Of all the awards and accolades Wildcat wide receiver R.J. Harris ’14 amassed over the course of the football team’s remarkable fall, one that stands out might be surprising: a holiday ornament from an 11-year-old boy.
In November, Harris helped boost UNH to its first FCS division national No. 1 ranking, a position the team held deep into the playoffs. He shattered records, won several awards and was named an All-American wide receiver,─the highest honor in college football─by six different media publications. But with the awards and accolades comes responsibility, and though Harris was one of the hardest working and most talented players on the field, head coach Sean McDonnell ’78 knew the young man from Odenton, Md., had other lessons to learn.
“R.J. needed to learn how to keep his feet on the ground, how his actions affected others,” McDonell says.
Known for pushing players to step it up in the classroom and in the community, Coach Mac connected Harris with a mentor program at Oyster River Middle School in Durham. Last fall, the famed wide receiver started spending time with an 11-year-old boy who needed to learn some lessons himself. Devontae Lefleur wanted to do better in school, but had trouble managing his time and focusing on his studies. Things started to turn around for the youngster when Harris started visiting him every Tuesday morning.
“When R.J. walked into the room, Devontae’s eyes lit up and every student in the class smiled,” Oyster River teacher Kim Wesson says.
During each visit, Harris would sit down next to Lefleur and join whatever activity the class tackled: science labs, social studies discussions and even a Thanksgiving rap routine in which the kids and Harris gobbled and danced like turkeys. During lunch and recess, Harris offered the sixth grader encouragement and advice and played basketball, football and freeze tag with Lefleur and the other students.
“It was pretty cool that he was my mentor,” Lefleur says. “He taught me a lot of things, like learning to manage my time and how to talk to kids if they’re obnoxious or mean to me.”
Harris got Lefleur and his family tickets to most of his UNH home games, and the quick-footed wide receiver also showed up at one of his mentee’s middle school football games, 10 of his Wildcat teammates in tow. “I had tears in my eyes when I saw R.J. and his teammates show up at that game,” Wesson says. “It blew me away that these young, busy, talented guys took time to see Devontae play.”
Harris’ visits over the fourth-month mentorship, his encouragement and advice, boosted Lefleur’s confidence and grades. “The impact R.J. had on Devontae was profound,” Wesson says. “Every time R.J. showed up, Devontae knew it was for him. It gave him a reason to look forward to school.”
Harris never expected to grow so close or care so much about the boy he was assigned to mentor. “I began to feel more like a big brother,” he says.
Harris finished his football season—and his UNH degree—in December, but before he left Durham, he and Lefleur exchanged Christmas gifts. Harris gave his 11-year-old friend a signed UNH football jersey. Lefleur handed Harris a holiday ornament shaped like a cell phone. The sixth-grader had inscribed a message on the gift: ‘R.J. Harris, greatest mentor 2014.’
“I don’t think Devontae realizes the effect he had on me,” says Harris, who took the ornament to Florida for inspiration while he trains for the NFL draft. “It really humbled me that I made a difference in this kid’s life and he was able to do the same in mine.”
Though Lefleur is more than 1,000 miles away, Harris still texts his middle school friend. Back home in New Hampshire, Lafleur continues to root for Harris, hoping he makes the NFL. But the 11-year-old boy also has another wish. “I hope that we can be friends forever.”
Grateful for the relationship that transformed her student, Wesson recently wrote Coach McDonnell to thank him for connecting Harris and Lafleur in the mentor program. McDonnell quickly responded with his own gratitude. “It was,” he says, “a win-win situation for both of them.”
Originally published in UNH Magazine—Winter 2015 Issue