Every March for the past six years, Chris Harris Jr. has packed his bags and headed to Dallas for what can only be described as “defensive back boot camp.”
There, he meets up with several of his fellow Broncos defensive backs and his trainer, Ronnie Braxton, to begin what has become an annual ritual: several weeks of grueling workouts that range from yoga and Pilates to track and field and hill sprints to swimming to football drills.
Braxton’s nickname is “Real Truth,” and for good reason: When you work out at least 15 times in a five-day week, as Harris demands his group does, you truly find out what you’re made of.
“You have no idea,” deadpans safety Will Parks, who made his first visit to the boot camp this offseason. “Nobody does, actually. … Bottom line is it ain’t your everyday training.”
It is, however, the training that’s made Harris the player he is today.
It’s the training that’s turned him from an undersized prospect out of the University of Kansas who went undrafted — at his own draft party — into one of the league’s most consistent players and a Super Bowl champion.
It’s the training that leaves Harris, now 29 and one of the longest-tenured Broncos, believing the best football — both for him and for his team — is still yet to come.
Of course, Harris wasn’t always the leader he is now. That part of his game has constantly evolved. He joined the Broncos as an undrafted free agent following the 2011 lockout, giving him only weeks to prove he was worthy of a spot on the 53-man roster. He came into a defensive backs group that included Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins.
In Harris’ second year, he started 14 games and picked off three passes — two of which he returned for touchdowns — for a Broncos team that went 13-3 and won the AFC West. It was after that breakout campaign that — with Bailey entering his final season — Harris decided to step up as a leader.
“I had pretty much shown that I belonged in the league,” Harris says. “That third year I just took it up another notch and tried to be vocal out there on the field, vocal in the meeting room, and be able to share any knowledge that I have possible with everybody else.”
Harris and new teammate Aqib Talib quickly become leaders of Denver’s feared “No-Fly Zone,” a secondary that helped carry the Broncos to a Super Bowl 50 victory.
But only 14 players from that Super Bowl roster remain. With Talib no longer in the fold, Harris has again taken it upon himself to be the vocal presence of his position group. He’s taken several steps to ensure he gets the most out of his fellow secondary members.
“I’m just trying to make sure everybody’s on the same page,” Harris says. “The past two years, not everybody’s been on the same page. We haven’t been playing together as one and connecting. So this year I just tried to do whatever I could to make sure everybody’s playing together as one, we’re all connected, everybody’s thinking the same as me before the game and we’re all on the same page. That’s something this year that I’ve wanted to do that we haven’t done in the past other than the Super Bowl year.”
To put those words into practice, Harris has installed extra film sessions throughout the week, and the defensive backs meetings are often the longest of any position group. Similar to his leadership skills, Harris’ film study habits have evolved during his NFL career.
“I think that’s one only thing you can really get better at — just studying and learning different formations,” Harris says. “When I watch games on TV, I watch them as a coach. I don’t watch it for the entertainment. I think that’s one thing that’s helped me out: watching it as a coach, as a player. I think that’s what really helped my mental game and taken it to another level.”
As a result, teammates laud Harris’ football smarts. His success, in part due to his diligent off-field work, doesn’t happen by mistake. In some cases, it’s even helped teammates earn roster spots.
“He’s always been a great leader,” safety Dymonte Thomas says. “He knows the plays before they even happen. A lot of the times when I was out there in Washington, he’d be like, ‘Watch out. We’ve got this and this coming.’”
Thomas, who, like Harris, went undrafted, made five tackles playing with the first team against the Redskins this preseason, strengthening his case for a spot on the roster.
“That’s the type of athlete I want to be,” Thomas says. “He’s really, really smart in knowing the game, and not just athletically. He’s gifted, but I think the thing a lot of people overlook is how smart he is and how well he knows the playbook and how much he actually studies. I want to be able to take my study game to his level.”
The praise rolls on.
“It’s the smarts,” says Parks about what sets Harris apart. “The one thing he always makes sure we know is what’s going on. If there’s something he’s seeing that we didn’t see, he’ll let us know.”
His football IQ extends even past the defensive backs group.
“Chris knows a lot,” outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett says. “We communicate calls a lot. He recommends stuff to me about the best ways to pass drop and cover guys. We’ve done footwork drills together before. Chris knows a lot. He’s a smart guy. That’s why he’s so good.”
Harris certainly appreciates the praise — both internal and external. But he also carries with him a sense of urgency for more; This is the last season he’ll play in his 20s.
“We don’t have time to waste,” Harris says. “I don’t have time to waste. I need All-Pros and Pro Bowls every year until I retire. That’s the goal. I’m urgent right now. I don’t have time to waste. I’ve got to take it on right now and try to be the best.”
He earned three straight Pro Bowl nods from 2014-16 and a First-Team All-Pro selection in 2016, but last season Harris didn’t receive recognition in a lost season for both him and the Broncos.
The ring he earned three seasons ago only serves as motivation now.
“I’m just trying to get back there, man,” Harris says. “A lot of these guys on this team, they haven’t felt that. They haven’t felt what it means to be a Super Bowl champion. We want to get that back for the coaches and [Head] Coach [Vance] Joseph. A lot of my coaches haven’t won it. We want to win it for them and give them that same feeling that we got.”
He also realizes that his impact on Denver is bigger than the field he plays on and the accolades he accrues. That’s why he, his wife, Leah, and the team at the Chris Harris Jr. Foundation are constantly looking for opportunities to aid underprivileged children in Denver. He’s helped provide winter coats for the Denver Children’s Home, and this season, he organized a backpack giveaway.
“That right there changed my perspective on everything because you see kids at school,” Harris says. “They’re always with their backpack. You never know how long they could have that backpack. That’s something that I will always remember.”
Harris has experienced both glorious highs — the feeling of confetti falling after Super Bowl 50 — and difficult lows — sitting through his own draft party without his name being called. While the lows fueled him early in his professional career, the highs are what keeps him striving for improvement year after year. That’s the only way he can leave the legacy he wants.
“I reach for the Hall of Fame,” he says. “I reach for the Ring of Fame. I just do whatever I can do to maximize my career. I try to work like that and work out here in practice and prepare like that so I can leave the best legacy I can.”