Harris Jr. circled as a source of his confidence on the field.
"Really, I don't care who is in front of me," Harris Jr. said. 'I'm always going to go 100 percent against that person and compete.
"I pretty much am playing with no fear."
It's the type of relentlessness that enabled Harris Jr. to become one of only two cornerbacks in the NFL during the 2012 season who recorded multiple interceptions (3) and sacks (2.5). And it's the type of relentlessness that has pushed Harris Jr. to continue to elevate his play in 2013 – he's recorded 52 tackles, eight passes defensed and three interceptions so far this season.
"He's just one of those guys who maintains a focus that's almost unheard of," safety Mike Adams said. "He locks in and knows what he really wants to know.
"And he goes for it."
Whether it's the lockdown coverage, the interception returns for touchdowns – he's done it twice in his career – or the immeasurable leadership and presence he brings to the defense, the impact Harris Jr. makes for the Broncos is earned through tireless work and attention to detail.
"I bring my 100 percent to practice every day and go all-out," Harris Jr. said. "That's the only way you can continue to get better in this league. That's who I am. And that's how I made my way into this league."
It's an accurate way of summarizing how Harris Jr. literally willed his way into the NFL.
Despite tallying 290 tackles, four sacks and three interceptions during a decorated collegiate career at the University of Kansas, Harris Jr.'s ability to compete at the next level was overlooked by many. He wasn't invited to the 2011 NFL Combine, nor was his name called at the draft two months later – and with the league in the midst of a lockout, Harris Jr. wasn't certain where or when he would even get his opportunity.
"It definitely gave me a lot of drive. I had to make sure I wasn't listening to that," he said regarding his unheralded status as an NFL prospect. "It was a lockout so I never knew when I was going to get that chance. I just focused on making sure that I was ready when I did get the chance."
That chance finally came with the Broncos – and in spite of the long odds of making the team as a college free agent, his immutable competitiveness and desire once again led him to success on the field as he battled for a roster spot during training camp.
Harris Jr. made the active 53-man roster – and then he started making an impact on Sundays. He led all rookie defensive backs in the NFL with 65 tackles during the 2011 season.
At that point, however, he was only getting started.
He shined as a slot cornerback during the 2012 season – returning interceptions for touchdowns off of both Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and Flacco – and as he's taken on an even larger role in the defense in 2013, Harris Jr. continues to illustrate that his tenacity remains constant no matter where he lines up on the field.
"Last year, I guess he was projected a starter and ended up playing nickel – and dominating nickel," Adams said. "And then, coming back this year, he's projected a starter. He played nickel, dominated nickel and ended up being the starter – like last year, he ended up being a starter. You can't say enough about that, man. Just his will to win and his will to compete."
Taking the Next Step
With the offseason addition of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the integration of young playmakers in second-year safety Duke Ihenacho and rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster, 12-time Pro Bowler Champ Bailey sidelined for much of the season with a nagging foot injury and starting safety Rahim Moore also going down to injury in Week 11, Harris Jr.'s leadership and continuity have been key in helping solidify the Broncos secondary.
As that group now takes aim at finding championship form late in the season, Harris Jr. noted that it's the camaraderie throughout the secondary that has pushed the entire unit to compete at a higher level.
"It's just a very tightly knit group," he said. "All the guys, they know how I'm going to play. If something particular in the offense is doing something, they know I'm going to attack it – and I know how they're going to play. So that's something that's huge in how we play on the field."
Amidst that group's competitiveness is Harris Jr.'s own ironclad will to get better – and to succeed.
"I think his experience is starting to pay off," Bailey said. "He's a smart, young player with a lot of energy. Plays with a lot of passion. That's really what makes him a great player. He's going to be around for a long time."
It's the mark of a true competitor – a player whose physical attributes and on-field statistics can be measured, but whose heart and desire cannot. And it's what has allowed Harris Jr. to live his dream, day-in and day-out.
"Follow your dream. You have to believe in yourself first – and if you don't believe in yourself first, you won't make it because there will be a lot of odds against you," Harris Jr. said. "That's the reason why I made it – because I always believed in myself."