Before Maryland women's basketball player A'Lexus Harrison ever picked up a basketball, she starred as a Pop Warner quarterback during her youth. She was one of the best players in the region. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
COLLEGE PARK — Dad played football at Towson and Mom played basketball at Miami, but when A'Lexus Harrison was 6, they took her to the Arbutus Golden Eagles to cheer.
This was not because Harrison wanted to be a cheerleader, because she didn't, and she told her parents as much. It was because Harrison was a little girl, and little girls were not expected to wear helmets or score touchdowns or be faster and stronger and better than little boys. Not in football.
"Ma, I really don't want to cheer," A'Lexus Harrison pleaded to her mother, and so Kim Harrison humored her. She signed her daughter up for the Carroll County Football League and expected this fancy to pass, as so many other juvenile fascinations do.
In one drill at her first practice, two lines formed. The first would be the runner. The second would be the tackler. Her first time up, Harrison took the ball, braced for contact and got hit so hard, the heart-in-your-throat gasp her mother lets out in recalling the play, even all these years later, is startling.
But Harrison got up and into the other line, the one for Golden Eagles tacklers. What happened next was curious. From the sideline, Kim Harrison could see A'Lexus organizing the order of the line just so, looking over to the other line of boys as she let some cut in front of her. "We kept looking at her like: 'What is she going to be doing?'" Kim Harrison remembers thinking.
When A'Lexus Harrison's turn next came, the boy running with the ball was the one who had run her over. Poor kid: It would take his total annihilation for him to realize what he had wrought by besting her.
A'Lexus Harrison is now a redshirt freshman in college, where she plays basketball for a pretty good team: No. 10 Maryland, 2013-14 national semifinalist and Big Ten Conference preseason favorite. It is still early in her promising career, and she has not yet attracted legions of awestruck fans to games the way her jaw-dropping, ankle-breaking, convention-smashing football career did to Arbutus. But Harrison, fully recovered from the appendicitis that spoiled her true-freshman season, is still very much that 6-year-old girl in full pads. She's just older. And faster. And stronger. And better.
"She's fearless," said Maryland coach Brenda Frese, whose Terps host Mount St. Mary's in their season opener Friday, "and a lot of that takes place from what she was able to do with football."
In a recruiting visit to Harrison's home during her freshman season at Digital Harbor, Frese first saw the videos. Copies have since been made, and two CDs now reside in the Maryland basketball office, ready to be played with the click of a button.
Harrison doesn't know whether all of her teammates have seen what Frese did: low-resolution, amateur footage of a youth football team's games, some plays more exciting than the rest. There is an incompletion, then a botched running play, then a lot of sloppy tackling, plodding action scored by shrill screams and earnest encouragement shouted from from the stands.
But there are moments when the focus of the camera's lens does something amazing. A shotgun snap near midfield goes over the quarterback's head, and the quarterback retreats to pick it up, defenders swarming like sharks in chummed waters. The quarterback, ball secured, sweeps around, the route back taking the shape of a question mark, and soon the end zone is at the edge of the video's frame. The quarterback cannot be contained, reaching pay dirt as the closest defender, fittingly, comically, falls on his face, in the way uncoordinated kids wearing 20 pounds of equipment often do.
"She was fast, just like she is now," Frese said, referring to Harrison, the Golden Eagles quarterback turned Terps forward. "It wasn't until she pulled off her helmet that they know that it was a girl."
Added senior guard Laurin Mincy, who has seen the highlights: "You couldn't tell."
Being a girl could be difficult. When her name was announced over stadium speakers, it often would come out garbled: "Alex Harrison," because why would an A'Lexus be playing with the boys? There were "uncomfortable things" to deal with, she said at the Terps' media day last month. On the subject of athletic cups, she joked: "Do I really need this here?" She wasn't often caught in the open field, but when she was, some hits hurt.
Being a girl could be fun. She was named the CCFL's best player, and her teammates weren't half-bad, either. One was named DeAndre Lane (Catonsville). He's also in his second year at Maryland, where he plays wide receiver on the football team. ("I was his quarterback," Harrison said, laughing. "He was my tailback.") In one game, after Harrison scored a touchdown, a frustrated opposing coach became apoplectic when he saw her take off her helmet. He threw down his notepad. "And it's a girl!" he yelled to his team.
But being a girl could not last forever, not in a sport where the boys had started to become men. At age 13, her parents decided it was time she do something else. Harrison loved football, loved Ray Lewis and the Ravens, but when the sport was taken away from her, it was as if she already knew that it could be replaced.
"Oh, I'll just play basketball," Kim Harrison remembers A'Lexus telling her.
"You never even picked the ball up," answered the elder Harrison, who played professionally overseas. "You've never bounced a ball."
She did love Kobe Bryant, though, so she became just as maniacal in her fledgling obsession with the sport. Each day, after her homework was done, she would go to nearby Riverview Elementary in Lansdowne-Baltimore Highlands and play with boys older and, at first, better than her.
"Layups could not happen," Harrison remembers of those early, awkward days, but she was the only kid her age in the neighborhood who could grab the rim, so layups soon started to happen. In Amateur Athletic Union basketball, tales of her play tend to evoke a young Charles Barkley, a thoroughbred without rival outmuscling, outjumping and outracing everyone in the way.
In the Rams' first of two varsity preseason games, she was not in the starting lineup. By their regular-season opener, she was. "I told you I was going to start," Harrison, matter-of-factly, told her mother.
She would get up at 5 a.m. every day to work with coach Patrick McDonald at Digital Harbor. They would put up shots. They would lift weights. They would do what they needed to turn a basketball neophyte into a two-time All-Metro first-team selection.
At Maryland last season, she played in the Terps' first two exhibition games. Then a stomach virus led to a small-intestine infection, which led to a swollen appendix, which led to a season-shelving appendectomy.
On road trips, knowing Harrison could not play, assistant director of player development Katie Fowler and an assistant would take her to the team hotel's fitness center the day of a game. Fowler hoped there would be other people working out, because it was not often that she could share in the wonder of seeing a 6-footer in Maryland sweats do three sets of five chin-ups … while wearing a 30-pound weight as a belt. "Crazy stuff," Fowler called it.
Sometimes onlookers would approach and ask: Is she this impressive on the court, too?
"We would have to let them know that next year," Fowler said, "you can come watch her play."