Tennessee State cornerback Nick Harper Jr. is looking forward to his final season in blue, whenever that may come. The redshirt senior is coming off his best season at TSU after finishing 11th nationally with 1.3 passes defended per game.
Of course, Harper Jr. has aspirations of playing at the next level, following in the footsteps of his father, Nick Harper Sr. The elder Harper enjoyed a 10-year professional career, including nine seasons in the National Football League. Harper played six seasons with the Indianapolis Colts before playing his final three years with the Tennessee Titans.
The journey for the namesake began at the age of five in Indianapolis, Ind., but almost came to a halt while in middle school.
“I was a late bloomer,” said Nick Harper Jr. “When I was in middle school, I could count on one hand the number of times I touched the field from seventh and eighth grade. It was probably only five times. I was literally half the height as everybody else; everybody was five to six inches taller and I was upset and didn’t want to play anymore.”
As like many times in his life, Nick’s father stepped in and provided encouragement and advice.
“My dad wouldn’t let me quit,” Harper stated. “He told me I was going to be good and that he was a late bloomer too. He told me I would grow. Now, I’m glad I didn’t quit.”
Growing up, Harper never looked at his father’s job as anything different. But it did bring one of the greatest weeks of his life when the Indianapolis Colts played the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
“One memory that really stood out was going to the Super Bowl,” Harper mentioned. “I got to miss a whole week of school in third grade. I was a little disappointed when Prince came out at halftime, but my mom was like ‘this IS Prince’. He was the real deal. It was good.”
But even at a young age, he understood the magnitude of the Super Bowl.
“It really doesn’t hit you until you get there. A lot of NFL players, including a bunch of real good ones, can’t say that they won a Super Bowl. It is a really big accomplishment. It really didn’t hit me right away, but then you think, ‘Wow, we just won a Super Bowl!?’”
Harper, as well as his two younger brothers, Darius and Eric, has always wanted to be a defensive back, like his father. The trio was always competitive with each other making bets on who would get the most interceptions, breakups, and tackles while playing youth football.
Despite his career in the NFL, Harper Sr. would attend his son’s games and continue to do so till this day. Having three sons at three different schools makes it tough for the Harper’s, but both parents attend as much as they can and try to watch recorded games of the ones they cannot catch in person.
While Nick is at TSU, Darrius is a defensive back at Campbellsville University in Kentucky and Eric is finishing his prep career at Nolensville High School. Despite playing at three different schools, their father is there to pass on his words of wisdom.
“He always shares his advice after any of our games,” Harper Jr. stated. “He would critique us on everything we could have done better and things we need to work on. He doesn’t talk about the things we did good. You have to focus on the bad things that way you can become a better player. It was my mom who was the diffuser. She would embrace the good stuff we did.”
But Nick did point out that his mother is also very vocal and passionate.
“I can hear my mom over everybody in the stands,” Harper said. “My dad doesn’t like it sometimes, but he deals with it. But he still gets the energy watching the games as well.”
Nick also remembers the passion his mom had watching his father’s games.
“We were playing the Patriots,” Harper recalled. “We were in the living room and my mom would start screaming at the TV. I asked why she was yelling because we always lose to the Patriots. I asked what she expected. She would yell at me and tell me to go watch the game in another room.”
Harper always expects his mom to keep it real. Growing up he played football and baseball. He tried basketball at one point, but his mother pulled him out letting him know it was not a sport for his skills.
Both parents are very supportive of their dreams and their love of sports. All three boys have played football and baseball, but have dreams playing in the NFL. But according to Nick, his youngest brother Eric is very talented on the diamond and believes he could be a two-sport athlete in college. He also states that his youngest sibling, sister Lauren who is in gymnastics, is also athletic.
The older Harper continues to work out with all three sons on their skills, especially during the pandemic. He continues to express that you cannot get anywhere without hard work.
“You can never get complacent.” Harper said of words from his father. “You always have to work hard and be hungrier than the next man. At DB, you are going to win some and you’re going to lose some. You just have a short term memory, just forget about it and get ready for the next play.”
Harper Jr. pointed out the differences between his father’s game and his own.
“He loved hitting,” Harper said. “He used to take tight ends out of the game. I’m more of a cover corner. Hitting is something you have to do, whenever it is time to make your tackle, you just have to go do it.”
The Harper boys do not fear making the NFL from smaller institutions or even a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). As their father came from both, as he played at Fort Valley State University.
“I believe FVSU was NCAA DII when my dad played there,” said Harper. “He’s always said that it doesn’t matter where you go to school, as long as you are taking care of business, the NFL is going to come find you. Don’t get discouraged, just work, they’ll come and get you if you’re worth it.”
The Tigers’ Harper began at Missouri State, where he redshirted, before transferring to TSU after one year. He earned a spot as a walk-on with the Big Blue, but had to sit out one season due to NCAA transfer regulations.
Harper took advantage of the time to watch the starters above him and tried to match them once he received the chance to play. The senior would get tips and help during practices and training from recently graduated Dajour Nesbeth and current Baltimore Raven Terrell Bonds.
Harper also benefited from matching up against long-time friend Chris Rowland. The former TSU wide out, and current Atlanta Falcon, would square off against each other during practices over the last two seasons.
“We would go up against each other every day,” Harper boasted. “Chris had me on the one-and-one, but I had him when we were in the seven-on-sevens.”
The two, along with former Tiger Seth Rowland, became friends when Nick and Chris were freshmen at Ravenwood High School.
“Chris was like a big brother,” Harper said. “He always made sure I was staying out to trouble and kept pushing me to do better.”
Despite the mentoring, coaching and friendships, Harper still falls back on his father.
“He has great knowledge and was a gifted athlete,” expressed Harper. “He played football, baseball, ran track and wrestled in high school. As a pro he was only 182 pounds, but could bench 425 pounds and squat 600. That’s not normal.”
Harper knows his father is still fast, athletic, and can still do back flips. He also mentioned that he has never beaten his father in a race, but they haven’t faced each other since Nick was in high school.
“We haven’t raced in awhile,” Harper said. “It’s because he said we aren’t ready. We are going to race eventually. I’ve never beaten him, but I will one day.”