As recently as six weeks ago, Demetrius Harris thought by now he’d be preparing for an overseas career in pro basketball. That he instead is under contract to the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent makes him the most remarkable story of the three-day rookie camp that begins Friday at their Truman Sports Complex practice facility.
Harris hasn’t played football in four years, since high school in Arkansas. He was a basketball player in college, first at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Mo., then at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The Chiefs signed him anyway after the draft as a tight end, hoping the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Harris has enough ability to eventually do what NFL tight ends like Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham have done. Both were basketball players who played little or no football in college but still have become top NFL tight ends.
“It’s going to be a bit of a transition process for him but everyone understands that,’’ said Harris’ agent, Matthew Pope. “He’s not going to come in and start right away. We all know that. He’s a long-term project. We’re thinking big picture here.
“For him, it’s about not getting discouraged. It’s about getting better every day.’’
A winding path brought Harris to the Chiefs. He initially wanted to play football at Arkansas State out of high school but didn’t qualify academically. He wound up playing basketball at Mineral Area and after two years there, Arkansas State wanted him again, this time for both football and basketball.
He instead decided to stick with hoops and transferred to Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After finishing two seasons there this March, Harris wanted to play one season of football at Arkansas State.
To transfer and be eligible in the fall, Harris first needed to graduate from Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Realizing he was going to fall short of credits in time to make it happen, Harris said he planned on a pro basketball career overseas.
“I was about to sign with an agent a couple of months ago for basketball,’’ he said. “Then Kansas City called. That’s how it started.’’
It turns out Chiefs general manager John Dorsey somehow knew that Harris had once been an all-state high school football player in Arkansas. Dorsey organized a workout for Harris in front of Chiefs scouts, who were sufficiently impressed.
“The Chiefs wanted to keep everything quiet about Demetrius, I assume,’’ Pope said. “But we did the agent thing and made sure all the teams knew about him.’’
By the time of the draft, Harris had worked out for about half of the NFL teams. Harris said he was even leaning toward signing with Baltimore after the draft but signed instead with the Chiefs in part out of loyalty to Dorsey.
“They’re the ones who got me this opportunity,’’ Harris said. “They’re the ones that believed in me. (Dorsey) was the one who saw something in me.’’
Rob Jeter is Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s basketball coach but he knows more than a little about football. Both his father and uncle once played in the NFL.
“From the time we recruited Demetrius we knew he was a pretty good football player,’’ Jeter said. “Basketball was something he was athletic enough to do. He was blessed with a lot of athleticism but he wasn’t a really skilled player. He could rebound, he could run, he could block shots, he could finish around the rim but you could tell football was probably his better sport.
“Probably the best way to describe him was, ‘tough.’ His improvement as a player over two years was remarkable. That’s why I think he has a chance to make it in football. The progress he made in two years in basketball was remarkable. You can see how natural he moves when he catches the football, you wonder if he dedicates himself to football, to understanding the NFL game, where can he go? I know how he improved for me in two years.’’
The Chiefs have veterans Tony Moeaki and Anthony Fasano and third-round draft pick Travis Kelce at tight end, so they can afford to be patient with Harris.
“I’m just going to go in, work hard, stay humble,’’ Harris said. “The football stuff is coming to me fast. I still know all the terminology, how to read coverages, that stuff. I’ve just got to work on my footwork, route running.
“The Chiefs said they just want me to get ready this year, to develop more. By my second year, they said I should be ready to play. I accept that role. I haven’t played football in four years.’’