Last month, Deonte Harris nearly quit football. Now? He's taking flight in Year 3.
For the first time, the New Orleans Saints' dynamic receiver/returner tells the world how bad his depression got after back-to-back tragedies. He's pressing on.
Deonte Harris has zero business making game-changing plays for the New Orleans Saints.
He’s all of 5 feet, 6 inches tall. He weighs 160 pounds.
He’s been overlooked his entire football life.
“It was always a mindset for me,” Harris says, “and my people always instilled that in me at a young age — it doesn’t matter how big you are, how tall you are. What matters is your mind and your heart. I would like to think I have one of the biggest hearts and anything I set out to do, I can do.”
That’s how someone ignored out of high school ends up scoring the most return touchdowns in NCAA history at D-II Assumption College (14) and how one of the smallest players in the NFL — one who wasn’t drafted in 2019 and never expected to get drafted — is now a stick of dynamite in Sean Payton’s offense. Heart. So much heart. In Year 3, his arrow’s only pointing up as a returner and as a wide receiver. There’s the tired trope of the blue-collar nobody blabbing on and on about the chip on their shoulder and, then, there’s a dude like Harris.
A dude who has truly lived it.
The story could start and end there. With a 23-year-old from Baltimore who refuses to be denied on a Saints team that refuses to be denied. I sure think that’s where this conversation’s staying.
Midway through, however, Harris shares news with the world.
This past summer, he considered quitting football entirely. He even bought a one-way plane ticket to fly north back to Baltimore. Why? His whole world was caving in. Most know about the DUI he picked up two weeks before training camp began but it runs deeper than this. Much deeper. Upon reporting to Saints camp, Harris received the worst possible phone call: His pregnant girlfriend had a miscarriage. Seventeen hours away, he lost a child. Even worse, Harris couldn’t be there to console his girlfriend.
Two weeks later, his childhood best friend died suddenly.
The person he grew up with was now gone.
Harris had experienced anxiety before, as a rookie, but not depression. Not this. When Hurricane Ida forced the Saints to practice in Dallas — the 2021 regular season days away — Deonte Harris inched closer… and closer… and closer… to his breaking point.
“So much stuff was going on at once,” Harris says. “I really couldn’t control my feelings. It was just bad. I got to a point where I thought about quitting. I booked a flight for me to go home. I didn’t tell anybody. I booked a flight and ended up not getting on it. I didn’t want to throw away everything. I was one more thing from happening from me calling it quits.”
Few people in Harris’ life knew how close he was to stepping away. Few knew just how dark his dark place was the first week of September. This is the first time Harris is speaking about everything publicly. Of course, Harris never did board that flight north. He’s good now. He has reached a state of mental clarity.
His reasoning was simple.
Harris knows he’s only getting started.
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In retrospect, each snub truly does boggle the mind.
Start in Baltimore.
Nobody wanted Deonte Harris out of high school, which is insane. All he did from Pop Warner on was embarrass opponents on the field. At Baltimore’s Archbishop Curley, Harris was a star running back who produced 2,000-plus yards of total offense with 25 touchdowns in 10 games to lead the school to its first-ever undefeated season.
It’s not like Harris played in the boonies somewhere. In one win over local powerhouse, Loyola Blakefield, he had 206 yards and two scores. He dominated — always — yet nobody really seemed to care. There weren’t any high school recruiting pages giving Harris any number of “stars.” He was far, far, far removed from anyone’s radar. Harris received one Division I-AA offer to play for nearby Towson University and says it wasn’t even a full offer.
Nonetheless, he doesn’t harbor any ill will toward schools.
College coaches would roll through town, Archbishop Curley’s head coach would try to avert their attention to Harris and, then, many of those college coaches would flat-out say, “No. He’s only 5-6. He’s too small. He’s not big enough to play.” Harris adds that some coaches even used these words directly to him. But, no, there’s no hit list in his drawer. No tally of doubters.
Harris doesn’t want to be anyone’s victim.
Simply, he rationalizes that those coaches don’t know what they don’t know.
“They probably had a smaller guy play at their program and he didn’t make the cut,” Harris says. “My mindset after that was, ‘I need to make everybody feel me.’ Every time I step on the field, I have to — not prove them wrong — but prove myself right. I know I could’ve played at the Division I level.
“I knew the talent I had and the God-given ability I was blessed with. I used it all as fuel and motivation to be as positive as possible. Nothing good ever came from being negative.”
He decided to attend Assumption College, a Division II school in Worcester, Mass.
He continued to dominate, too.
Harris set a slew of school records — including career touchdowns (45) and all-purpose yards (6,173) — and those 14 return touchdowns remain an NCAA record.
A a freshman, initially, Harris wanted nothing to do with returning punts. Absolutely nothing. Assumption head coach Bob Chesney, who’s now at Holy Cross, asked if he’d just give it a try. And that first game, against Bentley, Harris took two punts back for touchdowns. “After that, he says, “it just took off.” Similar to Buffalo’s Isaiah McKenzie getting lit up on punt return — Episode 2 of that show can be found here — Harris had to fight through his own fear. In the Northeast-10 conference championship that same freshman year, Harris got walloped as soon as he caught one punt and fumbled. An “oh shit” moment, he says.
Since then, he hasn’t flinched. He’s unafraid.
That point forward, opponents were afraid of him. They’d try squibbing it on kickoffs… so Chesney instructed players to immediately lateral the ball back to Harris. They’d try to avoid Harris entirely… so Harris started hiding in the formation. Once a teammate faked a pitch to Harris and ended up scoring because everyone flocked to Harris.
Harris’ mentality then was straightforward then: Don’t get hit.
“There are some big men out there,” Harris says. “They’re fast. They’re strong. So I was like, ‘I’ve got to be even faster so I don’t get hit.’”
Even though it was no shock to see 254 other names called in the 2019 draft, Harris had a really hard time believing there were 254 players better than him.
The Saints signed him as an undrafted free agent and he planned to do the same exact thing in the NFL.
Says Harris: “It was more like, ‘OK, let’s turn someone’s head. It’s time to work.’”
There was just one problem: Harris was stuck on the sideline. On the first day of rookie camp, he injured his hamstring. When OTAs came ‘round, he injured his hamstring again. When training camp came ‘round, he injured his hamstring again.
The Saints certainly prioritized Harris after that ‘19 draft — they were one of only five teams to work him out privately at Assumption and Harris was one of the team’s 30 official predraft visits. Yet, he was no dummy. He also knew what it meant to be an injured, 5-foot-6, undrafted player. Guys in this position are typically camp bodies. They kick around on a practice squad, if that. And this wasn’t exactly the Detroit Lions, no, the Saints compete for Super Bowls every year. Of the 90 players in this locker room, Harris figured he ranked near the bottom in the coaches’ minds.
He expected to get cut.
“Man, I’m waiting. I’m waiting for the call,” Harris says. “I’m seeing guys go in and out of the locker room. And I’m like, ‘I know I’m next.’ I’m just waiting. I’m calling my mother and my father, just for them to keep me sane and give me that peace of mind. But it was anxiety through the roof. I just know they’re going to call me and tell me it’s time for me to go.”
Such is the life of an NFL player on the fringes. (A life defensive end Efe Obada detailed well.)
Harris barely slept at all those nights in training camp because it felt like the dream was slipping away. All thanks to a hamstring. A damn hamstring. He’s always been exceptionally close to his parents. Talking to Mom and Dad helped but he knew this was also stressful for them. They were 17 hours away, too. (“It’s not like they’re down the street,” he says, “where they can get in a car, come see me and we can be together.”) He leaned on his special teams coaches and, his teammate, cornerback Justin Hardee.
Now with the Jets, Hardee always knew what to say that summer.
Still, Harris admits nothing anyone said calmed him down.
Negative thoughts multiplied. He was powerless.
“That was one of the worst feelings I had,” he says. “Not being able to control how I feel or not being able to be talked down and calmed down. Because I’m a pretty nonchalant, cool guy. Nothing really bothers me. That was one of the… that was one of the times in my life where I said, ‘I can’t control how I’m feeling.’ I’m just anxious 24/7.”
And in the Saints’ third exhibition game, against the New York Jets, Harris took a punt return 78 yards to the house.
“I had that return,” he says, “and was like, ‘Yeah.’ That was a calm-down moment. It was a realization to me that I belong here.”
The weekend of roster cuts, Harris can still remember the Saints telling players that if they receive a phone call it means one of two things: You’re either going to be cut and signed to the practice square or you’re outright cut.
No call? See you on Monday. Be ready to work.
Little did he know there was a third possibility. Harris got a call but it was a coach delivering the news that he had made the team. Ecstatic, he couldn’t sleep. He drove to the facility at 5 a.m. and just sat in the parking lot.
It was an off day. The Saints didn’t even have practice or workouts but Harris had to be there.
He sat in his car with a huge smile on his face.
“That was my… release,” he says. “I could breathe. My mind was clear.”
Asked if he was ever depressed that summer as a rookie and Harris says no. He wasn’t. Because he now knows what real depression feels like.
All Deonte Harris did as a rookie was all Deonte Harris has done forever: Leave tacklers in the dust.
He became the first undrafted rookie in team history to make the Pro Bowl. His 338 punt-return yards led the NFL and his 53-yard touchdown in a 33-27 win over Seattle is required viewing. The next season, he remained equally dangerous as the team’s primary returner and started getting more action at wide receiver.
In 2020, he caught 20 of his 25 targets for 186 yards and a touchdown.
And, into 2021, he’s well on his way to a breakout season. Harris’ 236 receiving yards on 12 catches (19.7 avg.) leads the team through five games. In the 38-3 Week 1 thrashing of the Green Bay Packers, viewers might’ve noticed an emotional Harris in the end zone. After hauling in a 55-yard touchdown, the wide receiver pretended to cradle a baby and then held both arms up to the sky.
The emotions were still raw that game on Sept. 12. Nobody knew what was going on in his life.
Two years after being anxious, Harris was depressed. Harris, indeed, bought that plane ticket home to Baltimore.
Football felt trivial.
“I was one more bad thing happening from saying, ‘I’m done,’” Harris says, “and getting on that flight home to be with my family.”
What hurt the most was that his girlfriend’s miscarriage happened right after he left for training camp. She had a strong support system — her family and his family both wrapped her up with love. But it pained Harris to not be present through such a tragedy. She was two months into her pregnancy. They didn’t even know if they were having a boy or girl.
Since then, the couple has recovered emotionally. Vocalizing their feelings has helped both accept the loss of their child. It certainly brought them closer, too.
“Obviously, something like that will stick with us forever,” Harris says. “But we’ll continue to take it day by day. We both believe in the man above and believe that everything happens for a reason.”
Next, he lost his friend: Colin Wyatt.
The two grew up together in Baltimore. Twice a week, as kids, they stayed at each other’s homes. Wyatt wasn’t into sports, he says, but they were always together.
“His parents were my parents,” Harris says. “My parents were his parents. If you saw me, you saw him.”
A mutual friend first DM’ed Harris the news on Instagram and “it didn’t register,” he says. He didn’t believe it. Moments later, Harris’ mother called him, the news became real and he was crushed. The cause of death? He’s not exactly sure. Either a heart attack or a brain aneurysm, he says. Someone tried to explain it to him, but Harris was in such a mental haze that he can’t even remember the details.
He was hurting so bad that, initially, he didn’t want to go to the funeral.
“Because,” Harris says, “I didn’t want to see him laying in the casket.”
The day of that viewing, New Orleans was actually playing the Ravens in Baltimore. Harris didn’t play in the game but decided to attend the wake earlier in the day.
Meanwhile, all along, his name was in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Harris’ reputation took a major hit after he was arrested on suspicion of DUI July 16. The case is still pending.
The first week of September, Hurricane Ida sent the Saints to Dallas and Harris considered flying home.
He never did use that plane ticket, of course.
He credits his faith.
“It was really God talking to me and telling me not to give up,” Harris says. “I just didn’t want to throw it all away. Me and my family, we worked so hard to get here. You go through shit as life goes on. So, you can’t give up. You’ve got to fight the fight. I felt if I would’ve given up, everything we did was a waste. Again, I’m a positive person. I believe in God and I believe everything happens for a reason. So I just prayed a lot and kept my faith.
“Without Him, I wouldn’t be in this position that I’m in now. If it wasn’t for Him, I would’ve been back home. I would’ve thrown everything away.”
Harris chose not to throw everything away.
“For me,” he adds, “you have to go through certain things to believe in certain things.”
Harris caught that deep touchdown against the Packers and has seen his role continue to grow.
On a 72-yard touchdown in Washington, Harris toasted former All-Pro safety Landon Collins so badly that Collins has since been moved to linebacker. As a returner, Harris is not merely trying to sprint away from people anymore, rather he describes this part of the job as more of a science. The Saints find your “weakest link” on a return, he explains, and attack. It doesn’t get much better than lavish praise from the greatest coach ever. Ahead of the Saints’ 28-13 win in New England, on the “Belestrator,” Bill Belichick detailed what makes Harris so dangerous.
The Patriots coach broke down Harris’ punt return in the divisional playoff round against Tampa Bay a year ago, when Harris got blasted and somehow kept moving.
This rise isn’t too complicated.
Shane Costa, Harris’ agent, says the fact that Harris has been overlooked his entire life has made him outwork everyone.
“He’s had to continually prove people wrong,” Costa says. “So, every step of the way he’s been doubted and overlooked. And he’s done nothing but overcome and excel. He was first-team All Pro as a rookie, which is really rare, and now he’s emerging as one of the top offensive weapons in the game. He’s going to do nothing but continue to improve and if anybody’s overlooking him now, they’re going to look back and realize he’s done nothing but continue to exceed expectations. I’m really proud of how far he’s come and he’s really only scratching the surface.”
Some NFL head coaches abide by strict size requirements. Others do not. Others, like Payton, are willing to think outside of the box. In Payton’s ever-evolving scheme, expect to see Harris unleashed into advantageous matchups all season long. Especially with a big-armed quarterback like Jameis Winston. There’s more than raw speed to Deonte Harris, too — he’s fearless. He rarely ever looks to bounce returns to the outside.
With a split-second decision, Harris shoots up the middle. He sincerely doesn’t care if anyone’s going to hurt him.
And it’s that same fearlessness that’s keeping Harris on the football field, that ability to take whatever life throws at him head-on.
No way could he quit this sport.
A month and a half later, Harris is in a strong mental space. He’s taking off in Year 3.
“I’ve got two guardian angels,” Harris says. “I’m wearing it all on my sleeve and letting my play express what I’ve been through. The shit I went through was hard. I go out there and don’t take anything for granted.
“I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I have a lot more left to give.”
Unfortunately, a hamstring injury is keeping Harris sidelined against the Seattle Seahawks this weekend. But right around the bend is a date with the defending Super Bowl champions, the Bucs team that knocked them out of that playoff game. Harris has heart and he knows this entire Saints team has heart after so much playoff disappointment the last half-decade.
Losses like this give them an edge.
“We’re built different,” Harris says, “for sure.”
He doesn’t want this conversation to end quite yet, either. Asked if there’s anything else people should know about his experience, Harris’ voice gets a tick louder and clearer and a tweet he sent out on Sept. 6 — in the middle of his depression — suddenly makes a whole lot of sense.
Deonte Harris just wants folks out there to pick up the phone.
“Tell people to take care of their mental health,” Harris says. “You never know what somebody’s going through, so just try to be positive and always check on your people. Try to surround yourself with people who love you and just give off that love.”
With that, he’s not looking back.